You’ve probably experienced times when you’re doing really well, eating on plan, making progress. And then… sugar cravings strike.
It could be due to stress, time of the month, or any other reason.
But it can feel overpowering – like you’re out of control, even addicted.
Your brain won’t stop until you’ve succumbed to whatever it wants. Then it settles down satisfied while you stare guiltily at the empty packet(s) and wonder ‘What’s wrong with me?!’
Quick note before we go any further…
There’s loads of tips and info here, but it’s set up for you to scroll through. So feel free to do so, and pick out the most useful parts for you.
Trust me, there is nothing wrong with you. You are totally normal.
We live in a world where delicious tempting foods are everywhere we go, marketed to make us lust after them, and engineered to light up the happy sensors in our brain.
So sugar cravings are sadly here to stay.
But you can learn to outsmart them.
The Sugar Cravings Cycle
This is a familiar cycle you may have experienced…
- Trigger (something that happens, a sight, smell, time of day etc)
- Urge (experience a craving)
- Behaviour (eat desired food to satisfy the craving)
- Reward (brain experiences a hit of dopamine as you first indulge in that food)
- Guilt (eat too much and then regret it)
A rather annoying change of events, right?
Trouble is, your emotional brain is extremely powerful, and it has selective recall.
It only remembers the joy of reward, not the guilt you felt after. And the more it gets rewarded, the louder (and more often) it will scream for the same reward again.
Your logical brain realises that indulging in sugar cravings is stopping you reaching your goal.
But your emotional brain is like the big strong bully in the playground, while your logical brain is the clever kid who gets picked on.
Here’s how to help your clever kid brain out and defeat the bully.
Identify your triggers
Become a detective and look for patterns.
Cravings often occur at certain times of day, in particular places, or in response to emotions.
Do you get an energy slump and an urge for chocolate at 3 in the afternoon?
Is your danger time the gap between getting home and sitting down to eat dinner?
Is it after dinner when you finally get to sit and unwind?
For many clients I work with, cravings happen in the evening.
You’re tired and stressed, feeling the need for a ‘reward’ after a busy day.
Or something stressful or upsetting happens, and your brain’s first thought is ‘CHOCOLATE!’.
Whatever it is for you, write it down.
Once you know the triggers, you can create a solution.
Be like Scar (but don’t kill Mufasa)
As Scar says in the Lion King, in his dark scary voice… Be prepaaarred.
Prepare in advance for when cravings may strike. Make your home environment a place where it’s easy to make a helpful choice.
If there’s food or drink that you often cave into when tired or stressed… don’t keep it in the house. Doesn’t mean it’s off limits, it just means you’ll have to make an extra effort to go and get it.
If you need an energy boost mid afternoon, have some fruit ready to snack on.
And if your cravings are in response to emotions, practising calming routines and distraction techniques can make a huge difference.
When sugar cravings strike
Whenever you feel an urge, be prepared to sit with it for 5 minutes first.
Check in with yourself. Are you physically hungry? Or are you bored, stressed, or just wanting that cake because it looks and smells amazing?
Physical hunger comes on slowly. False hunger (aka a craving) usually hits you suddenly and can feel quite urgent.
A good way identify the difference is to consider what you would willing eat in this moment. If you’re physically hungry, you’d be happy to be given a plate of almost anything, even broccoli.
If you’re experiencing a craving, you just really want that cake.
To eat cake, or not to eat cake?
It’s totally normal to crave food. It’s totally fine to eat it.
Sometimes it serves your soul, you can enjoy every bite, and it helps you keep on track long term.
Other times it’s not as good as it looks, you’re not hungry so you don’t enjoy it much anyway, and you feel sick and regretful when you’re done.
If that happens, it’s not a failure. You haven’t ruined your progress. All you need to do is learn from it – use that experience to help you out next time. And then move on.
Let’s say you do exactly that – eat when you weren’t hungry, regret it, and make a mental note that it kind of sucked so you’ll act differently next time.
A week later, you go to a cafe with friends and they order cake.
You’re not hungry, but the cake looks so good.
You refer to the memory of your previous experience of eating when you weren’t hungry. And you decide to say no. You just saved yourself from feeling sick and stuffed in 20 minutes time (and 600 calories you didn’t need). That is a win.
While watching your friends eat cake, you remind yourself that you could have said yes if you really wanted to. At another time in the future when you have room for it, you will.
You are in control. And it feels great.
Distraction techniques for sugar cravings
Cravings usually fade away with 15 – 20 minutes.
So it helps to have a list of activities you can get stuck into when you feel an urge come on.
Here are some ideas:
- get to work on a task from your to-do list
- research something fun you’ve been thinking about doing (like a holiday, adventure or challenge)
- respond to a few messages or emails
- create a new music playlist for your next exercise session
- search youtube for some fitness or travel inspiration
- do a spot of gardening or a quick tidy up the house
- go for a 5-15 minute walk
- listen to a meditation on an app such as Calm or Headspace
- sit down and enjoy some colouring or reading
- journal any thoughts or make a plan to help reach your goal
It depends where you are of course, but test things out.
Look for something that occupies your body and / or mind. TV is sometimes too passive for this and can set cravings off.
Along with whatever distraction you choose, have a glass of water. It’s very easy to mistake thirst for hunger.
Set yourself up for success
Sugar cravings often occur because of too much restriction (knowingly or unknowingly).
If you’re trying to cut calories in the day, skipping meals, or just lacking a structure to your eating, you’re far more likely to end up raiding the cupboards later on.
Your body needs nutrients and a regular eating pattern so it can feel nourished and settled.
Deprive it of that, and your brain will start calling for sugar and junk foods instead.
You don’t need to eat a certain amount of meals, or have breakfast if you’re not hungry first thing. Meal frequency and timing doesn’t impact your metabolism, but overall calorie and nutrient intake does.
What this means is that you don’t need a perfect diet plan – you need a consistent plan that works for you.
For most women, this is a good template to follow:
- 3 easy / pre-prepared meals that include protein and vegetables / fruit
- 2 snacks – protein (such as greek yogurt, boiled egg or a protein bar) or fruit
- 1 – 2 servings of healthy fats daily (avocado, eggs, salmon, olive oil, nuts, seeds)
- 1 – 2 servings of natural high fibre carbs daily (oats, potatoes, beans, lentils, wholemeal bread, rice)
What might this look like?
Here’s a delicious day from one of my online clients Irene:
Plan in foods you love
There’s no point cutting out your favourite ‘treat’ foods, only to binge on other junk later on.
No food on it’s own will affect your weight loss goal. So plan in foods you love, and mindfully enjoy them.
Overall calorie intake for your week is always key (which means if you have a high calorie day, it’s ok. Just reign things in a little over the next few days and your week is still on track).
Aim for mostly healthy natural foods, along with the best of whatever else you love, in amounts that serve you and your goals.
And when you do indulge… enjoy every bite slowly, mindfully and guilt free.
Then make your next choice a great one, and carry on.
To sum up – it’s totally normal to feel cravings. They probably won’t ever disappear, and that’s ok. Prepare for them with the strategies above – in particular, fuel your body well and set up your environment for success.
Sit with the urge for 5 minutes first and work out what might really be going on. Would a healthier option or getting busy with a task serve you better?
It’s totally fine to indulge sometimes. But if you eat what you crave and then wish you hadn’t, don’t beat yourself up. It’s good data. Take whatever lessons you can for next time, and move on.
You don’t need to get it right every time, but with practise you’ll see big improvements.
Think about how you want to feel and act around food, and keep working towards that.
If you need any help, just let me know here.