Oh, sugar—it's always such a love-hate relationship with you. It's fun to treat yourself to your favorite dessert, whether that's a triple-scoop ice cream cone or a chocolate-loaded candy bar. Unfortunately, once you get a taste of the sweet stuff, it's really hard to let go. And the next thing you know, you're developing a pretty strong relationship with the vending machine at work.
Sugar cravings can be incredibly hard to break—especially because they can be triggered by just about anything. "There can be numerous causes of sugar cravings," says LA- and NYC-based performance nutritionist Cynthia Sass, RD, CSSD. "They could be due to a too-strict diet, the use of artificial sweeteners, a history of using sugar to cope with emotions, and even social triggers, like advertising or seeing other people eating sugary foods."
Because of that, getting into the habit of eating sugar on a regular basis could give your sweet tooth a lot more control over your decisions than you'd like. "People look for something to give them that jolt of energy really quickly, and that's what sugar is good for," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. "The problem is that jolt of energy will soon have you lying your head on your desk. It causes a roller coaster effect, and doesn't last long."
Luckily, there are plenty of different ways to retrain your cravings, allowing you to reach for healthier forms of sugar than that pint of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer. To get back on track, follow these techniques to cut down on sugar cravings. Soon enough, you'll enjoy those healthier treats, like Ekoa fruit bars, just as much as those guiltier pleasures.
Substitute in healthier options, like dried fruit
Let's get one thing straight about sugar: It's not all bad. While the USDA recommends keeping added sugar to a minimum—which can help you steer clear of diabetes and heart disease—getting natural sugar from fruit is a great way to curb your cravings without doing your body harm.
The next time your sweet tooth strikes, grab a slice of watermelon, some grapes, a handful of cherries, or any other fruit you love. And if you're looking for something easy and mess-free to take with you on the go, try one of Ekoa's fruit bars. It has the same fruity sweet taste you love, minus the added sugar, excess calories, and fat. The Ekoa banana bar, for instance, is basically a healthier way to eat a slice of melt-in-your-mouth banana bread. In addition to banana, Ekoa also offers delicious coconut, mango, and pineapple flavors.
Find your triggers
Sugar cravings and the reasons behind them can be complicated. That's why Sass recommends grabbing a journal and keeping track of your triggers, so you know exactly when they'll strike and how to deal with them.
"If you have a psychological connection to sugar—meaning you've used it for comfort or reward—try keeping a food and feelings journal. Instead of tracking calories or grams of sugar, record the emotions tied to your food choices. You may uncover a pattern you weren't aware of, like eating sugar out of boredom, loneliness, or anxiety," she says. "Once you're aware of the trigger, you can test out alternatives that address the emotion. You won't untangle it overnight, but I've seen many people successfully find other ways to cope with emotions, which results in no longer craving or needing candy, ice cream, or cookies."
Have your desserts measured out and ready to go
One of the best ways to better control your cravings is preparing for them, no matter when they strike. First, Sass recommends being more critical about which sweets you choose in the first place. "Rate various foods on a scale from 0 being meh and 5 being can't-live-without," Sass says. "If something doesn't rate at least a 4, you probably won't mind forgoing it."
Then, take the foods you can't get enough of and set aside smaller portion sizes that are ready to eat. "Measure out your sweets ahead of time. It could be a container of yogurt or a little cereal," Taub-Dix says. That way, you can still enjoy something you love without overdoing it and feeling down afterward. You shouldn't eat meh sweets just because they're there. Make sure you're enjoying what you put in your body and not mindlessly shoveling it into your mouth.
Work on mindfulness
Because cravings commonly go hand-in-hand with your emotions and mood, Sass recommends working on being more mindful. By doing so, you'll think a lot less about the sweets in your pantry and will be able to focus more on the important things happening throughout your day.
"Practice mindfulness meditation, even just five minutes a day," she says. "There are free guided meditation apps and videos on YouTube to follow. In addition to helping you be more mindful overall, research shows that this practice can help reduce cravings."
Pair healthy foods with familiar flavors
If you're trying to change your palate, this is an easy way to start. A small 2014 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that eating something healthy, like Brussels sprouts, with something sweet, like cream cheese, conditioned the participants to like and eat more of the healthy food by itself. This study was done with kids, but who says adults don't need a little help, too?
Aside from trying the trick yourself into eating less sweet foods and more vegetables, you could also use the technique to cut down on your unhealthy dessert cravings. Instead of reaching for an Almond Joy, try eating a coconut-flavored Ekoa bar with a drizzle of chocolate syrup on top for a similar-tasting treat.
Remember to look at the full picture
There are some sugar-packed foods that are probably best to keep out of your home, like soda and candy bars. But don't ban every item that contains sugar. Instead, look at what it can do for your health as a whole.
"There are foods that may contain sugar that also have carbs, protein, and all these other nutrients," Taub-Dix says. "That's why when you look at food, it's important to look at the complete profile of the food and not just one thing."
Fruits and some vegetables contain naturally occurring sugars, but they also have plenty of other health benefits. So focus on lowering your added sugar intake, rather than trying to quit sugar entirely.
Stop using artificial sweeteners
It's tempting to try and control your cravings by switching out sugar for all the artificial choices available. Sass says that's not going to do you any good in the end. Instead, it's better to simply cut down on the real thing, not to try and cheat the system.
"They're at least 200 times sweeter than real sugar," Sass says of artificial sweeteners. "I find with my clients that this intense sweetness can stroke a sweet tooth and disrupt natural appetite regulation. I've seen countless clients' sweet cravings diminish when they kick the artificial habit."
Mix sweet and savory
If you're going to eat sweet foods, one of the easiest ways to find some balance is to pair them with something savory. Nope—not ice cream and chips. More like fruit and nuts.
"For example, create a do-it-yourself trail mix where you could combine dried cranberries or cherries with almonds," Taub-Dix says. "The sugar is kind of buffered by the protein from the almonds—they'll make you feel satisfied and full and can keep you going for a longer period of time."
Focus on sleep
How much sleep do you really get every night? If you've been slacking on logging those hours, start giving yourself an earlier bedtime. It won't just help you think clearly and be more energized during the day—it will also allow you to better control your sugar cravings.
"Research shows too little and poor quality sleep ups appetite and spikes hormones that drive cravings for sugar," Sass says. "People often also reach for sugar in an attempt to boost energy because they're sleep-deprived. This only results in a quick burst of energy that's short-lived, followed by a crash that zaps your energy even more."
Now that you know how to retrain your craving impulses, you might be able to kick those sugar cravings for good.