As a kid, I ate my fair share of sugary foods. Froot Loops, Frosted Flakes and Lucky Charms got me excited at breakfast time. Pick and mix candy at the movie theatre? Don’t even get me started. I was all about the Sour Patch Kids, Skittles, Cherry Blasters, Fuzzy Peaches and Swedish Berries. (As in, I ate enough to give myself those lovely canker sores all over my tongue, which made me never want to eat them again…. until a day or two later.) Then I hit adolescence, moved overseas, ate my feelings, and ballooned to 200lbs. Oops.
During my weight loss journey, I discovered that I could crowd out cravings for sweet things by loading up on nutrient-dense foods instead. These were often lower calorie things like fruits and veggies which are full of fiber and water, both of which did a wonderful job of keeping me full. (Sometimes a little too full… hello watermelon baby!) Over time, my cravings for sweets dissipated and it became easier to say no to the candy and processed junk that I wouldn’t have thought twice about a couple of years prior. If I tried to eat those things today (and I have experimented on one or two occasions), the result is typically a pounding headache, jitters, and painful revenge from my stomach notifying me of its disapproval. Knowing this will be the case has been incentive enough to avoid super-sweet refined foods.
Earlier this year, I fell victim to the ridiculously delicious, highly addictive Quest Bar trap. Don’t get me wrong, Quest bars are one of the cleanest brands of protein bars that I’ve ever come across, and I’d feel a bit naked without a stash of them in my kitchen cupboard. The Cinnamon Roll and Chocolate Peanut Butter ones are heavenly and I take great pleasure in sinking my teeth into every soft, chewy bite. It’s a good thing they’re expensive or else I’d probably be too far gone by now. Having said all of that, things were getting slightly out of hand a couple of months ago.
It began with one or two bars a week, rationing my stash to make it last longer. Soon, I was taking one to work with me every day, eating half in the morning and half in the afternoon. I’d then munch on them after dinner and they became a bit like dessert, which I’ve never really felt the need to have on a regular basis. The bars were replacing my previous whole food snacks, which included veggies and hummus, fruit, yogurt, whole grain crackers, and cottage cheese. I was getting plenty of fiber and protein from the bars, but let’s be real here: Quest Bars don’t sprout out of the ground or grow on trees. Despite having clean ingredients, they’re not whole foods.
At the same time that I was on my Quest Bar-a-day ritual, I found myself craving other sweet things. I didn’t regress into the Sour Patch Kids habit of my childhood, but found myself wanting more fruit in my smoothies and often craved something sweet after dinner. When my digestion issues started to flare up, I decided to take a break on the Quest bars and sub fruit (and other whole foods) back into my snacks instead. Magically (or maybe not so magically), the sugar cravings that I hadn’t experienced in years went away.
It seems everyone has something to say about sugar these days, whether it’s about a sugar detox, new ways to re-create dishes that are traditionally sugar bombs, or revealing sneaky sources of sugar in a bunch of foods that were previously thought of as ‘healthy’. I think there’s a lot to be learned from all of these sugar discussions – after all, the American Heart Association reports that the average American consumes the equivalent of 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar per day, or 355 calories worth. (Note that that’s added sugar, which doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars like those found in whole fruit.) Compare that to their recommended 5 tsp for women and 9 tsp for men, and I think you’d agree that there’s a lot of room for improvement!
Recent science suggests that excess sugar may not necessarily cause, but likely contributes to serious health issues including obesity, heart attacks, and even cancer. I’m sure evidence supporting this will only become more common over the next couple of years, but in the meantime, I think we’d be wise to reduce our consumption. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a BIG fan of fruit, (in fact, if it was possible to get every nutrient our bodies need from it, I’d be all for becoming a fruitarian) and fruit certainly contains naturally-occurring sugar. The type I like to steer clear of is the added sugar that comes in refined and processed foods. The kind that isn’t paired with valuable vitamins, minerals, and fiber to help avoid that spike-crash cycle. The kind you find in cookies, candy, and other packaged foods.
In the case of Quest Bars, these contain stevia and ethyritol. While both are currently considered safer natural sweeteners, my recent tastebud preferences suggest that even these sweet replacements seem to trigger my sweet tooth.
Speaking from my own personal experiences and those of my health coaching clients whom I’ve helped to deal with sugar addiction, here are my top 5 tips for taming sugar cravings and the amount of added sugar in your diet:
Don’t try to eliminate ALL sugar ALL at once.
Baby steps, friends. You might only have one or two sugary vices, or you might be the type that needs regular hits throughout the day to keep your energy up. Wherever you’re at, going cold turkey right off the bat could be tough for your brain and body to accept. See if you can wean yourself off gradually by using less each day. Target obvious things first, like pop and fruit juice, which often contain far more sugar than you’d suspect.
Swap a few sweet treats for fruit and naturally sweet veggies.
Fruit is nature’s candy, and the fiber in its flesh helps to stabilize blood sugar levels so you’re not left feeling like you need a nap about 30 minutes after eating it. But don’t just stop at fruit – veggies are sweet too! Try beets, carrots, sweet potato, and winter squash. One of my favourite snacks, especially during cold-weather months, is butternut squash tossed in cinnamon and baked in the oven. Cinnamon is also a naturally sweet food and these two simple ingredients paired together make for a super nutritious snack. I think you’ll be surprised by how your taste buds change over time.
Eat whole-food meals and snacks regularly, using appropriate portions.
When we eat regularly, our blood sugar levels remain more consistent than if we were to skip meals. When blood sugar dips or crashes, we tend to lose mental focus and it can be tempting to reach for super sweet foods. To stop the craving before it starts, try eating more frequently. NOTE: This doesn’t give you a license to eat 5 full meals a day! But, if you tend to eat 3 big meals every day, experiment with 3 slightly smaller meals and two snacks around 250 calories each.
As far as portion control is concerned, those that have seen me eat a meal in my own home will know that I have an exceptionally hearty appetite. In dietary terms, I’m what they’d call ‘a volume eater’. As a teen, part of the reason I gained so much weight was because I was eating huge portions of very calorie-dense food. Did I stop that in order to lose weight? Well yes, to an extent. I still eat heaps, but it’s the right foods.
If I’m ravenous and feel like devouring an entire buffet, I’ll load up my plate with a small serving of whole grains (or starchy veggies, like sweet potato), a portion of lean protein (perhaps a little larger than usual), a small amount of healthy fats (like extra virgin olive oil in my salad dressing, for example) and as many veggies as I want. All of the fiber and water in the vegetables helps to satisfy my enormous appetite, and since the meal is balanced in terms of macronutrients, I don’t feel deprived of anything. If you’re unsure of what constitutes ‘a portion’, check out this portion control post.
Try starting your day with a savoury breakfast.
I have zero science to back this up, so this tip is based purely on my own experience. In the summer, smoothies are a breakfast time staple. But now that it’s chilly outside, I’ve been opting for warmer things like veggie-packed omelettes, tofu scrambles, and occasionally oatmeal. While my smoothies tended to be on the sweet side thanks to their fruity ingredients, it seems a savoury (and sometimes spicy) breakfast sets me up for a day with almost zero desire for sugar. I might just be a novel case, but if you really struggle with sweets, humour yourself and give it a try. Here are a couple of savoury breakfast ideas for you:
- The Big T.E.A.S.E – tomato, egg, avocado, spinach and English muffin breakfast sandwich
- Smoked Salmon and Asparagus Frittata
- Baked Breakfast Tomatoes
- Swiss Chard and Red Onion Omelette
- One-Skillet Cherry Tomato Frittata
- Morning Kickstarter Green Juice
Out of sight, out of mind.
Perhaps one of the oldest, most common pieces of advice, but it’s common for a reason – it works. If you don’t have sweets in the house, they can’t be there staring you in the face when you open the fridge or pantry. If you’ve got to have a stash for ’emergencies’, keep it in the back of a cupboard, in a non-transparent container, or somewhere that you won’t be looking at it every day. If it’s chocolate, try freezing 1-serving portions. Unless you want to risk breaking a tooth, this strategy should help you to stop at one piece after it’s thawed, rather than ‘accidentally’ devouring the whole bar.
Does this mean I’m off protein bars for good? Well, no. But I’ll be saving them for in-a-pinch occasions, like post-workout or post-race when time and whole food options are limited. And in those situations, you can bet I’ll be savouring every single melt-in-your-mouth morsel. 😉
Alright, that’s more than enough from me! I’m sure you’ve probably got something to say on this topic, and I’d love to hear it! Tell me…
- Do you consider your sugar intake a little greater than it should be?
- If you’ve got a sweet tooth, what are those foods that you just don’t feel you could replace with anything else?
- If you’ve been successful at taming cravings for sweets, what strategies have you used?