Over the years I’ve been asked countless times how to reduce carbohydrate or sugar cravings. The simple answer is: Eat. Fewer. Carbs.
I’m not being flip or dismissive, but eating fewer carbs the only way to drastically reduce or eliminate sugar cravings. Of course there are other issues that can effect cravings for sweets, but changing the composition of your diet is the central action required.
I have first hand experience with this issue and the resolution. In high school and college, I was legitimately hooked on carbohydrates and sugar. I usually had toast, an english muffin, or a bagel for breakfast, some type of carbohydrate-based lunch, a frequent afternoon “snack” of a gigantic rice crispy bar, and dinner would often include pasta and bread, rice, sandwiches, or pizza (I enjoyed more than one a late-night slice of oozy mac & cheese pizza — no, I’m not kidding), and I’d have dessert several times a week. That was just the food. There was also diet soda, sugar-free lattes, beer, and mixed alcoholic beverages. Although I never felt like I had a sugar addiction, I had a strong preference for carbohydrates which determined my food choices — perpetuating the pattern of cravings and over-consuming carbs.
Of course I ate healthy things too, I’ve always loved vegetables, nuts, and legumes, but I didn’t eat enough of them. When every meal is based around processed carbohydrates, it tends to squeeze out more nutritious options. Additionally, as a vegetarian, I didn’t consume enough high-quality protein or fat. (I realize you can consume adequate fat and protein on a vegetarian diet, but at 19 years old I wasn’t very good at it.) While I knew at the time that my diet was far from perfect, it also didn’t seem terribly unhealthy. After all, the vast majority of the “nutrition experts” at the time, including the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, recommended a diet that looked eerily similar to mine.
As a relatively “healthy” young adult, my diet was approximately: 70% carbohydrate, 15% fat, and 15% protein. Fifteen years later my diet is roughly: 30% carbohydrate, 50% fat, and 20% protein. My current diet isn’t “low-carb” it’s simply a more balanced macronutrient ratio that facilitates overall health, and the carbohydrates I do consume are from unprocessed, whole foods. It’s worth noting that many medical experts now believe that an optimal diet for brain health, longevity, and reversal of obesity and type 2 diabetes is truly low-carb at 5-10% carbohydrate, 60-75% fat, and 20-30% protein.
The transition away from my carbohydrate-centric diet has been gradual. I slowly reduced added sugar and refined carbohydrate intake while increasing protein and fat consumption (I began incorporating fish into my diet when I moved to Alaska for a year, and meat when I moved to Montana, but I still only eat a 2-3 small servings of either a week.) I’m now an omnivore, but my diet is still 80% plant-based. As I’ve de-emphasized carbohydrates (processed or non), my yearning for them has decreased. The more limited my consumption is, the less interesting carbohydrates are — I simply don’t need them to feel satisfied anymore. This is because I’ve retrained my metabolism to burn fat and protein as a fuel source, and to not rely heavily on carbohydrates. In addition to the macronutrient adjustments, I also follow a time-restricted eating pattern, which further reinforces the metabolic ability to burn fat.
Keep in mind, the change from a diet with 70% carbohydrate to 10% or even 30% carbohydrate is enormous, and making that switch quickly is often unsuccessful — it’s just another version of a crash-diet. Because of that, I don’t believe it’s realistic or helpful for most people to switch their diet composition overnight to low-carb.* Instead, we should focus on reducing carbohydrate intake in manageable and maintainable ways. While working to reduce carbohydrate intake, we need to recognize that several lifestyle factors can exacerbate sugar cravings. By being aware of these factors and taking steps to mitigate their effects, we can facilitate the success of our efforts:
- Lack of sleep
- Composition of gut microflora
- Consumption of artificial sweeteners
- Excessive alcohol intake
- Environmental cues
Titrating carbohydrate intake down over the course of 3-6 months seems to be a good rate for many people — it’s fast enough to feel (and perhaps see) changes occurring, but it’s not so quick that it’s mentally and physically overwhelming (what often occurs when “normal eaters” try jumping to low-carb, ketogenic, or paleo diet plans). As carbohydrate consumption decreases, be sure to increase intake of vegetables, protein (only if indicated — most American’s get plenty of protein), and healthy fats (omega 3’s from fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and anchovies, and monounsaturated and saturated fats from avocado, coconut, olives, butter, nuts, and seeds). Keep in mind, the biggest error most people make is trying to reduce carbohydrates while maintaining fat and protein at previous levels — what results is a massive caloric deficit, fatigue, and nearly guaranteed regression to old eating habits — if you feel like crap, why would you continue? Fat intake must increase as carbohydrate intake decreases for this dietary pattern to be successful. Luckily, research is demonstrating increased metabolic rates for people on low-carb diets and fat makes all of those additional vegetables lip-smackingly good. Some of my favorite moments in the kitchen are when I get to lick warm salt- and pepper-infused avocado oil off my fingers after munching a few freshly roasted veggies. This dietary pattern is not deprivation, but decadently rich.
Here are a couple of additional tips that will be beneficial for this process:
- Track your intake for a week or two following your current dietary habits and then during your transition of reducing carbohydrates. Food journaling is one of the most powerful tools for examining and modifying your intake. If you track before the change, during, and after, you can better quantify the modifications made and any improvements in how you feel. There are lots of great ways to track your intake. My favorite is a simple google spreadsheet, but there are many sites and apps dedicated to tracking (myfitnesspal and fitday are two free options that work well and allow you to see your macronutrient percentages).
- Get in touch with your physical feelings, your emotional ties to intake, and your hunger, and satiety cues. Track these in tandem with your dietary intake for the most complete picture of what, when, and why you eat.
- Consider adopting a time-restricted eating pattern which will help speed-up the metabolic shift away from carbohydrates as fuel.
Sugar cravings are not inevitable — their tyrannical hold can be broken with a simple (but not easy) dietary change: Eat. Fewer. Carbs.
*People with obesity or type 2 diabetes should consider discussing the low-carb diet strategy with their physician as it has been shown in the research literature to be quite effective.