It hasn’t always felt much like pumpkin spice and sweater season in St. Louis, but Fall is most certainly upon us. As I sat down to fill in my calendar and make my to-do list last night, I realized it’s almost Halloween! And Thanksgiving! And…you know how the last quarter of the year goes. For many people, sugar cravings increase as the temperature drops and we get more caught up in end-of-year festivities.
One question we MNT dietitians hear a lot is how to manage sugar cravings near the end of the year. It seems that so many Fall and Winter holidays revolve around food traditions and, specifically, sweets.
If you’ve worked with one of our RDs or followed our social media, you know that we believe in an 80/20 approach. We believe that the healthy, nourishing foods should be the foundation for your diet. But we also think you should live a little, so we encourage up to 20% of daily calories to come from fun foods. This leaves a bit of wiggle room to accommodate those sugar cravings. However, we also believe it’s important to be proactive in preventing excessive sugar cravings and in knowing how to tame them.
Read on for 3 tips on preventing sugar cravings, followed by 7 of our favorite, healthier fun foods to tame the sugar monster.
- Know the Difference Between a Sugar Craving and True Hunger
Is your body begging you for a sweet? Take a time out and reflect on whether you’re experiencing hunger or a craving.
True hunger comes on slowly and can be satisfied by almost any food (broccoli and fish comes to mind). It is usually accompanied by physical signs, like a growling stomach or a headache. Cravings usually come on quickly and pass quickly. They’re typically attached to a specific food. If you can suddenly think of nothing but cookies, this is likely a craving.
If you’re not sure, wait and see if the feeling has passed. Do a quick mental scan to make sure that what you’re feeling is hunger, rather than boredom, sadness, anger, or some other emotion. If you’re still feeling the urge after 20 minutes, then allow yourself a small portion of a healthy snack, or of a fun food.
- Practice Basic Self-Care
As a society, we’re busier than ever before. This often results in greater stress and less sleep, and this combination is a big double whammy in terms of fueling sugar cravings.
Both sleep deprivation and chronic stress have been shown to alter levels of ghrelin and leptin—hormones that influence hunger and satiety. In fact, one study linked 90 minutes more of sleep per night with a 62% reduction in sweet and salty food cravings.
Investing time and effort in self care pays off big time when it comes to averting sugar cravings. If you’re not getting enough sleep, work toward adding an hour per night every few days until you reach the recommended 7 to 9 hours per night. Also, look for look for ways to lower stress that don’t involve eating. This is different for everyone, but here are a few of our favorites:
- Phone a friend
- Take a walk
- Knit, crochet, or cross-stitch
- Get outside
- Take a short nap
- Give Your Body the Fuel It Needs
Do you eat light at breakfast and lunch, only to be overcome with sugar cravings later in the day?
One of the most common scenarios we see with someone who’s struggling with sugar cravings is a pattern of being too restrictive early in the day. Here is how this may look:
Breakfast: Egg Whites, fruit, and coffee
Lunch: Green salad with vinaigrette, water
2 p.m.: 10 cookies
Well-balanced meals promote satiety and keep blood sugar levels stable, thereby decreasing the likelihood of a sugar bender. Make sure each of your meals includes a complex carbohydrate, such as a fruit, a vegetable, or a whole grain. This gives us energy and helps maintain brain levels of serotonin (the happy hormone!).
Pair your carbs with a lean protein and a bit of healthy fat to promote satiety. And consider a balanced snack if your body is showing physical signs of hunger—many a sugar craving was born out of hanger (hunger + anger).
Let’s say you’ve done all these things and just. Need. A Sweet. We hear you! We’ve been there! Our advice: Look for sweet fun foods with added health benefits. Here are a few of our favorites.
- Nut Butter & Date Energy Bites
This is one of our favorite, family-friendly fun foods. These bites are easy to make, satisfy sugar cravings, AND help boost intake of:
- Heart-healthy monounsaturated fats
- Vitamins and minerals
To make them, simply mix together:
- ½ cup of your favorite nut butter (almond, cashew, peanut, or sunbutter for nut-free families)
- 1/3 cup instant rolled oats
- ½ cup pitted, chopped dates
Scoop 1 tablespoon at a time and roll into a ball. Place on a wax paper-lined baking sheet and refrigerate until firm. Store in the refrigerator, in an airtight container.
- Ants on a Log – Adult Style
This is one of our go-tos to stave off stress-related sugar cravings that strike just before school pickup.
As with the energy bites, the nut butter adds heart-healthy fats to the diet. Apples are high in fiber—which promotes satiety—and also contain quercetin, which is a potent antioxidant that reduces inflammation.
To make, spread a tablespoon of nut butter on a sliced up apple, and sprinkle with your favorite whole grain granola. Our favorite is this Homemade Granola with Dried Apricots and Walnuts.
- Black bean brownies:
Craving a brownie? Mix a can of pureed black beans with a box of dark chocolate brownie mix, bake as instructed, and reap the health benefits! Black beans boost the nutrition of your favorite sweet by adding fiber, protein and antioxidant flavonoids.
- Frozen Grapes:
Craving a cold treat? Try washing and freezing your grapes!
Grapes are packed with Vitamin C (which increases immunity) and vitamin K, which strengthens bones and reduces the risk of blood clots.
Grape skins and seeds are also rich in antioxidants that protect against heart disease and lower blood sugars
- Dark Chocolate & Unsweetened Cocoa Powder:
My sugar cravings are usually for something chocolatey.
Chocolate contains a plant nutrient called flavonoids, which have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow, and reduce blood clots.
Research shows that it takes about 200 mg of flavonols to improve blood flow. To reap the blood flow benefits you would need to eat:
- 2 T. of non-alkalized (or non-Dutch processed) cocoa powder = 25 calories
- ~1.75 oz. of 70-85% cacao dark chocolate = 300 calories
- ~10.5 oz. of milk chocolate = 1500 calories
Clearly you get the most bang for your calorie buck in the powdered form.
Look for (non-alkalized) natural cocoa powder. The processing of alkalized or Dutch-processed cocoa significantly reduces the flavanol content.
Stir cocoa powder into oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, chili, or into baked goods.
Select dark chocolate if you enjoy biting into a bar, but melt away the myth that ALL dark chocolate is equal. Sugar is the first ingredient in many dark chocolate bars. As a daily chocolate consumer, I have found only a few brands in which “cocoa solids” is the first ingredient. Cocoa solids contain the desirable flavonols, and should hold the #1 spot on the ingredient list.
A good rule of thumb is at least 70% cocoa solids, which comes with a slightly bitter taste. You can train your taste buds to enjoy this less sweet flavor over time!
- Peanut butter candy:
Do your sugar cravings coincide with desires for salty snacks? Try peanut butter “candy.”
Blend peanut butter, honey, and wheat germ, and spread on whole-wheat bread or a few seedy crackers. Wheat germ is a great source of vegetable proteins, along with fiber and healthy fats. Its also high in vitamin E–an essential nutrient with antioxidant properties.
- Banana & Cocoa Powder Fro Yo:
Another of our favorite sweet fun foods? Banana fro yo.
We’ve sung the health benefits of cocoa powder (see number 5, above). But bananas are a great way to add both sweetness and nutrients to the diet. Bananas are rich in potassium (which helps lower blood pressure) and fiber, which aids in digestion and helps with weight loss. They’re also high in tryptophan– an amino acid that helps increase memory and stabilize the mood.
Peel a banana and freeze it for 1-2 hours, until solid. Place in a blender or food processor with 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder. Blend until you reach a ice cream-like texture.
- Pumpkin mousse:
For a true taste of Fall, consider a healthier play on pumpkin mousse. Just combine 1/8 cup canned pumpkin with plain Greek yogurt and a dash of honey.
While whole pumpkins can be easily roasted in the oven and incorporated into any recipe, it’s perfectly acceptable to take the easy road and be grateful for a canned version. Canned can also be great for your health! One half cup of canned pumpkin has a mere 40 calories and packs in 3.5 grams of fiber, not to mention a fatigue-busting dose of iron and some eye-protective carotenoids.
Hopefully, you get the idea! When sugar cravings strike, look for opportunities to satisfy them with foods that also nourish the body. This strategy, combined with some preventative measures to keep cravings in check, can help you stay on the healthy eating wagon throughout the Fall and Winter holidays.