15 ways to curb sugar cravings

If you allow long gaps between meals, your blood-sugar levels can drop too low, leaving you weak and ravenous. Getty Images

Elsa Jones

‘Sugar addiction’ is largely cited as the biggest obstacle to losing weight, but nutritional therapist Elsa Jones says taking control of sugar cravings doesn’t have to be an ordeal

Over the last few decades, sugar has crept into all areas of our daily diet, from the sweet treats to diet staples such as yogurt, soup and cereal. Most of us fall into a sugar habit over time without even realising it. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, global sugar consumption has increased by 40pc in the past 15 years. It’s estimated that 75pc of all foods contain added sugar — no wonder so many of us say we feel ‘addicted’ to sugar and cite sugar cravings as our biggest obstacle to losing weight and keeping it off.

But it’s not just physical cravings that keep us hooked. Many of us have become emotionally dependent on sweet foods too, we turn to chocolate and biscuits to help comfort or reward ourselves. It’s an easy habit to make, but a difficult one to break. The good news is that taking control of your eating habits doesn’t have to be miserable and doesn’t mean eradicating sugar from your diet altogether. It’s possible to maintain a low-sugar diet by simply being more aware and making a few key changes to your diet and mindset. Below are my top tips:

1 Stop fuelling your cravings

Once you address the root cause of your cravings, limiting your sugar intake becomes a lot easier. In a nutshell, the more sugary foods you consume, the more your body will crave them. The less you consume, the less you’ll crave them. So, start by identifying and reducing the biggest sources of sugar in your diet. For most, the obvious culprits are chocolate, biscuits, sweets, scones, soft drinks etc. Within a week, you will notice a dramatic reduction in your cravings for sweet foods.

2 Choose Slow-Release Carbs

Carbohydrates can be classed as fast or slow-releasing. Fast release carbs (eg. white bread, white pasta, corn flakes, pizza) break down into glucose very rapidly, which can lead to blood sugar ‘highs’ and ‘lows’. Essentially, eating too many throws our blood sugar levels off balance leading to energy dips and further cravings for sweet or starchy foods, it’s a vicious cycle. Conversely, slow-release carbs (brown rice, oats, quinoa) break down into glucose at a slower rate which helps to maintain stable blood sugar and energy levels.

3 Set yourself up for success

As the saying goes: ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’, so take a little time to get organised and prepare your environment before making any dietary changes. Where possible, remove obvious sources of temptation — if it’s not there, you can’t eat it. Make time to stock up on healthy foods too — if they’re there, you’ll eat them.

4 Ask for Support

If you share a kitchen with others at home/work, it can be helpful to ask for their support in keeping tempting foods out of sight, particularly at the start. So, for example, when Susan decided to reduce her sugar intake, she made a ‘no sweets in the house rule’ for the whole family. As a compromise, it was agreed that once a week, her husband would take the kids out for a sweet treat. That way, the kids learned that sweets are not an everyday food and Susan was removed from all temptation.

5 Include protein with every meal

As well as being filling, protein helps to stabilise blood-sugar levels, which keeps sweet cravings at bay. Protein also provides the building blocks for brain chemicals which influence appetite and satiety. At meal times, aim to fill one quarter of your plate with protein rich food/s such as eggs, fish, poultry, nuts/seeds, beans or lentils.

6 Focus on the gains/benefits

One essential technique that’ll help you stay motivated is to continuously remind yourself of what you will gain by reducing your sugar intake. If you focus on the benefits, you’ll be less likely to get swept away by cravings or feel deprived. Write the benefits down and put them somewhere you can read them everyday, eg. I’ll feel good in a summer dress at my son’s communion, I’ll have more energy, I’ll be at less risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

7 Start as you mean to go on

What you choose to eat for breakfast can set the stage for controlling blood sugar for the rest of the day so make sure to  eat a balanced breakfast. Porridge oats topped with berries and a sprinkle of nuts/seeds or eggs with rye toast will keep blood sugars stable whereas concentrated fruit juices, highly processed cereals or those high in dried fruit will have the opposite effect.

8 Know your emotional triggers

If you’re like most people who struggle with a sugar habit, much of your eating behaviour is probably driven by emotions. In other words, you don’t choose to eat sugary foods just because you are physically hungry. You choose to eat sugary foods because you want to change or enhance the way you feel, this is known as ‘emotional eating’.

Take a moment to think about what feelings make you reach for comfort food? Is it stress, tiredness, boredom... perhaps there are certain times, people or places that trigger these feelings? Once you know, you’ll be in a stronger position to overcome them.

9 Fuel up regularly

If you allow long gaps between meals, your blood-sugar levels can drop too low, leaving you weak and ravenous. You are much more likely to overeat and/or choose the wrong type of foods when you are overly hungry and have a low blood sugar.

Eating little and often counteracts this. Don’t go longer than three hours without eating, even it’s something small. Three main meals per day plus a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack is ideal.

10 Keep healthy snacks close

Always make sure to have healthy snacks close to hand so you have no excuse when temptation strikes. Healthy snack options that will stave off an afternoon slump include: a handful of nuts with a piece of fruit, natural yogurt with cinnamon and berries, nut butter spread on sliced apple or an oat cake topped with hummus.

11 No more excuses

All too often, we make excuses for ourselves in order to justify eating foods we know we shouldn’t. The thought process usually starts with: ‘I know I shouldn’t eat this, but it’s ok because… I’m stressed/I’m tired/it’s just a little piece/I’ll make up for it tomorrow/I deserve it.’ Do any of these sound familiar? If so, write them down.

Seeing an excuse on paper helps you to see it for exactly what it is and to challenge it. For example, excuse: ‘I’ve had a tough day, I need to relax with a cup of tea and some biscuits.’

Helpful response: ‘I do need to relax but I don’t need biscuits to do so. I can watch a movie, read or take a bath instead.’

12 Sweeten up with cinnamon

This warm and sweet spice has been shown in research to help to reduce sugar cravings by increasing insulin sensitivity and thus supporting healthy glucose metabolism. Naturally sweet and aromatic, cinnamon adds beautiful flavour and a hint of sweetness and works well sprinkled over porridge, yogurt, smoothies, hot milk and also in curries and marinades. Add up to one teaspoon per day to whichever foods or drinks you like.

13 Practise craving resistance

When a sugar craving hits, try a technique called ‘Pause and Reflect’. So, instead of giving into your craving straight away and reaching for the chocolate, you mentally press pause and don’t respond to your craving for 10 minutes. This allows you to step back and acknowledge: “This is just a craving, it will pass.”

Remind yourself of all the benefits of resisting your craving. Then distract yourself by focusing on something else entirely for 10 minutes. Go for a walk, make a call, paint your nails, brush your teeth. You’ll be surprised how quickly the craving passes.

14 Get Sugar Savvy

Because sugar is added to so many seemingly ‘healthy’ every day foods, it’s important that we get savvy as consumers. On a food label, sugar comes under the heading of carbohydrates.

Usually you will see something like ‘Carbohydrate 29g of which sugars 12g’. This tells us how much of the carbohydrate in the product comes from sugar.

A simple and useful way of gauging sugar content is to know that one teaspoon of sugar weighs four grams. So, if a granola bar contains 16 grams of sugar per serving, that’s equivalent to around four teaspoons — rather a lot.

15 Ditch ‘diet foods’

When fat is removed from a food, it generally has to be replaced with something else in order to retain flavour. More often than not, fat is replaced by sugar and/or artificial sweeteners. For example, ‘reduced fat’ coleslaw will often have sugar added to make it taste better. Try to stick to whole foods in their natural form and be mindful of portion sizes when it comes to those that are naturally high in fat.

* Elsa Jones’ bestselling book ‘Goodbye Sugar’ is available in book shops and online