Nutrition Question: What should I eat if I’m craving sugar?

Posted by Summer on 03/05/2016

We’ve asked you all what topics you would like discussed in gym blog posts and the first that came up was this nutrition question:  What should I eat if I’m craving sugar?

Before I give you options of what exactly to eat, we should first discuss why you may be craving sugar/carbohydrates in the first place and what foods you habitually reach for.

Do you reach for the Pepsi and candy to give yourself a mid-day energy boost?

When your day starts with a shortage of sleep, and leads to caffeine and sugar to combat mental and physical fatigue throughout the day you’re setting yourself up hormonally for an extremely stressful life.  So let’s work on a few steps in getting your cravings back in check…

  1. As best you can, get outside in the sunlight before your morning cup of coffee.  Absorb some Vitamin D and get your body in sync with its natural circadian rhythm.
  2. Develop the taste for black coffee, or coffee with heavy cream rather than loading it with sweeteners and fake creamers.  Do you really like the true flavor of coffee if you’re hiding it under Pumpkin Spice syrup?!
  3. Perhaps a flavored green tea might be a better option for you… a bit of a caffeine boost with some natural fruity sweetness might give you enough of what you need.
  4. Your blood sugar regulation begins with your first meal.  The Standard American Diet of high carbohydrate meals of cereal and pastries at breakfast will leave you craving more sugar (what all carbohydrates break down to… whether a candy bar or an apple) through your entire day.  If you do have some oatmeal or fruit at breakfast make sure it’s balanced out with some protein and fat sources too. This can be the traditional eggs and bacon, or even leftover meat and veggies from dinner or even as simple as sliced deli meat eaten out of the package as you drive to work. Your meals don’t have to be restaurant quality, but they shouldn’t be gas station quality either.  (However, you still can find good balanced options at gas stations too! There are more than just donuts at gas stations.)
  5. Ok, now what do you do when you have sugar cravings and want that Pepsi boost? Delay your treat…. have another cup of green tea, go for a short walk outside, do some quick breathing exercises… then make a better choice.  We all know soda and candy aren’t the best choices, but also pure sugar isn’t going to help get you on a better path either. So, just like your breakfast (and with all your meals) do not just choose a carbohydrate source alone.  You’ll need some fat and protein to slow down the digestive process to avoid big blood sugar spikes and crashes.  So instead of a candy bar, or fruit by itself, try some of these combinations.
  • Almond Butter (fat), banana (carb), turkey slices (protein)
  • Full fat Greek yogurt (fat/carb/protein)
  • eat that cookie, but after you finish a protein filled lunch, not by itself!
  • flavored mineral water
  • REMEMBER: choose nutrient dense sweet treats, and pair them with a fat or protein source.

Do you not eat processed sweets or liquid sugar but instead binge on dried fruit and paleo treats?

Sugar is still sugar, whether from grain free treats sweetened with dates or a grocery store sheet birthday cake!  Yes, the ingredient quality and nutrient density may be better but if fat loss, hormone regulation, sugar addiction overall health is a concern then you do need to make some changes.  The following may be helpful…

  1. Read point D from above… pairing your sweet treat with a fat and protein source will help in regulating blood sugar levels instead of the spike and crash of sugar alone.
  2. Time your treats well.  If your are going to input sugar into your system there are optimal times to do so.
    • Pre-workout: use the hour before your workout to supply your body with some  energy to fuel your training session (unless its endurance based… another subject that can be talked about in depth at another time).
    • Post-workout: use insulin to your advantage by inputting quick carbs at this time to build muscle and refill your glycogen stores for better recovery and preparation for your next training session.  Insulin is an anabolic hormone, a building hormone… so the timing of your sugar input can be utilized to build either muscle or fat. This post workout window is prime time to enjoy your sweet treat without detrimental health issues with insulin resistance.
    • Final meal of the day: carbohydrates in the evening have been shown to increase serotonin levels, which then increases Melatonin levels to promote restful sleep.  Then if you happen to crash after a high carbohydrate dessert, you’ll be asleep anyway!
  3. Know yourself.  Are you an Abstainer or a Moderator?  Can you eat one serving of ice cream and put the container away and not think about it again? Or do you eat the whole thing and raid your cabinets for more sweet things?  Maybe you just purchase single servings and be completely mindful as you eat it… or  perhaps you need to eliminate the sugar for a designated time period to decrease your desire and chemical need.  The 21 Day Sugar Detox is a great resource if you feel that you need a structured reset. Or perhaps you might do well with specific macro plan based on your goals to determine how much carbohydrate (sugar) is appropriate.
    • REMEMBER: Healthier Treats are still sugar and are appropriate at certain times in certain quantities.

Are you so strict in your nutrition that you feel that any sugar/carbohydrate source is bad?

Unless you’re on a ketogenic diet specifically for a health concern, eliminating all sources of carbohydrates may be more detrimental than good.  Yes, maintaining discipline is admirable, but also not very sustainable.

  1. As a Crossfitter, the work you do here in the gym can be physically taxing and primarily within the glycolytic energy system (as opposed to oxidative such as endurance training).  Yes, fat can be used as fuel in certain activities but all the lifting, sprinting, high intensity work that you are doing utilize glucose (sugar) as its optimal fuel source.  So if you notice that your recovery and performance is lacking, then it’s time to reevaluate your low carb approach and add some sweet potatoes or even an occasional “bad” treat.
  2. We all hear about insulin being associated with diabetics and as a bad hormone because it induces fat storage.  Yes, Insulin does help in shuttling and storing excess sugar as fat, but it also is necessary in helping to build in general.  If your goal is to build muscle, get stronger and reduce body fat, insulin is necessary in the process of shuttling amino acids into the muscle for repair and growth.  When your body has more muscle mass it works as a fat burner all day long, however the primary way to build muscle is to eat carbohydrates allowing for that properly timed insulin release.
  3. Remember when I mentioned that carbohydrates help the production of serotonin, the happy hormone? On your squeaky clean low carb diet really check in with yourself… are you easily irritated by traffic or your kids arguments, does everyone else’s nutrition choices bother you, are you truly sad/mad that you cannot have that special treat because you’re trying so hard to be “good.” Perhaps these unsettling moods are because your serotonin levels are off!  Find the balance between allowing yourself healthy amounts of carbohydrates and treating your mouth like a vacuum cleaner (as Robb Wolf says!)
  4. Are you the person who eats so clean but once you indulge in a sugar craving you overdose, and later feel regret and guilt.  This All or Nothing mentality isn’t sustainable and perhaps even mentally damaging.  The guilt and shame associated with the aftermath of a binge isn’t a healthy mental state and will continue to cycle if your desire to be perfectionist dieter isn’t addressed.  I know it might be a long process to go from having to CONTROL yourself, to being able to TRUST yourself, but the process is worth the effort.  It’s ok to have that banana post workout, nigiri instead of sashimi, the homemade birthday treat… it doesn’t have to lead to the whole dozen donuts!  Make it special… be mindful and savour each delicious bite.  Meditation, breathing exercises, journaling… all those non-conventional methods are extremely helpful in coming to a balanced mindset when it comes to food.
  • REMEMBER: Sugar is not inherently Bad, and one cookie doesn’t have to lead to a dozen. Just make the next best choice.