What does it mean when people tell you that a recipe is sugar-free? Or that they don’t eat sugar? What does your nutrition coach mean when she tells you that to get rid of your sugar cravings you might need to quit sugar for a season?
And more importantly, is she crazy?
Years ago I lived with intense sugar cravings and I wrote about kicking your cravings to the curb here and here. Living as a sugar addict – or with any addiction – is obviously no fun. And it is absolutely true that sometimes to fight addiction you need to 100% get rid of all of your triggers (in this case sugar) for a season (but in some cases forever) in order to reset your body and mind. Hopefully, at a later time, you can then reintroduce healthier versions of sweet in a way that does not promote bingeing or cravings.
Ideally, you want to arrive at a place of freedom where you can enjoy some sweet if you feel like it but also happily walk away from it if it doesn’t serve you well in the moment.
Getting rid of sugar does not mean turning to fake sugars (like zero calorie drinks or refined foods made with Splenda). It might mean transitioning from the refined sugars you currently eat to whole food sources like dates, pure maple syrup, raw local honey and a little bit of organic dark chocolate. But for some people, even these healthier food sources can trigger bingeing and they, too, need to be removed for a period of time. Fruit can be a culprit, too, and in some cases can be removed for a short while or ideally limited to a serving per day of lower glycemic varieties. Again, I believe in as much food freedom as possible within boundaries that protect our mind-body-spirit health and happiness.
Also, and very importantly (and often completely ignored by programs on the market): if a person is addicted or struggles with major cravings then removing sugar from the diet is only one step in a critical process. Removing sugar alone without looking for root issues is simply mean and sets you up for failure.
The period of removal should also be a time set aside for rebalancing body, mind, and environment. So rebalancing blood sugar and gut bacteria, for instance, are generally super important as are boosting digestion and nutrient absorption and checking for nutrient depletions. Taking a look at the emotional drivers of addiction and unhealthy thought patterns which contribute to cravings or even self-sabotage, rebalancing lifestyle habits (ex. around sleep and movement) and coming to understand how and why these contribute to sugar or carb cravings should be addressed. In addition, one might need to learn what a whole food diet that appropriately balances carb intake with fat and protein looks and feels and tastes like for the individual. Because you are an individual and may not fit well into the program that worked for your sister or best friend.
A Holistic Nutrition Consultant can help identify the underlying triggers or areas of imbalance in your life and create a plan of action to support you in moving forward into the life of freedom that you desire. If you are willing to do the work.
Back to some of my initial questions: what does it mean if someone says a recipe is sugar-free? The truth is it can mean just about anything and I’d be really careful here – just say no to all non-caloric artificial sweeteners (Splenda, Sucralose, Aspartame, Equal, Sweet’ N Low, etc). Otherwise, this is absolutely like jumping from the frying pan into the fire as consumption of these sweeteners is linked to weight gain, metabolic imbalance and other negative health risks (1, 2). Recipes for diabetics or those on a candida protocol may use stevia (be careful about choosing a purer brand) or xylitol (can cause gut issues for some people) – decent in the grand scheme of things but still not my preference.
Be aware that some recipes continue to suggest agave as a natural and good sugar choice but it is actually highly refined and I’d avoid it. And some people publish ‘sugar-free’ recipes that use fair amounts of healthier sugars (but they are sugar nonetheless so the title is misleading) including coconut sugar, honey, dates/fruit, or maple syrup, for instance. Natural does not mean a free-for-all.
When someone tells you they don’t eat sugar what they might mean is that they do not consume processed or refined sugars/grains. They might still eat a bunch of synthetic sugar or they might actually try to limit all sources of sugar in their diet including fruit and starchier carbohydrates (ex. sweet potatoes and rice). You don’t really know unless they define it for you.
Whenever possible, my personal preference is to get back to the more natural, real-food, sugars and simply limit consumption. I believe that sweet and treats can be a joyful part of life if not abused and if we do not have a medical reason to avoid them 100%.
Here Are A Handful Of Tips To Support You in This
- If you desire a treat make it yourself. Making it at home will automatically avoid preservatives and unnecessary additives. You can control the quality of ingredients (ex. homemade brownies with organic GF flours, local eggs, raw cacao powder and homemade vanilla) and they are probably going to be a lot yummier and healthier than any store-bought version.
- For some clients in transition, I encourage planning for 2 Purposeful Treats a week and marking them in red on the calendar. By planning for the treat they choose something they really love rather than snacking mindlessly on whatever they can find in the kitchen late at night. They can anticipate and thoroughly enjoy this treat, guilt-free. This works, of course, for treats in general; they do not have to be sweet.
- Limit or cut out alcohol and breads/yeast. I mentioned this in my previous post but it bears repeating. These are hard to give up for many people but they can really mess with blood sugar balance and promote intense carb cravings. Have you ever eaten a pastry or bread and butter and then desperately wanted more? If you have yeast issues your body can scream out for sugar, yeasty foods, and carbs. In addition, alcohol can make you more prone to snacking without concern for your bigger life and health goals.
- Remove all junk food and processed, packaged foods from your house. If you are looking for sweet and do not find boxes of crackers, cookies, breakfast cereals or bags of bagels in the house then you might choose a banana with a scoop of nut butter, make yourself a smoothie with some good fat and cacao powder, or eat a few dried dates with a couple squares of dark chocolate. These snacks will provide sweet and feel satisfying and are a far cry from clearing off an entire bag of Oreos and then feeling sick both emotionally and physically.
- Dessert is not a daily necessity. If you or your family are in this mindset, consider instead choosing a Friday Family Game/Movie & Treat Night and plan a homemade treat for that evening. Or set some other healthy boundaries that work for your family. Plan ahead for holidays that promote total overconsumption of health-depleting junk foods and sugar in particular. You do not have to go with the flow.
- Fill your home with ‘single-ingredient’ foods. The fewer packaged foods you consume, the less energy required for label reading/ checking for added sugars. Get help learning to understand how even whole foods influence your blood sugar, mood, energy, and cravings and how to enjoy these foods in a way that will support you in your personal health goals.
- If your issue is with addictive eating in general, and not simply sugar cravings, get help from someone who has been there and knows what it is like. Some programs and elimination diets can backfire and lead to a worsening of cravings for those with sugar issues or addictive eating patterns. Too much restriction at once can lead to failure for some people. But remember, while your support system can educate, equip and encourage, they cannot do the work for you.
Intense cravings and food addiction are not just about sugar – we can binge on just about anything. Because of my past history with binge eating, not eating, sugar cravings, addiction issues, and more, I have a heart for working with others who struggle in these areas.
The fabulous news is that you CAN find FREEDOM and build a healthy, joyful relationship with food and your body.