By Michelle Crouch, AARP, January 2024
If you constantly crave cookies and candy, these science-backed tips can help you outsmart your sweet tooth.
It’s no secret that consuming too much sugar hurts your health. Sugary diets have been linked to everything from weight gain and cavities to serious problems like diabetes, heart disease and stroke. A recent study published in BMJ found 45 negative health effects from sugar, including increased risk of asthma, depression and death from several cancers.
But when a craving for the sweet stuff strikes, it can be tough to resist.
Food cravings are normal and can hit you for lots of reasons: hunger, hormonal shifts, habit or even boredom, experts say. More than 90 percent of Americans experience food cravings, studies show.
It’s not surprising that many of us crave sweets, says Anne Alexander, author of The Sugar Smart Diet. Sugar has a physical effect on the brain, triggering the release of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine. Culturally, we also tend to associate sweet foods with safety, comfort and happiness.
The average American consumes 17 tablespoons of sugar a day — about two to three times the amount the American Heart Association recommends.
These smart strategies can help tame your sweet tooth.
1. Eat a protein-packed breakfast
Foods high in sugar or carbohydrates spike insulin levels in your bloodstream. When your blood sugar drops again in an hour or two, you will find yourself craving your next fix.
You can get off the blood sugar treadmill — and keep cravings at bay — by starting your day off with a breakfast high in protein, Alexander says. Think eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese or a smoothie with protein powder.
Protein gives you energy while keeping your blood sugar levels stable.
It’s a strategy backed by research: A study published in Nutrition Journal found that people who ate a breakfast high in protein (40 percent protein) had fewer food cravings than those who skipped breakfast or had a breakfast that was only 15 percent protein. Check out more of the benefits of high-protein breakfast, including a smoothie recipe.
2. Improve your sleep
When Columbia University researchers analyzed the sleep and eating habits of more than 500 women, they found that those who slept poorly consumed significantly more added sugar than those who got a good night’s sleep.
“Poor sleep can affect the brain’s rewards center and make you really attracted to unhealthy or sugary foods,” says study coauthor Brooke Aggarwal, assistant professor of medical sciences at Columbia University Medical Center.
Sleep deprivation also suppresses signals of fullness, she says.
To increase your odds of conquering cravings, aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night, Aggarwal says. (Check out these seven secrets for a better night’s sleep.)
3. Pinpoint your sugar pitfalls
Try to get to the bottom of what typically triggers your desire for something sweet, Alexander suggests. Often, it has nothing to do with hunger.
Do you reach for a treat when you are anxious? Lonely? Bored?
Some people wolf down a sleeve of cookies when they need a distraction from a hard project at work. Others devour a bowl of ice cream to treat themselves after a hard day.
“A lot of times what we really want is a hug. ... But we find ourselves in the kitchen, looking for something to make us feel better,” Alexander says. “Give yourself a moment to really think about what is driving your cravings.”
Once you identify your triggers, make a list of alternative ways to handle those feelings. Maybe it’s listening to music, reading a book, watching a favorite TV show or having a long phone call with a friend. Post the list where you will see it the next time the chocolate chip cookies are calling your name.
4. Remove temptation
It sounds simple, but keeping foods you can’t resist out of the house is one of the easiest and most powerful ways to reduce cravings, says psychologist Evan Forman, director of the Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science at Drexel University.
If you have a spouse who insists on keeping sweets in the house, put those foods out of sight and out of reach, like in a container at the back of a top cabinet, Forman suggests. Then keep healthier snacks like fruit, nuts and cut-up vegetables within reach.
“If you don’t see the Oreos, your brain won’t say, ‘I have to have it,’ ” Forman says. “The harder and farther away you can put those foods, the better off you are.”
How Much Sugar Is in That?
The American Heart Association recommends limiting calories from added sugars —from granulated sugar, corn syrup, even honey — no more than 6 percent of calories each day. For most American women, that’s no more than 100 calories per day, or about 6 teaspoons of sugar. For men, it’s 150 calories per day, or about 9 teaspoons. Yet it’s very easy to quickly go over that. Check out the sugars in these foods.
Starbucks 16-ounce Peppermint Mocha: 13 teaspoons
20-ounce Cool Blue Raspberry Gatorade: 7 teaspoons
Chocolate chip Clif Bar: 4 teaspoons
Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia Ice Cream, 2/3 cup: 8 2/3 teaspoons
Nature Valley French Vanilla granola, 2/3 cup: 3¾ teaspoons
Test your sweets knowledge in our Foods With Hidden Sugars Quiz.
5. Eat a small portion and savor each bite
Some people who try to swear off sweets altogether end up losing self-control and binging. If that tends to happen to you, consider giving in to your craving, but limit yourself to a very small portion, suggests Jamie Pope, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of nutrition at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing.
The first two to three bites give you “the most aesthetic bang for your buck,” Pope says. “Enjoy several bites and try to relish it.”
This strategy works especially well if you choose something rich and decadent like cheesecake or a chocolate truffle, Pope says. Or maybe you nibble on one Hershey’s Kiss or square of chocolate, letting it slowly melt on your tongue.
6. Consider a healthy substitute
Sometimes you can satisfy your sweet tooth by choosing a food that’s naturally sweet, such as bananas, raspberries, grapes or blueberries. To make fruit taste even sweeter, try freezing it, Pope suggests.
For an indulgence that feels more like dessert, go for a frozen fruit bar with no added sugar. Or munch on a piece of gum. Research has found that chewing gum can help suppress desire for sweets.
Pope says she also likes sipping on a cup of naturally sweet hot tea like cinnamon, peppermint or raspberry. You can even find (unsweetened) teas in dessert flavors like double dark chocolate, lemon chiffon and almond coconut macaroon.
7. Count to 25
When Rush University researchers rigged a vending machine to build in a 25-second delay when someone chose an unhealthy item, people often switched to a healthy option, according to a study published in the journal Appetite. It worked because humans prefer immediate gratification, the researchers said. So the next time a craving comes on strong, stop where you are, take a deep breath and slowly count to 25.
Use the extra time to ask, Do I really want this? You may find that gives you the resolve to make a healthier choice.
8. Or wait even longer
If 25 seconds isn’t cutting it, try a 10-minute delay — and promise yourself that you can have the snack after the break, Pope says.
“Don’t say, ‘I’m not going to eat that.’ Say, ‘If I still want it in 10 minutes, I’ll have some,’ ” she explains.
Find a distraction during that time, such as watching a YouTube video or stepping outside. Even better, take a little stroll. In one small study, University of Exeter researchers found that a brisk 15-minute walk reduced cravings.
Chances are, you will feel more control after the break than you did in the moment, Pope says, making it easier to combat cravings.
9. Try ‘urge surfing’
“Urge surfing” is a mindfulness technique that involves recognizing a craving, accepting it and then riding it out without giving in to it.
This technique was first used to help drug and alcohol addicts, and research shows it’s an effective way to resist a craving, says Forman, who has published several studies demonstrating its success.
“It’s one of those strategies that people tend to say right off the bat is successful,” Forman says.
To try it, start by taking notice the next time a craving hits and reassuring yourself that it’s normal, Forman says. Then, pay attention as the urge gets stronger, crests and start to subside, just like a wave. It may help to talk yourself through it, Forman says: I feel the craving getting stronger now. I’ll let it carry me. I don’t need to eat a sweet to make it go away.
10. Give it a month
If there’s a food you simply can’t resist, commit to cutting it out of your diet completely for just one month, Forman says.
Although the first week or two will be difficult, if you can last for a month using the strategies above, your brain will adjust, Forman says, and your craving for the food should drop significantly.
“People imagine the longer you give up something, the harder and harder it will get,” he says. “In fact, once your brain adjusts to the fact that it’s just something you don’t eat, you will probably stop desiring or craving it altogether.”