Are you one of those people who feels compelled to eat the whole thing?
Once you start, does it seem impossible to stop?
Have you ever thought about yourself as a sugar addict?
And have you ever had the experience that when you’ve managed to cut out sugar for longer than a few days, the cravings went away?
But then… the moment it touches your lips again… boom… you’re a gonner…
Me too. Well, that was me.
How Not to Be a Slave to Sugar
The way I see it, there are two ways to free yourself from that slavish desire for sugar. I’ve tried both. Before I tell you about them, it’s important to understand the craving cycle.
The Craving Cycle
The reason cravings exist is because you’ve developed an association between a trigger, and the object of desire: in this case, sugar. At some point, you tasted chocolate. You liked it! It triggered a dopamine response (‘feel good chemical’). It’s important to know that all eating triggers a dopamine response. We’re designed to be rewarded by things that are necessary for our survival. But some foods will elicit greater responses than others, because they have higher value. If you think about it, our bodies haven’t evolved much over time. Any kind of sugary food was not easy to come by, yet it’s of high caloric value. When access to food was patchy and unreliable, if you came across fruit, or honey, you’d have eaten as much of it as possible, to protect you for the hunger that was no doubt coming. This is why eating sugary foods releases more neurotransmitters than eating, say, broccoli.
The next time you saw chocolate (simply seeing it was the trigger in this case), your brain remembered; ‘Nice! I like that! Yes please.’ So, you had the chocolate. This only needs to happen a few times for the craving cycle to develop.
In a similar vein, you may have eaten sugary foods, when you’ve felt emotional pain. The dopamine release helped to distract from the painful feelings. The same thing was set up:
- There’s a cue (seeing/smelling the chocolate, or feeling a painful feeling)
- The brain has an expectation of dopamine release – hence the urgent feeling of craving
- You satisfy the craving with the sugary food (the routine)
- Dopamine is released (the reward) which reinforces the cue or trigger.
The more you carry out the routine (eating the sugary food) in response to the feeling of craving, the more you will reinforce the craving.
The question arises: and now what? As I said, I see 2 options, both of which I’ve tried.
1. Give it Up Altogether
This is a very popular method at the moment. I find it almost impossible to get through a day without seeing something somewhere, telling me to ‘eat clean,’ ‘detox from sugar,’ or become ‘sugar-free.’
Giving up sugar can mean different levels of restriction, from refined sugars, to less refined sugars and even fruits.
If you can sustain this, it does work. Why? Because if you’re not carrying out the routine in response to the craving, after a while you will cease to crave. If you’re not completing the cycle, the cycle dissipates and ceases to exist.
The abstinence model can work very well for smokers and alcoholics. It’s fairly straightforward to not touch cigarettes or alcohol.
But for compulsive eaters?
For most people, it’s highly stressful to maintain, and at some point or another, almost everyone will ‘fall off the wagon.’ Not having learned how to eat sugar in a moderate way, not having changed their relationship with sugar, most find themselves stuck right back in the binge cycle.
Giving it up altogether might free you from being a slave to sugar, but instead you become a slave to labels, and remain obsessed with food. You can never feel fully relaxed because you always need to be hyper-vigilant about what’s in your food, which isn’t easy to do, especially if you’re not eating at home where you can be in complete control.
2. Change Your Relationship With Sugar and Learn How to Manage Cravings
I did try the first method above – for years – but wasn’t able to sustain abstinence. I swung from restriction to binging on sugar. I found I became more and not less obsessed with food. I felt deprived even if I found really delicious alternatives. I was always the odd one out when we were socialising. And… I really like chocolate!
So if you want to have your cake and eat it, here’s how:
Give yourself unconditional permission to eat it
One of the biggest reasons people struggle with foods like sugar is because of their emotional attachment to it. Usually this will be fear, driven by beliefs like: sugar will make me fat; sugar is unhealthy; sugar is toxic to the system; I’m powerless around it; once I start I can’t stop; it controls me, etc.
As a result they try to avoid it, control it, or restrict it.
Ever heard the term ‘forbidden fruit’? The more something is forbidden, the more it is desired. Think back to when you were a teenager. Or watch a toddler who loses interest minutes after given access to a toy that was previously restricted or not allowed.
The same thing goes for sugar. The more you try to control, avoid or restrict your access to it, the more tempted you will be.
Giving yourself unconditional permission to eat sugar can be a scary thing, because you have to face all your beliefs about it, and what will happen to you (e.g. you won’t stop; you’ll eat it all; you’ll gain x pounds).
Unconditional means unconditional!
It doesn’t mean, provided you don’t gain a certain amount of weight.
It doesn’t mean you’ll do it for a day, or a week, or a month.
It doesn’t mean you’ll only allow yourself a certain amount.
It means you’ll allow yourself to eat sugar without conditions.
If you’re able to do this and be present with yourself while you’re eating the sugary foods, you’ll more and more often be able to stop at a natural point – which is when you’ve stopped enjoying it: when you’re satisfied.
Learn how to surf the feeling of craving
Just because you have a craving for something, does not mean you need to satisfy it, unless you are actually physically hungry, of course! A craving is only a feeling in your body. That is all. It’s not an imperative from the Sugar Monster. You haven’t been hypnotised.
All it is is a feeling in your body. It’s a signal from your brain to your body, that it’s expecting a dopamine release. You can allow a craving to be there without acting on it.
I know it’s unpleasant. But everything in life doesn’t have to be pleasant.
What you can do instead of satisfying the craving (i.e. eating the thing right there and then to stop the feeling of the urge) is accept it. This means, you accept the feeling of the craving. You allow it to be there. You don’t try to get rid of it.
It really doesn’t take a long time for a craving to pass. What’s important is that you don’t fight with it, or bargain with it.
You simply say ‘this is a craving. OK. I’ll allow this feeling to be here.’
This is not to avoid eating sugar! It’s simply to support you to eat it out of choice, on your own terms, rather than as an automatic reaction to an urge.
This is a skill you can practice: sometimes you’ll manage it, sometimes you won’t. That’s how you become more adept at any skill – practice. It helps to do it with kindness, while letting go of judgements of yourself.
Are you ready to change your relationship with food and eating? Book a FREE Discovery Session.