"Oh sugar sugar..."
August 17, 2021 8:21 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to reduce my sugar intake. Seeking advice about certain aspects of this I'm struggling with. [TW: some talk of past eating disorder]

Background: 38, overweight, history of ED. For my own mental health, I will never 'diet' again. But at the same time, I'm conscious that over the past 6 months my sugary food intake has been much higher than it normally would be (in pre-coronavirus days) and a large part of that is probably because sugary, creamy foods give me comfort. But I have no off-switch when it comes to these kinds of foods. Seriously, I can eat large amounts of them with no nausea etc.

Anyway, of course I've gained weight, but I've also noticed more frequent and severe acne breakouts, disrupted sleep etc, and I cannot deny that my sugar intake is unhealthily high. So I've decided to cut down on sugary food intake on weekdays. I will eat them on weekends, if I want to, but so far weekends haven't been a full-on sugar orgy, I guess because my stress levels aren't so high on weekends so I don't find myself craving sweet foods quite as much. I've been doing this for maybe a month and already my skin is clearing up noticeably.

However sustaining this low-sugar thing on weekdays is very hard for me because I crave the comfort of sweet, creamy food to break up the boringness of sitting at home alone working or to reward me at the end of another long day (my work is extremely toxic and stressful). Nothing relaxes/comforts me more immediately than sweet food and not having that to fall back on on weekdays is tough. I hate thinking about food and not eating it, and I feel like I spend way too much time thinking about how damn much I'd love a slice (or four) of cheesecake.

I am looking for advice. Is this something that will get better? Given my lack of an off-switch, is it worth investigating low-sugar desserts, or am I just going to binge on them and undo all my good work? What have your experiences been of lowering sugary food intake? What worked for you and what didn't?

I'm not looking to change anything else about the way I eat. Apart from an addiction to desserts, my diet is pretty healthy and varied and I'm happy with it. I eat everything except fruit, as I don't like the taste/texture.
posted by unicorn chaser to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
What worked for me: Make a literal physical list of the reasons you want to not eat refined sugary foods. When you are considering whether or not to eat the sweet, creamy food, review the list. Review the list every time.
posted by aniola at 8:29 AM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

And if you DO eat the sugary thing anyway, eat something high in fiber with it. It helps your body process the sugar, which has had all its fiber refined out.*
posted by aniola at 8:29 AM on August 17, 2021 [4 favorites]

I also eat when bored or stressed. In the past I have substituted water/seltzer or chewing gum when I crave chewing on something, with some success. (Also dry jerky, but that's not exactly healthy even if low sugar.)
posted by Wretch729 at 8:30 AM on August 17, 2021

In my experience, this is a cue to proactively develop other ways to soothe yourself. Human beings need comfort, and it's totally OK for you to need comfort and stress relief. But you are finding that the way you have habituated to do that is detrimental. It takes work and effort but it will be worth it.

I will add another thought to consider. I have eaten a super low carb diet for years. I find that when I do choose to eat sugary/carby things, as sometimes I do, I will inevitably have a few days of struggle and craving afterward. If you are wired the same way, eating sweets on the weekend might be making the weekdays harder. It might be worth trying just cutting sweet stuff out entirely (for a month maybe) to see if the struggle diminishes.

It's tough. Good luck.
posted by Sublimity at 8:33 AM on August 17, 2021 [19 favorites]

*According to an hour-long academic video I watched, "it has the fiber refined out" is why refined sugar (maple syrup (unless chewing on a maple tree), honey (refined by bees), sugar (unless chewing on a sugar cane or sugar beet), dairy (grass refined by cows), alcohol (definitely not fibrous), juice (pulp in orange juice doesn't count)) are so bad for you.

The takeaway was "don't eat sugar" but my takeaway at the time was "eat some kale with your donut" and that does actually make a significant difference according to my body. Donut = headache. Donut + kale = a lot less likely to give me a headache.
posted by aniola at 8:35 AM on August 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

The standard advice for sugar cravings is to up your protein, fat, and vitamin intake (take a multivitamin), and be mindful of hormonal fluctuations that can increase the desire for carbs or sugar. I find that fairly helpful. I'm better at limiting myself when I'm not hungry and I just can't keep certain items around (for me it's gummy candies) because I will eat the whole bag. In general I prefer making good substitutes over entirely cutting out foods or food groups, there are some good healthy dessert blogs like Chocolate Covered Katie that were born out of a similar desire to regulate but not entirely restrict a sweet tooth.

If you want to beat the craving/habit maybe replace the cheesecake with something else you enjoy until it gets easier to ignore? Or make it so you can only have one piece, like order one piece from a bakery and make it harder to acquire.
posted by lafemma at 8:43 AM on August 17, 2021

Do artificially sweetened foods provide the same satisfaction? If so, eat them instead. (Yes, they are not particularly healthy, but they are much healthier than sugar.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:52 AM on August 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have what I would call an addiction to sweets, and a strong family history of diabetes. I've never been able to meaningfully "reduce" my sugar intake for longer than a week or so. But what has worked for me is going on a complete fast from anything sweet, (on preview, as suggested by sublimity)even artificial sweeteners.

I find that it's much easier to say no to the first sweet that day than the second (or fifth), and after a week or two, my cravings have subsided to the point that a cheat or two doesn't trigger a massive binge. Plus, my tongue being less familiar with sweet means that a little goes a long way--more than a couple bites becomes cloying. Once my cravings are massively reduced, I stop having to consciously resist them, and after a while I sort of forget about the sweet fast and give myself permission to eat whatever I want, but I don't want as much. My consumption then steadily ramps up over a few years... I'll be due for another round soon.

Another benefit is it breaks the guilt cycle--trying to cut back means shaming myself for every cookie, but if I haven't eaten any sugar for two or more days or whatever, I can eat three and I'm still way ahead. And since I never intend it to be permanent, it's more like a challenge to see how long I can go than some big emotional thing.
posted by Krawczak at 8:55 AM on August 17, 2021 [7 favorites]

Two things:

(1) In response to your question: yes, in my experience it will get better. When I started keto a few years ago, I cut out all sugary/starchy foods. There was a period for maybe 2 or 3 months when I craved them pretty badly. The craving was physiological as well as psychological: I literally had weird dreams about bread and generally felt like I was going through some kind of physical withdrawal period, as if I had quit cigarettes or alcohol or whatever. I gradually stopped craving sweets and starches so intensely, although not completely. If I have a cheat day or weekend, and eat sugar or starches, I find my cravings come back pretty strongly and persist for a little while.

(2) After a few months in which I mostly didn't eat anything sweet tasting, I have gradually added back in a few sugar-free desserts and low-carb bread. I find these helpful because for me, they scratch the itch and help satisfy any cravings rather than triggering cravings like sugared things do. I would definitely recommend to you to add in some sugar-free treats (sweetened by allulose, erythritol, or stevia). I think sugar might exacerbate your cravings, so I would recommend carefully looking for sugar-free alternatives. Beware of maltitol and other sugar alcohols, which first of all, as I understand it, has many of its carbs count, and also can/does cause diarrhea. I'd also be careful of low-sugar desserts that are still high carb (e.g. low-sugar cookies, low-sugar pudding with cornstarch, or whatever), as I think they're going to keep your cravings strong. I recommend in particular:

- Lily's chocolate. Available at Whole Foods and various other places (maybe Target or Walmart?). Tastes basically exactly like sugared chocolate, and also has a fair amount of fiber. Available in lots of different chocolate flavor profiles (milk, dark, almond, white, cookies and cream), as well as things like chocolate-covered caramels, peanut butter cups, etc.

- Keto ice creams. I have enjoyed Rebel and some other brand ("Keto"?). They're typically creamy and sugar-free and satiating.

- Keto granola (typically made of nuts and coconut, with sweetener and butter/oil). I buy a big bag at Costco and snack on it as a treat. Also very filling.

- Making your own crustless cheesecake. If you want, I'll see if I can dig up my recipe, which is excellent. It uses something like sour cream, cream cheese, eggs, erythritol, and vanilla extract. It's very filling and has protein and probiotics. Very quick and easy to make. You can also easily make a low-carb berry sauce to eat with it if you're feeling extravagant.

- I have enjoyed taking a couple of slices of keto bread (there's an excellent new one out in grocery stores), toasting them, and spreading them with peanut butter and sprinkling liberally Lily's chocolate chips and letting them melt, to create a sort of Reese's toast. I have also similarly made keto toast soaked with keto maple syrup (Lakanto is pretty good), or keto cinnamon toast with butter, erythritol, and cinnamon.
posted by ClaireBear at 8:59 AM on August 17, 2021 [6 favorites]

I make an egg muffin kinda in the neighborhood of this blueberry french toast muffin, but I also put psyllium husk in my egg muffins for the fiber. The blueberry ones were an experiment for my mcgriddle-loving spouse, and I pipe a ribbon of cream cheese (or if you can obtain goat cheese crumbles, those are easier) to give it a cheesecakey/danish-y hit.

I sweeten mine with allulose. A lot of keto bakers use flavored artificially-sweetened protein powders, either in vanilla or whatever other flavor appeals, and if I ever had any around (expensive, I don't use it for anything else) I would throw some in the egg muffins for additional density. They're so eggy and fiber-y that one is generally enough. (Tip: for less fussiness, you can just bake these in a brownie or cake pan, or I use a nonstick bundt pan, and then just cut up. Sometimes I can't be bothered with individual silicone baking cups.)

My husband and I both have impulse-control issues with sweets and so we have adopted a policy of "okay but not great" for what we'll keep in the house. These fall into that category, since they're pretty dense so not terribly binge-able. We can also keep Oreos in the house, where we often don't even remember them but if we're dying for something sweet 2-3 will suffice and more than that make your mouth feel weird.

Our other trick is subscribing to a sampler box of wildly-flavored decaf coffee pods, which are so flavor-y they don't actually need a ton of sweetener (or any - my husband doesn't sweeten his, I use sucralose syrup) and just a dash of milk or milk substitute.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:02 AM on August 17, 2021

I have some anecdotal thoughts. Some of this assumes you are cutting major sugar and not like, all fruits or any salad dressing with sweetness, etc.

The first is what are you drinking? For me, if I'm drinking anything with sugar (juice, sweetened coffee, etc.) that will result in sugar cravings. So I don't drink any of that (including alcohol in most cases.)

Second, I do also have some sweet stuff at intervals - not exactly every weekend but something like that. Dried fruit is iffy if I have it without nuts. And that too sets off cravings, which I just deal with. But the best way is just not to start.

How I deal with cravings are:
- I do fruit, so my #1 bowl of goodness at night is frozen unsweetened (but very sweet naturally) cherries or blueberries or strawberries (berries are less sugary.) I nuke the bowl and then sometimes pour in a bit of milk and cinnamon.
I also like:
- shredded cabbage, grated cheese, pumpkin seeds, and actual coleslaw dressing (this does have sugar in it) because for me that combination of sweet-creamy-cheesy-nutty-crunchness is really good
- goat cheese on cucumber or ryvita crisps or just off a fork - the cranberry type is again not sugar-free but kind of hits the cheesecake note without as much dessert stuff
- ricotta cheese or fresh mozarella drizzled with olive oil or spicy oil
- my kids and I like two-ingredient banana-oatmeal cookies although we add nutmeg and cinnamon so they are 4-ingredient technically. :)
- I also have a nighttime comfort ritual of uncaffeinated tea (not chamomile, that stuff keeps my bladder up) which after about 4 months relaxed me as much as snacking used to
posted by warriorqueen at 9:05 AM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Sorry I missed the fruit thing, but frozen does have a different texture. Also came back to add - I craved sweet stuff SO MUCH when I was super sleep deprived, and I can chart my cravings against my sleep. So keep an eye on that too maybe?
posted by warriorqueen at 9:06 AM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

I used a program called wondrhealth.com which was free through my work. (Happy to chat about it over memail.) Lost a bunch of weight. Kicking out sugar was the first challenge. They presented it as a 3 week commitment to remove as much sugar from your diet as you can. After that you are encouraged to only have sugar with meals, not as snacks. I never thought I'd kick sugar but the 3 week "trial" was enough to help me realize that I could do it. Good luck!
posted by rouftop at 9:28 AM on August 17, 2021

I think eating sugar kind of feeds on itself. I gave up all sugar and carbs as much as possible and it was easier than I thought. And boy did my appetite level out.

I'm back to more carbs but I still look at sugar as poison.
posted by qsysopr at 9:46 AM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

In July, I read this article in the Guardian, and I don't know why that was the trigger, but it was.
Since then, I've focused on gradually reaching the goal of 30 grams of fiber a day, and 30 different vegetable foods a week. They emphasize that one shouldn't do it all at once. I don't think about calories or carbs or fat, just on reaching these goals at a reasonable speed and it is really working for me. I am actually losing weight without trying. It is a lifestyle change, and as such is not very easy, but it is a lot easier than any diet I have ever tried. I'm surprised that the easy part is actually the variation, but it might be different for you. I'm at the 30 grams of fiber now, as hoped, and that is working out ok, but it might have been harder if I had more outside stress. I deal with PTSD, so it's not like I dance through life, but right now I can handle day to day meal planning. I don't plan ahead.

One of the ways this is a total game changer is that I am almost always full. I just don't feel like snacking, though I plan with a snack at about three PM.

To give you an idea of how it works, today I started out with full fat greek yogurt with raspberries and honey. For lunch I had an avocado with cottage cheese and fish roe, with tabouleh salad, I had a snack of crisp bread with gorgonzola and for dinner I'm having pasta with broccolini and garlic. There will be a piece of chocolate for dessert. I'm not counting calories or fat. I'm not hungry between meals, but I am hungry for meals.
The dairy products provide fermented food that are prebiotics.
posted by mumimor at 10:03 AM on August 17, 2021 [6 favorites]

Yes. Definitely agree with the person who pointed out that artificial sweeteners keep up sweetness cravings.
posted by aniola at 10:12 AM on August 17, 2021 [2 favorites]

Read Gary Taubes' work on sugar addiction so you can stop blaming yourself for all this. It's very empowering to understand the chemical processes that make you crave that sugar. It's not a personality flaw and it isn't even your job's fault (although I don't doubt that it makes it worse.)

Not saying don't try the various coping advice offered here in addition. Just saying: Taubes' work will help you understand what's going on.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:13 AM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Honestly what I did was stop keeping those things in the house AND give myself permission to go out and buy the amount I wanted if I really wanted it the day I was going to eat it. So if after dinner if I wanted a dessert, I could go grab something from the corner store to meet that craving, but I also had to grab it from the corner store. I am more prone to staying at home than I am hungry for sweets.
I also tend to buy sweets in one serving packages if at all possible, think like a candy bar vs a gallon of ice cream.

I absolutely do not diet, and I don't really try to control portion sizes outside buying the smallest size available of high sugary foods, but I don't stress if I buy more either . The number one thing I do not want in my life is to be thinking about this stuff all the time.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:16 AM on August 17, 2021 [8 favorites]

Something that helps me is to make any baked goods that I eat. While this makes it less convenient to just give into a sugar craving, it also allows me to bake snacks with less sugar. I have a toddler and have found a lot of low sugar stuff that I like searching for recipes for him. For instance, this chocolate muffin recipe with lots of veggies.

Another thing that helps me deal with sugar cravings is drinking herbal teas.
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 10:42 AM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

Honestly what I did was stop keeping those things in the house AND give myself permission to go out and buy the amount I wanted if I really wanted it the day I was going to eat it.

Yes, exactly! This works for me. I am not good at moderation - I can spend SO MUCH mental energy thinking, "Oh, is this the right time to eat those gummy bears in the cabinet? Should I have four, or handful, or just finish off the bag right now?" or "How long should this box of maple cream cookies last me???" Just not having them in the house is way easier. Also I think having another step in between "I want the thing!" and "Now I'm eating the thing!" is important, psychologically - you *have* to soothe yourself some other way even if it's just for the walk to the convenience store.

Something that helps me is to make any baked goods that I eat.

I do this too! But I don't make healthy baked goods, I go full fat, full sugar. It still creates a lot more time in between the craving and the consumption compared to already-prepared foods, which, like I said, I think it important.
posted by mskyle at 10:47 AM on August 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’m someone who also had an ED, and has sworn off ever dieting or counting calories/grams/macros or thinking about any food as bad again. And I think that tackling this from the food side is actually a residual symptom of your ED and also our culture’s fucked up diet focus.

You are already way ahead of the game, in that you are mindful and conscious of what you need: less stress, and more physical comfort/pleasure. And I want to reiterate what you know, which is that there is nothing wrong with eating for that comfort and pleasure. But since a specific food you are using for comfort is causing sleep disruptions and other side effects, it makes sense to cut back on that—although, I don’t think the answer is to focus on restricting that one food. I think the answer is to actively look for other ways to comfort yourself.

The easiest thing might be to eat a different kind of food that is comforting but isn’t so sugary. Are there other food textures or tastes that you could sub in for some of the sugary foods that also give you that burst of pleasure? (For me, crunchy/salty activates a lot of the same pleasure centers as sugary/creamy, ymmv.)

Or, are there other physical sensations of pleasure/comfort you can find? What other things make your body feel good? I’m thinking of, like, the sublime pleasure of taking a shower and climbing between freshly laundered bedsheets and lounging there spa-like for a couple hours before bed. Or massages. Or sex, partnered or solo. Or one of those texture blankets for sensory stimulation. Or playing with a pet. Or whatever other things give you that rush.

Of course, those are all short term, and overall reducing the stress of your job is going to be the best bang for your buck. But, while you’re getting there, being kind and generous toward your body seems like a pretty good strategy to me.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 11:00 AM on August 17, 2021 [8 favorites]

I am another who doesn’t keep any of it in the house. I have (very) dark chocolate. And I’ll eat a couple of dried figs or dates with some raw cashews as a sweet snack. Those are things that help me with cravings but I won’t eat the whole package at once, so I can keep them around. Roasted nuts, not so much.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 11:05 AM on August 17, 2021

Oh, I also meant to add: it is entirely possible that your acne, disrupted sleep, etc, are themselves a result of your stress levels, and not the sugar at all. And in that case, if sugary desserts are helping you survive an otherwise bleak and miserable—and hopefully not everlasting—time (and assuming you don’t have any other specific health problems where sugar is specifically harmful, like diabetes) then maybe it’s okay to eat a lot of dessert for a year or so? I know that’s not what you asked, but this is a situation where I think you can give yourself every possible grace.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 11:10 AM on August 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

Could you sub in savory creamy instead of sweet? Maybe veggies with a dill or ranch dip? So it's still a reward, but if it's less enticing you may naturally reduce your intake without feeling like you're restricting. You could either prep ahead of time OR, if you're able, prep as you want them, extend your break a bit.
posted by ghost phoneme at 11:55 AM on August 17, 2021

So first of all, I get you. People who don't have a disordered relationship with food just don't understand how certain foods can immediately reduce stress and anxiety levels and lift mood. And it's the fastest and easiest substance for doing so, short of drugs or alcohol. That makes it really hard to stop.

I am looking for advice. Is this something that will get better? Given my lack of an off-switch, is it worth investigating low-sugar desserts, or am I just going to binge on them and undo all my good work? What have your experiences been of lowering sugary food intake? What worked for you and what didn't?

In my experience, this is not something that will get better on its own. Since I am not you, I can only tell you what works for me.

1) Therapy. I've had an ED since childhood and it's not something I can handle on my own.

2) I go cold turkey on sugar and refined carbs. This sucks SO MUCH in the beginning, but it gets easier after a couple of weeks. After a few weeks I no longer crave sugar and can eat small amounts of it occasionally without falling off the wagon. I try to plan the cold turkey period around a time when it would be easiest. So definitely not a holiday or during a very stressful period.

3) When I do fall off the wagon (i.e. binge eating resumes) I don't berate myself or go into a shame spiral. This is something I will have to battle forever, so I have to be able to forgive myself for the occasional failure. It's hard.

4) I don't buy foods that are binge triggers. For me those are baked goods, ice cream, chocolate candies, crackers, and chips. Instead I buy comfort foods that I kind of like, and that kind of satisfy my cravings, but that I won't binge on. Dark chocolate, pretzels, 12 grain bread, flavoured rice cakes, melon flavoured popsicles... If I buy myself a treat I truly love it has to be one single serving only, not a pack. If someone gives me a binge-triggering gift I throw it out or give it away.

Oh and I made new food rituals. Not sure if you do this, but I get great comfort out of regular daily routines around food. If I don't perform them I feel uncomfortable. I tried eliminating them and that didn't work, so I changed them instead. So, for example, rather than unwinding in the evening with a bag of chips and my favourite tv show, I unwind with a cup of chai and my favourite tv show.

5) I changed some of my stress coping habits. I had to find what worked for me, and a lot of the advice I was given around this just didn't work. For me hot baths and long walks are not a substitute for a pint of ice cream. But I found that 15 minutes of intense cardio exercise makes me feel better, even though I hate the entire 15 minutes. YMMV. I'm still working on this and find it the most difficult as my default mode of being seems to be "tense ball of anxiety who finds everything boring and unpleasant."

7) If I find myself ruminating or obsessing over food I find something to distract myself. Call my sister, play a game, read a book, get out of the house, whatever works. If I'm obsessing because I'm hungry I force myself to eat something I'm not craving.
posted by Stoof at 1:01 PM on August 17, 2021 [5 favorites]

Do you drink coffee? The first place I eliminated sugar from was from coffee, and it somehow made the rest of it easier. I didn't have any major sugary items for almost a year (I do love fruits and I had a lot of it. Frozen grapes are yummy) and have only recently reintroduced some baked goods back in my diet very slowly. No cravings or binges...yet.
However I would note that my cravings have historically been split 80-20 in favour of salty/savoury and sweet, so perhaps I had an easier time with the elimination. Good luck!
posted by Nieshka at 6:27 AM on August 18, 2021

It can be hard at the start but it does get easier, if you cut out sugar and sweets completely your tastebuds will get used to the lack of a strong sugary taste and the cravings will fade within a week or so. The first time I gave up sugar for a few months I did use artificial sweeteners for coffee and tea and that helped at the time, but I later got sick of that artificial taste. Now I'll have a tiny bit of honey in yogurt but I drink coffee and tea without any honey or sugar, only milk, and just got used to it tasting better to me that way. Mind you prior to that I used to put a ton of sugar in my hot beverages and I couldn't have imagined doing without, but yeah if you cut it out competently you do get used to it. And then if you have a bite of cake or sweet chocolate or candies or the like, it will taste TOO sweet and your tastebuds will tell you no please no more of that!

But the key is to actually cut it out completely, having it only at weekends doesn't strike me as a good idea because you'll be confusing your tastebuds all over again every few days and not give them time to adjust.

(Same thing for your brain - sorry I'm using shorthand for things that are connected anyway, the physical taste and the psychological aspects of finding sugar comforting and rewarding etc.)
posted by bitteschoen at 6:45 AM on August 18, 2021 [2 favorites]

I find making desserts with less sugar to be helpful. I also limit desserts to meals that are protein heavy enough to balance out the sugars (prediabetes). I find lower sugar options, like scones, to be more satisfying than cookies, in terms of eating enough to enjoy it. When I was eating more chocolate, I also enjoyed making things that were more intensely chocolate flavored, so that a small amount was satisfying. Can you make a cheesecake with half the sugar and enjoy it? Are there creamy things you enjoy that are on the healthier end? Do some experimenting and see what works for you.
posted by blueberry monster at 10:20 AM on September 5, 2021

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