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- Many of us assume sugar is totally off-limits in a “proper diet,” especially if you live with diabetes. But the truth is that we all need sugar as part of a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
- When you have sugar cravings, the goal is to understand where that craving comes from and find ways to satisfy your palate in moderation.
- Whether your cravings are a sign of a lack of nutrients, an indicator of a poor sleep schedule, or simply a result of boredom or stress, there’s a strategy for tackling every type of sugar craving.
Everyone gets a sweet tooth sometimes. Some of us crave a moist slice of cake at the end of the night, while others wake up wanting a sugary coffee to get the day started. Either way, sugar can (and should) have its place in your life, even if you live with diabetes—as long as you have strategies in place that help you maintain balance.
Misconceptions About Sugar In Diabetes Management
“A huge misconception is that all sugar (and carbs) should be avoided to manage diabetes,” says One Drop coach, Lindsay Vettleson, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES), and certified personal trainer (CPT).
But, in reality, we all need sugar (and carbs, for that matter), to some extent, to keep our bodies functioning and healthy. Not only would it be incredibly difficult to avoid sugar entirely (after all, even healthy foods may have some natural sugar in them), “but you would also miss out on a lot of beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants,” says Kristian Morey, a registered dietitian (RD) at the Nutrition and Diabetes Education program at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
The key, then, is to know about different types of sugar and how they might affect your health (especially your blood sugar if you live with diabetes). For example, there are naturally occurring sugars—lactose in milk products, glucose in some fruits and veggies, fructose in honey and other fruits and fruit juices, and sucrose, a.k.a. the crystallized sugar you keep in your kitchen—and then there are artificial sweeteners, like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, and sugar alcohols, like mannitol and xylitol.
A common assumption is that “natural sugars should be replaced with artificial sweeteners,” says One Drop health coach, Alexa Stelzer, RDN, CDCES. “Artificial sweeteners, although generally deemed safe by the FDA, may come with some negative effects,” she explains. “Some studies have shown that consuming artificial sweeteners may actually increase cravings for sweets. Newer research also indicates that artificial sweeteners may cause changes to our gut microbiome that have negative impacts on our health.” While the overall research on the effects of artificial sweeteners is mixed, Stelzer believes there’s “sufficient evidence” to limit them in your day-to-day food and drink choices.
Still, that doesn’t mean natural sweeteners like fruit juice, honey, or maple syrup are necessarily “better” for you or your blood sugar. “Your body still recognizes these sweeteners as the concentrated forms of sugar that they are,” notes Morey. And, she continues, even if a food or drink label says there’s “no added sugar” in the product, many of them still have natural sugars, “and these can raise blood sugar if consumed in high enough amounts.”
No matter what type of sugar you’re talking about, the goal isn’t to think of sugar as something that’s totally off-limits. Rather, it’s about understanding the possible implications of eating different kinds of sugar and balancing these foods in your lifestyle. “An all-or-nothing mentality can lead to a cycle of deprivation followed by binging or overconsumption of food,” explains Stelzer. “This cycle can make you feel out of control with your eating and may be associated with guilt, shame, and negative thoughts about yourself.”
Here are a few ways to maintain balance with your sugar consumption and manage your cravings for sweets:
Tips for Managing Your Sugar Cravings
- Ask yourself what this craving is really about. Not every craving stems from the same place. Sometimes you really do just want a bit of sugar after a salty dinner or as a little kickstart first thing in the morning. Other times, though, you know you’re only craving sugar because you’re bored, stressed, or seeing dessert stare back at you from the kitchen counter or the middle shelf of your fridge. “Ask yourself why you’re having this craving first,” suggests One Drop coach, Hanna, RDN, CDCES. “If, after thinking about it, you’re sure that it’s sugar you’re driven toward, make sure your regular meals have variety and that they taste good—for example, that each meal has a lean protein, a vegetable, a fruit, and a whole grain.”
- If you’re going to subtract something, add something, too. For instance, says Hanna, if you’re trying to limit how many processed sweets you eat, try increasing your intake of natural sugars at the same time from foods like fiber-rich berries or sweet potatoes; the sweetness will not only hit the spot, but the fiber can also help you feel fuller faster so you’re not mindlessly eating the way you might with a bag of candy. You can also consider adding some self-care practices to your daily routines for every sugary treat you limit, especially if you tend to look to these foods as a source of comfort, suggests Stelzer. “Create a list of other self-care activities that could bolster your mood or satisfy you in times when you feel stressed or restless,” she explains. Whether it’s reading a book with a lovely scented candle nearby or taking a long bath with your favorite essential oils, “try to reduce the automatic urge to reach for sweets, and gradually increase how often you’re using these non-food coping mechanisms.”
- Consider what role your sleep hygiene may be playing. “When we’re tired, we’re more likely to crave sweets because of our hormones,” explains Christina Laboni, a registered dietitian (RD) based in Toronto. “Ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates appetite, increases with sleep deprivation. Normally, this hormone goes down after we eat, but even after just a few nights of poor sleep, this hormone can go up and may lead to increased hunger and cravings.” So, if you don’t think anything is off with your stress levels or nutritional approach, think about whether there’s room for improvement in your sleep schedule or bedtime routine. (Here are some tips for prioritizing sleep in your diabetes self-care.)
- Let yourself eat what you’re craving—mindfully, and in moderation. Again, restrictive all-or-nothing approaches aren’t likely to work in the long term. Instead, if you’re craving sweets, and you know it’s not due to other gaps in your nutritional needs, give yourself permission to indulge your craving in moderation (one scoop of ice cream instead of half of the pint, a couple of cookies instead of a whole sleeve, etc.). And, as you enjoy your food, be sure to eat mindfully, says Stelzer. “Learning to tune into the body and mindfully satisfy cravings is a powerful health habit,” she explains. “Mindfully enjoying the occasional treat can help you learn to savor the joy that food brings you, and it can help you recognize when your body is full, or even when the pleasure you’re getting from a certain food is maybe waning.” (Intuitive eating uses a similar mind-body approach.)
- If you live with diabetes, see what your blood sugar data can tell you about how to manage your cravings. “Blood sugar data can help you look at sugar more objectively,” notes Stelzer. “If there’s a certain food you know is high in sugar that you’d like to reduce in your eating, consider doing a paired test with that food. Check your blood sugar before eating a portion of that food, then check again two hours later. If the rise in your blood sugar is greater than 30-50 mg/dL, that may be an indication you either want to limit how often you have that food or reduce the portion size. Or, if you’re using insulin, this might also be a sign that you need to use more insulin with that food.” Regardless of how you choose to respond to your data, she says, “having the knowledge of the impacts on your blood sugar can be powerful.”
This article has been clinically reviewed by Lisa Graham, RN, BSN, CDCES, clinical health coach at One Drop.