Do you feel like something sweet? Sugar cravings are a well-known phenomenon that may lead to overeating and sabotage your health goals. Thankfully, there are some strategies that you can adopt to help stop these cravings in their tracks.
Before we dig in with this article, let me make something clear. When I am talking about sugar, I am not talking about natural sugars in fruit and dairy products. The sugars that we are looking to reduce or eliminate are from added sugars.
Don’t let an overactive sweet tooth stand in the way of your health! If you are ready to kick those sugar cravings to the curb, keep reading. Here are the topics we’ll cover in this article:
- What are added sugars?
- How can I find added sugars on the food label?
- Where are added sugars hiding in foods?
- What are the recommended limits for added sugar intake?
- What are five foods that can help stop sugar cravings?
- Can beverages containing non-nutritive sweeteners help to control sugar cravings?
- What other factors impact sugar cravings?
Cutting back on added sugars may feel like an impossible health goal. This article will give you the tools you need to help you reduce the sugar in your diet.
What are added sugars?
Aiming for a diet of whole and minimally processed foods is a smart move. Whole foods often contain a complete package of nutrients and behave in the body differently than heavily processed foods.
As mentioned above, there are sugars naturally present in healthy foods such as dairy products and fruits. You should generally not try to avoid these sugars completely. They are packaged within natural food matrices containing many beneficial components.
On the other hand, sometimes sugars are added to foods during processing or preparation. These sugars are the added sugars. They should be limited in your diet.
When you consume a lot of added sugar, it may be easier to consume an excessive number of calories. Your weight management goals may end up sabotaged by a poor-quality diet. Foods high in added sugar may be displacing healthier food choices.
How can I find added sugars on the food label?
Unfortunately, added sugars are present all over the food supply, where they are hiding under many different names. What follows are a few of the most common names for added sugars. You can find an extended list at choosemyplate.gov:
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Maple syrup
- Fruit concentrates and fruit nectar
- Pancake syrup
- White granulated sugar
Unsweetened 100% fruit juice is not technically considered an added sugar. Since fruit juice is stripped of fiber and is a concentrated source of calories, whole fruit is a better option.
Where are added sugars hiding in foods?
Sugar is added into foods all over the food supply and may pop up where you least expect them. Foods like pastries, candies, soft drinks, ice cream, and certain breakfast cereals are distinct sources of added sugars. The following foods may also be a significant source of added sugars (from choosemyplate.gov):
- Sports and energy drinks
- Sweetened fruit drinks (not 100% juice)
- Condiments such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, jellies, and chutneys
- Flavored milk and flavored yogurts (including flavored dairy alternatives)
- Sweetened applesauce, fruits canned or frozen with syrup
Starting in 2020 (or 2021 for smaller manufacturers) label information on added sugar content in foods will be required. Currently, only the total sugars must appear on labels in the United States. Check the ingredients list to see if your food contains one of the names for added sugar mentioned above.
Sugar-free condiments, everyday dairy products, and unsweetened frozen fruits are great options to reduce added sugar. Consider making these products a mainstay in your household.
What are the recommended limits for added sugar intake?
The Dietary Guidelines recommend that you get no more than 10% of your calories from added sugars each day. If you are on a 2,000-calorie diet, that means no more than 200 calories should come from added sugar. Two hundred calories of sugar are about 12 teaspoons of the sweet stuff; sounds like an easy target, right?
The American Heart Association (AHA) has more stringent targets than the Dietary Guidelines. The AHA recommends that adult women limit their added sugar intake to six teaspoons or 100 calories per day. For adult men, the goal is no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar, equivalent to approximately 150 calories.
Americans, on average, are currently consuming about 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily, so we are not meeting recommendations. Adopting some of the tips in the next section may help you to reduce your added sugar intake.
What are five foods that can help stop sugar cravings?
Like the answers to so many things in nutrition, the foods that can stop sugar cravings will vary by individual. Experimenting with different nutrient-rich diet patterns will help you to determine which strategies are best for you. Here are some suggestions to start with:
Plain Greek Yogurt
If you regularly choose sugar-sweetened yogurts, switching to unsweetened may be a simple way to help with sugar cravings. Children may be particularly vulnerable to developing a preference for sweeter foods when their diet is sugar-rich. Acclimate your taste buds to the food options with less sugar, and you may find yourself wanting the sugarless.
Low-sugar yogurt can be a great stepping stone for those who are not ready to commit to the unsweetened varieties. Chobani has a line of “less sugar Greek yogurts” that you may find more palatable than plain.
Don’t skip the sirloin if it fits your dietary preferences; it may help you cut your cravings. A 2018 study linked lean beef consumption to reduced food cravings in those on an energy-restricted, high-protein diet.
Participants on a high-protein diet without red meat reported higher cravings compared to baseline than those who consumed beef at least four times per week. It is important to note that the Beef Checkoff and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association funded this study. However, that does not necessarily mean that the study’s findings are of no value.
Since protein is the most satiating macronutrient, consuming higher protein meals to help quell food cravings is a smart move. Cuts with the word “loin” or “round” in the name and 96/4 ground beef are some leaner beef options.
If you have a beef with beef, there are many other ways to get more protein into your diet. Dairy products such as the Greek yogurt mentioned above, poultry, fish, pork, and beans are some of your other options. You could also choose the next item on our list for some high-quality protein.
Eggs (Scrambled, Hard-boiled, or Fried)
Sugary breakfast cereals, toaster pastries, muffins, and other high-sugar foods are popular breakfast items in the United States. These options are all high in rapidly digested carbohydrates and low in protein. Choosing this sort of breakfast may leave you searching for sugary snacks to hold you over until lunch.
Balance out your first meal of the day and cut your added sugar intake by having eggs instead. A single large egg contains 6 grams of protein for only 70 calories with no added sugar. Enjoy a scramble with vegetables to cover another food group and add some filling fiber to the meal.
Don’t have time to cook in the morning? Hard-boil a few eggs the night before and pop them in the refrigerator. You’ll have a portable protein-packed snack to eat on the go.
If you read my “10 Paleo Diet Rules You Need to Know” article, you might remember the protein leverage hypothesis. The idea behind this hypothesis is that people may continue eating until they consume about the same amount of protein daily. Getting protein-rich meals throughout the day may mean you are less likely to overeat sugary snacks at night.
Starting your day with some protein-packed eggs (or Greek yogurt) can help promote an adequate intake of this important macronutrient. Eggs are also higher in choline and certain other essential nutrients, compared to cereals.
Plain or Fruit-infused Water
Your body may be confusing hunger signals with thirst. Try drinking a glass of water the next time you are craving a sweet dessert, and see if that helps. This simple switch will not only promote better hydration; it can also increase the overall quality of your diet.
If you dislike plain water, try infusing your water with different fruit and herb combinations to add flavor. There is no downside to replacing sugar-sweetened drinks with water (unless you struggle to gain weight). In addition, skipping the sugar-sweetened beverages may help with healthy weight management.
Whole Fruit or “Nice Cream”
If avoiding sweet foods leaves you feeling deprived, consider satisfying your sweet tooth with some whole fruit. For some, completely restricting sweet foods may backfire. They may end up bingeing on the foods they were trying to eliminate.
Intense cravings may also signal low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), a symptom that you should not ignore. Foods containing sugars are not inherently bad. However, consistently consuming these foods in excess of your needs can negatively impact your health.
Whole fruit contains fiber and beneficial phytonutrients that you are not likely to find in cakes or cookies. The high fiber and water content of fruit can make for a satisfying snack. It also moves you one step closer to reaching the recommended servings of fruit in the Dietary Guidelines.
Blending and freezing fruits like bananas, peaches, or pineapples into a “nice cream” may make fruit feel more like dessert. For a grab-and-go treat that will satisfy your cravings, consider pouring fruit puree into popsicle molds. Add some unsweetened Greek yogurt to your pops for some additional protein to help prevent a blood sugar spike.
Do you feel like eating a cookie but not a piece of fruit? This may indicate that your craving may not actually be a hunger signal at all.
Can beverages containing non-nutritive sweeteners help to control sugar cravings?
The research on the relationship between low-calorie sweetened beverages and food cravings has been inconsistent. If you find that these products increase your needs for all things sweet, consider skipping them. However, if drinks with non-nutritive sweeteners are helping you with healthy weight management, it is fine to include them.
If you do include drinks with non-nutritive sweeteners in your diet, pay attention to how they affect your appetite. Does consumption of these beverages lead to overeating later, or are they helping you to limit sugar-sweetened drinks? There is no one correct answer, so experiment to find what works for you.
What other factors impact sugar cravings?
The foods you eat are not the only factors impacting the foods you crave. Other factors linked to food cravings include (from The Psychology of Food Cravings):
- Fasting (linked to decreased desire)
- Very low-energy diets (linked to reduced appetite; not recommended without medical supervision)
Other things may help with sugar cravings too. A recent review of seven studies found that adequate sleep was linked to a lower desire for sweet foods.
Getting enough sleep was also associated with a lower intake of added sugars. Aiming to go to bed at a reasonable hour can be one simple step to help promote your health.
Final Thoughts About Curbing Sugar Cravings
Added sugars have many names and are hidden all over our food supply. However, cutting back on added sugars do not have to be a horrible experience. By making modifications to your diet that can help to reduce your cravings, limiting sugar intake will be much easier.
Eating regular balanced meals that contain protein can go a long way to help reduce sugar cravings. Making other positive changes, such as staying hydrated and getting enough sleep, may help as well. The small lifestyle shifts that you make are cumulative and can add up to something significant over time.
Have you decided to cut back on sugars, but are left wondering what to eat? Do not miss out on the recipe section! We have lots of delicious meal ideas waiting for you that are free of added sugars.
Summer is a registered dietitian located in Avon, Connecticut where she specializes in weight management, special diets, general nutrition, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). She is the developer and content creator behind the Summer Yule Nutrition website, where she shares evidence-based information on hot topics in food and nutrition.