Suss out secret sugars
True to their name, secret sugars lurk in foods you don’t even think of as sweet: everything from ketchup to crackers and salad dressings to pasta sauce. The problem with these secret sugars isn’t just that they put you on sugar overload (which they do; the average Australian takes in a whopping 14 teaspoons of added sugar each day - the ideal is 6). It’s that added sugars stoke appetite and beget more cravings, trapping you in a vicious cycle of wanting more, more, more. Search your fridge and pantry and read every label. Find the foods with sugar listed in the first few ingredients and seek out low-sugar alternatives to dial down your sugar intake.
Eat a protein-packed breakfast
Research shows that protein in the a.m. makes it difficult for sugar cravings to take hold later on. Lean protein options like Greek yoghurt, peanut butter, eggs, and low-fat cheese produce less of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin and more PPY, a hormone that signals fullness. MRI scans of high-protein breakfast eaters in a US study showed reduced activity in areas of the brain associated with cravings. Can’t stomach food early in the morning? No problem. Eat it by 10 a.m. and you’ll still help quell that late-day sugar yen.
Never go hungry
Meal skipping is a guaranteed way to fire up sugar cravings. Skipping meals lowers blood sugar levels and causes you to overeat the rest of the day to make up for missed kilojoules. Keep things steady by eating five times a day - three meals and two snacks of nourishing and delicious whole foods such as whole grains, beans, lean meats/poultry/fish, nuts, unsweetened low-fat dairy, eggs, and veggies. They’ll fill you up and give you the ideal balance of lean protein, energising carbohydrates, and healthy fats to steady your blood sugar and insulin levels and extinguish cravings for sugar.
Pump up the flavour
Sugar may be sweet, but there are plenty of other fabulous tastes out there that you may be missing out on. If you’ve ever seeded a fragrant vanilla bean for a dish or topped a sliced tomato with fresh basil leaves, you know how much flavour herbs and spices can add. Experiment with spices of all kinds (added bonus: Warm spices like cinnamon and ginger can quell a sweet tooth). And don’t forget other flavour boosters like balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, lemon and orange zest, and hot sauce to perk up your taste buds. Stir your coffee with a stick of cinnamon, toss plain, air-popped popcorn with smoked paprika - the more adventurous you become, the more you’ll grow to appreciate flavour and put sugar in its rightful place in the process.
Sleep more, crave less
The key to stopping sugar cravings is balancing the hormones ghrelin (an appetite trigger) and leptin (which signals satiety), along with insulin. Get these hormones working in harmony and you’ll experience fewer cravings - and less fat storage. But if you get less than the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sack time, you may be undercutting this goal. In a US study, a few sleepless nights were enough to drop levels of leptin by 18% and boost levels of ghrelin by about 30%. Those two changes alone caused cravings for sugary foods to jump 45%. Sleep deprivation not only makes sugary foods more appealing, it may also lower your ability to resist them. The parts of your brain that usually put the brakes on cravings aren’t as active when you’re tired, US research found.
Rev up your movement
If you’re plagued by strong sugar cravings, getting your body moving may help deactivate them. According to a study published in Applied Psychology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, the more you sit, the greater your appetite - even if your body doesn’t need the kilojoules. Moderate exercise also helps keep muscle cells sensitive to insulin. Strength training builds stronger muscles, which in turn use up more glucose. Any physical activity that you enjoy will help get sugar off your brain - and belly.
Break sugar’s emotional hold
The first step toward breaking the strong connection between emotions and food is to become aware of the feelings that drive you to crave sweets. Not after the fact - the very moment you reach for sugar. In those moments, remember this simple but powerful catchphrase: “Stop. Slow down. Think.” That will enable you to determine whether you really want the sweet or whether you are just feeding your emotions.
Pinpoint your sugar pitfalls
Think through your day and identify where and when you are most susceptible to sugar’s lure, and ask yourself why you “need” sugar in those moments. Is it because you’re starving when you get to work and the biscuits in the office kitchen are just too tempting to resist? Empower yourself with new, positive alternatives you can use to meet that need. Perhaps it’s making sure you eat a healthy breakfast and bypass the biscuits on the way to your desk. Fill your need in healthier ways and sugar loses its power over you.
Find healthy ways to instantly boost your mood
Often we reach for sugar when we’re stressed, lonely, or bored. But there are far better ways to turn around a bad mood or energy lull. Make your own list of nourishing activities that you can whip out any time you find yourself reaching for sweets. The sugar-free happiness builders you choose should be things that are easily accessible and elicit the same pleasure you feel when you indulge in a favourite dessert. Think of things you can do instantly and that last for the 15 to 20 minutes you otherwise might spend lost in a sugar episode. For instance: Listen to music, dance like crazy, call a friend, paint your toenails, go for a bike ride, pet the cat, watch trashy TV, plan a holiday, or just lie down and look at the sky. This strategy of pleasure-focused redirection will work like a charm to keep you focused on non-food sources of happiness.
Supplement with calcium and vitamin D
Several studies suggest that multivitamins that contain vitamin D and calcium can potentially lower cravings and promote weight loss. Extra body fat holds on to vitamin D so that the body can’t use it, and this perceived deficiency interferes with the action of leptin (the hormone that signals your brain that you’re full). If you’re deficient in calcium, your body can experience up to a fivefold increase in the fatty acid synthase, an enzyme that converts kilojoules into fat. While a multivitamin can’t replace a healthy diet, this nutrition “insurance” can’t hurt - and you might find your cravings lessen while your weight loss speeds up.
Snap out of temptation with a photo
Research shows that people who keep a food diary lose more weight. But that doesn’t have to be limited to just writing down what you eat. In a study published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, volunteers recorded what they ate on paper and in photos. They all reported that the act of taking the photos - and the photos themselves - raised their awareness of what they were eating. By taking pictures of your food before you eat it, you give yourself that crucial split-second pause that enables you to reconsider your selection.
Relax with a cup of tea and a novel
You probably already know that stress powers sugar cravings. Now an English study found that reading can slash stress by a stunning 68%! Other methods the study tested that also work are listening to music (61%) or sipping a cup of tea (54%). Doing any of these activities is a great way to divert yourself when you get that urge to munch. Pick a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted and brew a cup of calming tea, such as chamomile, to sip while you turn the pages.
Dehydration can spike cravings for sugar and junk food dramatically - and may take a toll on your mood. The latest guidelines recommend that women drink 8 glasses of water a day, but not all of it has to come from the tap. At least 20% can come from water-rich food like fruits and veggies.
Soothe with scent
Inhaling a pleasant scent can literally bring you to your senses when you’re in a cravings spiral. Try this exercise: Add 2 drops of eucalyptus oil to 1 cup of water in a bowl and stir. Soak a washcloth in the scented water. Squeeze out the excess water, then drape it gently over your face. Focus your full attention on the sensations - the texture of the cloth, its coolness, its scent - as you inhale the calm and exhale the powerful emotions.
Savour life as much as sugar
The more you indulge in life in healthy ways, the less you’ll look for it in sugar. Savouring an experience - whether it’s a walk in the woods or a chat with a friend - means to enjoy it thoroughly, wringing every drop of pleasure from it. While chocolate may taste momentarily sweet, it can’t provide true and lasting satisfaction.