When people find out that I’m a nutritionist, they almost always assume that I’ve been a health-freak for my entire life. So, when I tell them I was addicted to fast food and sugar, drinking an average of eight sodas a day, there’s usually a double take.
I experienced a health crash from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis when I was in my early twenties. My soda and fast food habit hadn’t caused it entirely, but it had certainly done me no favors. At age twenty-three, I found myself eighty pounds overweight, depressed, and so tired I could barely get out of bed most days.
In one of my worst moments, I was too tired to get dressed, and too hungry to cook, so I drove myself to the drive-thru in pajamas, a fuzzy bathrobe, and slippers at four in the afternoon. I distinctly remember sitting there, waiting for my bag of nuggets and greasy fries, thinking that this must be what it feels like to hit rock bottom.
It was later that day that I started googling “how to stop drinking soda” as I guzzled my supersize soft drink. I realized I had to start somewhere, and no part of me was fooled into thinking that thirty-two ounces of caffeinated sugar was good for me. But I just couldn’t stop. Every time I would vow to quit, I would end up exhausted, too tired to function, and I would be so gripped with the desire for soda that it would almost give me a burst of energy just at the thought of getting my sweet fix.
But I didn’t really want to continue this cycle of crash and crave, so I googled for the elusive answers. I didn’t get them. In fact, I ended up so paralyzed as to what the right move was for any aspect of eating that I stopped all fast food and soda cold turkey and basically started eating chicken and broccoli, and drinking water. That’s it.
It was a torturous time. But for the first time in years, I saw the scale moving backward. I started sleeping better and waking up with energy. And I stopped wanting soda.
I lost eighty pounds in less than six months, and I assumed that my life was changed forever. When I realized I didn’t have any more weight to lose, I started relaxing my diet again, and before I knew it, I was back to major sugar cravings. While I never went back to drive-thru sodas, I replaced it with organic ice cream.
Frustrated, and being the research junkie that I am, I dove into the research on cravings. Why had I started eating sugar again? I had been feeling healthy, fit, and happy. It had barely taken a week before I felt dependent on my sugar fixes again, and I even felt tired if I didn’t get them. I felt like a failure, but I didn’t even know what had driven me to do it.
Research shows that cravings aren’t just the mental desire to eat something. While that’s how they manifest, they’re actually caused by underlying chemical reactions in the body that happen without our knowledge. They’re also not even our own original ideas. Let me explain.
When we rely on sugar, caffeine, or other stimulants for that boost of energy or happiness, our brains become dependent on them. While the brain makes dopamine—the neurotransmitter associated with rewards and happiness—it will begin to produce less when we get dopamine hits from outside sources, such as sugar binges. When the brain’s dopamine production has slowed, and we deprive ourselves of our regular sugar fix, the brain sends out signals that manifest as cravings because it needs its regularly scheduled dopamine moment.
This is why breaking sugar cravings can feel hard on the first few days, because you can’t simply tell the brain to make more dopamine to fill in the gap. It will, but it takes it a little time to catch on.
Even if you aren’t relying on sugar for dopamine boosters, or you crave things besides sweets, there can be another component to your insatiable cravings that brings you down, over and over again: the gut.
The microbiome is home to billions of bacteria. We host an entire universe of living creatures within our large intestine. Intermixed in this universe are good bacteria and bad bacteria. Basically, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy plays out in our guts on a daily basis: Both sides are fighting for control of Middle Earth, or, in this case, the center of your being. Whoever wins control of the gut essentially controls your health, your mental wellness, and yes, even your cravings.
How To Beat Cravings
Bad bacteria need a steady diet of junk food, sugar, and refined carbs to survive. Good bacteria thrive on things like the fiber found in vegetables. Not as flashy, but exactly what you would expect from the hobbits of the microbiome.
When you deprive the bad bacteria of the sustenance they need to put up a daily fight, they produce powerful cravings that make it hard to quit your junk food habit. The gut also has a strong influence on the brain and mental function because a good portion of the nervous system actually lives there.
You can be totally committed to making dietary changes, but your cravings can come back and hit you when you least expect them.
Instead of white-knuckling your way through beating your cravings, you need to outsmart them. Just knowing that giving in just once, and even just a little, is the same as throwing gasoline on the fire might be enough to keep you resisting for a little while. But eventually, a stressful moment or extreme exhaustion will win, and you will give in to that gnawing desire to eat chocolate, potato chips, or a whole pint of ice cream.
Instead of denying your cravings, trick them into going away. While cravings can be borne of many things, most of them can be addressed in a simple way: diversion. Here are three tips that help that diversion process.
01. Outsmarting sugar cravings
When you’re craving sugar, it can sometimes be from low blood sugar or fatigue. Instead of eating candy or sweets, snack on something with protein first, and after that, if you still desperately need the sweets, opt for ultra-dark chocolate. By first stabilizing your blood sugar with protein, you may realize you were simply just hungry, but if you still need something that feels like a treat, chocolate that is at least 80 percent dark will give your brain the feel-good treat it desires, without fanning the flames of sugar addiction.
02. Adding fat to diminish cravings
Likewise, many cravings can be sent away by including more healthy fats in your diet, especially for snacking. Fat bombs made with coconut oil, cacao, and coconut cream can provide a melt-in-your-mouth treat that feels like decadence while actually nourishing the good gut bacteria.
03. Drink more water
Finally, another major reason we crave is that we are thirsty. Plain water almost never satisfies the desire for sweets, so opt for a sparkling water instead, like La Croix. This is especially great for people who miss the fizzy goodness of soda.
It’s been years since I was a slave to drive-thrus and soda, but I’ll admit that I still have cravings today. Because I cleaned up the foods that I allow into my kitchen, when I crave something sweet, I have options on hand so that I can indulge without sabotaging my health goals.
My favorite way to give in to the desire for sweets is to eat 80 percent (or darker) chocolate, or make no-bake cookies that only use a bit of coconut sugar and stevia. While there might be a time and place for extreme sweet avoidance, in general, I think it’s always best to have a treat option, because the feeling of being deprived isn’t usually motivating or sustainable for anyone. Plus, after putting in the hard work to beat a sugar habit, you’ve totally earned your dessert.