A year ago today I switched to a plant-based diet. My previous diet, predominantly carnivorous, wasn’t too unhealthy, however, as I had signed myself up on a self-improvement mission that covered all aspects of my lifestyle, I wanted to be the healthiest version of myself. To do so, alterations to my diet, amongst other things were required.
Having an “all-in” or “all-out” personality, I simply could not attempt to increase the amount of fruit and vegetables I consumed every week or reduce my meat consumption to only 2 days per week as I knew that over time I would naturally fall back into my previous eating habits. So I made the switch to endeavor to be 100% plant-based. Part of my reasoning was to reduce my intake of refined sugar, processed food and to encourage a more self-sustainable form of eating. I began to grow my own herbs, fruit and vegetables, harvest these and incorporate them into my weekly meal plan.
After the first 3–4 months, I had lost almost one stone in body weight and I was 100% plant-based without a single deviation. Around months 5–6 I began to crave sweetness, mainly in the form of sugary snacks. Initially, I wavered slightly and I added maple syrup or peanut butter to my pre-workout smoothie. Some may argue that these are not whole-food plant-based, and I would agree — therefore I awoke the following morning with feelings of guilt from succumbing to my cravings. Weeks later and my cravings for sugar resurfaced. This time the shot of maple syrup would not suffice so I ate my way through an entire pack of sugary, sweet, succulent biscuits. Talk about falling off the wagon! I began to notice that once I gave in to the sweet temptation I completely lost all will power. I could easily devour half a pack of biscuits in a single sitting as I had the mindset of “I’ll start again tomorrow”. This worked, temporarily, but I found that without making some form of effort, I would only build a run of 3–4 healthy whole-plant days before eating something sweet again. The sugar addiction had struck and more importantly… stuck.
So I began reading articles and creating some tips to try and stop myself from giving in to that sugar craving the next time it returned.
Sugar cravings or cravings in general, are driven by our brain and not our body. Hunger is our body requiring energy. Cravings, on the other hand, is our brain seeking dopamine, a reward hit which sugary snacks provide in abundance.
Neuroscientists have demonstrated that sugar leads to a dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens is a region that is associated with motivation and reward — the same brain region which is in-fact implicated in response to cocaine and heroin. Sugar releases the same chemicals (endogenous opioids) as cocaine and heroin, although in much smaller doses, which leads us to the sensation of pleasure. Removing refined sugar from our diet also leads to similar withdrawal symptoms as those of cocaine and heroin; anxiety, depression, anger, aggression and so on. Sugar, therefore, can have a major impact on our brain, body and emotional state, however, research is ongoing into the effects of too much sugar consumption and its impact on addiction and withdrawal over a long-term period.
Nevertheless, my own experience alongside my healthy intentions meant I wanted to proceed with ways in which I could avoid being defeated by the next sugar craving.
Tip #1 Write it down
If you’re craving something sweet but would like to avoid giving in to the temptation, the first tip is to create a list of the potential sweets you’re thinking of consuming. Note down the time of day, the treat you fancy and the price it would cost you to purchase. Next, write the emotion you think you’ll experience the following day. On most occasions your emotion will be one of regret or frustration. By writing down the snack (and hopefully avoiding its consumption) you become physically aware of the temptation you avoided and defeated. Not only that but if several temptations arise, you begin to understand the cost savings and the emotional guilt you’ve avoided from purchasing and consuming the sugary treat. This tip is almost a gamification of your temptations, a game that assists you to become victorious.
Tip #2 Eat an Apple
Most apples are naturally sweet and are rich in natural sugar helping to provide that sweet satisfaction that your brain is seeking. They’re also rich in dietary fibre which acts as a slow-release energy source. This, unlike processed sugar which causes an immediate spike in blood sugar levels, enables you to feel fuller for longer and slowly provides your body with energy throughout the day. Craving something sweet? Then grab an Apple. My recommendation would be a Granny Smith.
Tip #3 Go for a walk
Going for a walk when you’re experiencing sugar craving offers two advantages. Firstly, if your craving is caused by a nearby source such as biscuits in the workplace, or the smell of a colleague enjoying a glazed-doughnut, you are removing yourself from the nearby temptation. If you do go outdoors make sure to leave all payment methods behind. This way you’re preventing yourself from purchasing any snacks during your walk. Just remember to not to take any form of payment method with you, Apple Watch included!
Secondly, walking releases endorphins which are “feel good” chemicals in your brain. These endorphins can help reduce your cravings while also helping you to feel more positive and focused.
If you can’t go outside, try an indoor exercise such as bodyweight squats or runs up and down a staircase.
Tip #4 Eat food that suits cravings
Our cravings often are an indication of low minerals within our body. For instance, if cravings are regular and not in response to an emotional or situational experience, they may indicate something within our body. As an example, cravings for chocolate mean we require magnesium. Craving bread or toast? - our body requires nitrogen.
If you are craving chocolate in particular, healthy foods to consume would be raw nuts, seeds, legumes or fruit. If you’re craving sweets in the form of sugar gums, consuming more chromium or carbon will help. Grapes, cheese and dried beans provide a good source of chromium whereas fresh fruits are also a good source of carbon.
Tip #5 Try a short meditation
Meditation is about being present. It’s about accepting present emotions, positive or negative and sitting comfortably with these. Mindful meditation will allow you to understand what your body wants and maybe understand why. It will provide you with the clarity to judge your emotions and to learn how you will feel if you follow through with your sweet temptation or if you decide to avoid it. Meditation enables you to break an automatic habit. If your automatic response to a stressful or emotional situation is to grab the nearest sweet treat, meditation allows you to… stop… pause… connect… and re-consider.
It’s suggested that meditation strengthens the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the rational area of the brain which makes rational decisions and not emotional decisions. Headspace is my meditation app of choice as it offers 3-minute headspace sessions and also offers a full course on Mindful Eating.
These tips have been successful for me so far and I have used them interchangeably and at times used many at once. Going on a payment-less walk is my preferred option as not only does it help me avoid succumbing to my sugar temptation, I usually feel much more positive afterwards. It also adds some steps to my day.
If you’re someone wanting to eat healthily and avoid the sugar temptation I hope these tips are helpful.
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