Trying to eat a whole food plant-based diet but struggling to fight sugar cravings? You’re not alone.
Sugar cravings are very common. As a whole, Americans, eat way too much sugar. 66 pounds of added sugar a year, per person! And most of this sugar we’re consuming is refined sugar, not natural sugar.
Why is that a problem?
While natural sugars, found in whole fruit, are part of a whole food plant-based diet, refined sugar is not. Unlike natural sources, refined sugar does not have nutrients or fiber in tact. Without the fiber in particular, our blood sugars aren’t regulated, causing dangerous spikes and dips.
Eating refined and added sugars can do a number on our bodies and lead to serious health problems, like inflammation, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and increased risk for heart disease.
So why do we crave sugar if it’s bad for us? When we eat sugar, dopamine levels surge. Dopamine is associated with the pleasure and reward center in our brains. These dopamine bursts helped us survive over the course of history; they drive us toward things like food, water, and sex, all of which keep the human race going.
The problem is, this dopamine response occurs whether you eat a banana or a candy bar. Our primate brains can’t tell the difference.
A few things are at play. First, those blood sugar spikes leave many people feeling hungry again not long after eating, which often leads to overeating.
Second, studies show that refined sugar can be addictive. One study used PET scans to look at the brain activity of obese individuals and found they are less responsive to dopamine, similar to drug addicts and alcoholics. Without that dopamine surge, people keep craving sugar long after they’ve reached their “limit.”
The good news? It’s possible to break the cycle.
Did you know that in just a few weeks you can totally change your taste buds? Scientists saw taste bud transformations when they moved folks from salty foods to lower sodium dishes. After a few weeks, the taste buds of those eating low sodium dishes became more sensitive to salt and these people actually preferred lower sodium meals.
More research shows a similar effect with reduced sugar intake. When people eat less sugar, their “perceived sweetness” changes. They become more sensitive to sugar the less they eat, which means their sweet tooth is satiated with less sweet options.
Put your home through a sugar detox! This means going through your pantry, your fridge, your freezer and tossing (or donating) anything that’s made with refined sugar.
Will this stop sugar cravings completely? No, not right way at least. But studies do show that the further away a tempting snack is, the less inclined you are to eat it. Out of sight, out of mind is real!
Once you’ve gotten rid of the junk, fill your house up with healthy options instead. Whole foods like fruit will satiate your sweet tooth while filling you up with fiber and nutrients. Bring an apple everywhere you go. They travel well and are a great way to stave off hunger when you’re on the go.
Does going plant-based mean you have to give up sweets altogether? No, it does not. Rejoice! There are plenty of refined sugar-free dessert recipes that call for for natural swaps when baking or cooking. Try sweetening recipes with maple syrup, date syrup or date paste, mashed bananas, or raw honey.
Here are a few of our favorite whole food plant-based dessert recipes:
For more whole food plant-based dessert ideas, check out Chef Caroline’s recipes here.
Sugar sweetened beverages are leading sources of added sugar in the American diet. According to the CDC, drinking these beverages “is associated with weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout, a type of arthritis.”
Break free from your habit by trading in your cola for a no sodium sparkling water. It’ll help scratch that carbonated itch, without any of the chemicals and refined sugar that comes with your can of soda.
A craving doesn’t always mean you’re hungry, but when you eat regularly, your blood sugar stays regulated and you’ll be less likely to overeat. Start your day with high-fiber foods, like oatmeal with nuts and berries. Curb cravings with a mid-morning green smoothie. Munch on fresh fruit, like apples, bananas, oranges, grapes. Have low calorie and nutrient-dense snacks on hand, like celery and carrot sticks. When you do eat, practice mindful eating, taking the time to actually enjoy your meal.
Cravings aren’t just physiological. There can be psychological components at play, too. Most of us have emotionally eaten at one point or another. Some people struggle with this more than others, and on a daily basis.
Because sugar can give us that dopamine rush, it’s easy to use sweets as a coping mechanism when times are tough. But too much sugar can actually increase risk of depression, creating a hard cycle to break out of.
So what can you do if your go-to comfort is sugar? Next time you’re having a bad day allow yourself to recognize your feelings instead of reaching for a candy bar. Go for a walk when you’re stressed, reach out to a friend or family member, and get professional help when you need it.
Battling a sugar addiction can be tough but there’s a silver living to all of this. You don’t have to fight sugar cravings forever. Like other junk food cravings, sugar cravings become a lot easier to manage (and eventually disappear) when you fully transition to a whole food plant-based diet.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.
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