15 ways to curb sugar cravings if you're ditching the sweets for Lent
Rewarding yourself with a sugary treat after that hard day in the office is punishing your waistline, skin, and teeth. 15 tips to control your inner sugar monster - some of them more enjoyable than eating that chocolate bar.
In recent times we've been told that sugar is now the big bad dietary wolf, a role that has long been held by fat.
Sugar is bad for our waistlines and our teeth; it's been linked to raised cholesterol levels; it has an ageing effect on skin, plus if you're eating a lot of sugar-heavy food, you're displacing other, more nutritious, foods in your body. The problem is two-fold. We're born loving the taste of the stuff with some studies claiming it's as, if not more, addictive than drugs such as cocaine and heroine.
That's not much consolation when you find to your dismay that you've polished off an entire packet of biscuits by yourself in one sitting, but it does suggest some fault can be attributed to pleasurable chemicals at play in your brain when you consume sugar, and not just pure greediness.
The second problem is that there is added sugar in a lot of the foods widely available to us, often that we're not aware of, and it's alarmingly easy to eat far more sugar than you think you are.
The average adult with a normal weight should eat no more than five to six teaspoons of sugar a day, which isn't difficult to exceed when you consider that a 250ml of orange juice contains about five teaspoons of the white stuff. Sugar can still play a part in a healthy diet but in moderation and preferably where it's naturally occurring in food like fruits, and not added. Try these tips to help you get your cravings under control the next time they strike.
Power up on protein
If your usual start to the day is toast and cereal, you might want to reconsider. These both have a high carbohydrate content and both can fuel sugar cravings later in the morning. Begin your day with some lean protein instead. Protein-rich foods promote a slower energy release than sugar does, meaning you're less likely to crash and burn.
Also protein has a higher satiety rate, leaving you fuller for longer. Something like scrambled egg and grilled bacon is a palatable breakfast for most people, but you can also think outside the box, especially if you're pushed for time. There's no reason why breakfast foods have to be 'breakfasty'. You could have some turkey or chicken slices instead.
Read your food labels
You'll find a lot of food products on shelves declaring their 'health' benefits but that doesn't mean that you can skip the boring bit of going through the label to see what exactly it contains. A general rule of thumb is be cautious if something is low-fat because quite often when something is taken out, something else is added in to make it tastier, and this could be sugar or salt. Check the carbohydrate content, and the part that specifies 'of which sugars'.
If sugar is close to the top of the list, it is likely that the food contains added sugars. It can also be masquerading under another name so keep an eye out for ingredients include anything like sucrose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, honey and corn syrup.
Spice up your life
Let herbs and spices become your new best friends in adding some zest and punch to your food. Warm spices like cinnamon, cardamom and ginger works best in terms of satisfying an urge for something sweet. Cinnamon is especially good because it can be stirred into teas and coffee or sprinkled over porridge.
It also helps normalise blood sugars, reducing the 'spikes', which can lead to hunger and a sugar craving. It's also been shown in research to lower bad cholesterol levels making it a good dietary addition for heart health. Don't forget about other flavour enhancers too - flavoured olive oils and vinegars, lemon zest and juice, as well as harissa and pestos, can add depth to leaves and cooked vegetables.
Look out for hidden sugars
There is little as annoying trying to do something properly and then discovering you've been self-sabotaging. Unfortunately it's easy to do this with sugar because avoiding it is not quite as clear-cut as declining the cakes, biscuits and chocolate.
Accidentally consuming more sugar than you thought you were isn't going to have disastrous and immediate effects, but if are watching your sugar consumption, it's not going to help, and it might trigger off a desire to eat more sugar. It's particularly important to be aware in relation to foods you might automatically think of as being savoury and therefore containing little to no sugar.
Commercial pasta sauces can be a surprising culprit here as can yoghurts, store-bought coleslaw and even condiments such as ketchup and mayonnaise.
Get some sleep
This is easier said than done, given everyone's hectic lives but getting enough rest is essential. Several studies have linked sleep deprivation with making poor food choices. Last year scientists at UC Berkley published their research, which found that sleepless nights impacted on the part of the brain that control decision-making, making us more likely to crave junk food instead of healthier options.
Other sleep studies have shown that sleep deprivation causes an increase in the peptide ghrelin, which causes an increase in appetite and specifically a craving for sugary foods, alongside a decrease in the hormone leptin, which signals to the brain when the body is full. With the two of these out of sync, it's no surprise that one's immediate reaction is to reach for a sugary treat the next day.
Steer clear of trigger foods
As with every kind of diet, accessibility to foods you're trying to steer clear of should be limited. If it's not in the house, you can't eat it. Be mindful of what your biggest downfall is in terms of sugary food.
Maybe it's the necessary muffin with your morning coffee to steel you for a day of work ahead, or it might be the couple of slivers of chocolate after dinner. Do what you can to work through these, which might mean eating a healthy breakfast before you go to work or breaking up your usual evening routine by going for a walk directly after dinner.
Whatever about handling sugar cravings for the majority of the population, being able to defeat them is a must for diabetics, who must maintain balanced and low blood sugars for optimum health and to avoid complications.
In his The Diabetic Solution, renowned diabetic specialist Dr Richard Bernstein suggests entering a state of self-hypnosis and to concentrate on reinforcing and positive messages, including that you owe your body this respect and protection by not giving into the cravings. He suggests visiting a hypnotherapist to learn the technique properly but there are also many free tutorials available online, and some specifically targeted at banishing sugar cravings. Whether you can get this to work for you or not depends on if you're hypnotisable or not.
Deal with emotions differently
Since childhood we've used sweet treats as a panacea for all of life's ups and downs, whether that's a celebratory birthday cake or a small bar of chocolate to dry our tears when we fall over. In adulthood, sweet things are usually more of emotional crutches - the ice cream through the bad break-up and the packet of biscuits just because you're a bit miserable.
It's important to stop yourself when you're reaching for something sweet and not just because it's obviously delicious. Take a step back and have a think about what eating it is going to do apart from make you feel immediately better and infinitely worse afterwards. If what's causing you to feel upset won't be cured by eating a bar of chocolate, save your energies and your waistline and focus on the root of your emotional distress instead.
Choose whole over processed
Ever been to a supermarket and are only able to find some chicken nuggets and not an entire raw chicken to cook? We live in a world of processed foods and that's not always a bad thing because it obviously saves time and in some cases, money. But the downside is that you have no control about the amount of sugar or indeed salt and other additives that have gone into the making of it, while many vital nutrients may have been stripped away. The benefits of having more whole foods in your diet - typically understood as grains, vegetables, fruits - are myriad with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes. But they can be applied to other foods too; the chicken cooked at home is almost certainly better for you nutritionally than the aforementioned chicken nuggets.
Don't go hungry
If you let yourself get too hungry, the body's natural reaction is to reach for the things that will fill it quickly, namely something with sugar and fat. It's preferable to have regular small meals throughout the day instead of one large one because this will help stabilise blood sugars and thus reduce cravings.
Experts recommend eating every three to five hours to stave-off hunger and those meals should contain protein and whole foods like vegetables. Fibre is also very important. It's filling and it helps slow down the absorption of carbs and sugars in your stomach, thus assisting the all-important stabilising of blood sugars. Fruit is an excellent way to get fibre into you. Yes, fruit contains sugar but it's naturally occurring and it's a preferable alternative to snacks or sugary fizzy drinks and it's a great source of nutrients.
Avoid fake sugars
So you think you're doing your body a favour by swapping sugar for artificial sweeteners. Sadly this may not be the case. A study last year at Yale University's School of Medicine found that diet drinks and artificial sweeteners might actually increase sugar cravings. When sugar is eaten, a pleasurable chemical called dopamine is released in the brain. Artificial sweeteners don't create the same effect and leaves the brain craving its sugar-hit properly. In recent years, there has been a widespread interest in stevia, which is entirely natural, calorie-free and has been sold commercially in Japan for 40 years. However critics say that there have not been enough long-term studies done on the effects of stevia to assess if it has the same result on the brain that artificial sweeteners have.
This is a mineral found in the body, which works with insulin produced by the pancreas and is believed to be very effective in the stabilising of blood sugars and therefore controlling blood sugar levels and appetite. It's found in lots of food including broccoli, green beans, barley and oats. A deficiency in chromium is very rare and the body only needs trace amounts of it. However, chromium supplements often form part of weight-loss programmes and it's generally well-tolerated by the majority of the population although there have been some reports of dizziness and mild digestive upsets among users. The supplement however should not be used by diabetics or anyone suffering from hypoglycaemia unless under medical supervision.
Sniff your way out of it
The phenomenon whereby someone who has cooked a large dinner doesn't feel hungry after doing so is well-documented. It's widely thought to be the result of being immersed in the cooking smells aka sensory-specific satiety.
This is when the senses have enough of one food but still have an appetite for another, which explains why you can have two helpings of Christmas dinner, yet still have room to fit in some pudding. A vanilla-scented candle or some vanilla-scented perfume could help quell some of your sweet cravings. The scent is calming and vanilla is sweet, which instantly resonates with us biologically.
Drink water, Lots of it
Not the most revolutionary advice you're ever going to read but the role of hydration in hunger is often ignored. Dehydration is a leading cause of both sugar and salt cravings because it causes depletion of some minerals and nutrients in the body. The next time you're itching to eat something sweet, have a large glass of water first and then wait 15 minutes.
If the craving is diminished, there's a good chance that you were dehydrated. If the craving is more psychological than physical - you feel jittery or just feel like consuming something - sometimes even the act of getting and drinking a glass of water may be sufficient to kill the sugar desire. Exercise also works well too as a distracting mechanism.
If you suspect that sugar is not your friend, try and get to grips with the fact that 'treating' yourself with sugary stuff is actually punishing and not rewarding yourself. There are a thousand and one enjoyable things that you could do instead: start researching a fantasy holiday; download some music you really want to listen to; have a bath; go for a snooze; invite your best friends over; have sex; go sit in a park at lunchtime; splurge on some online shopping; start a blog; write and complete a to-do list. And none of them will give you that dreaded, slightly sickly sugar hangover.
Health & Living