Sugar Addiction Escape Plan: 10 steps to control sugar cravings

Overcoming Sugar Addiction book by Karly Randolph Pitman

Posted on January 15, 2009 by Karly Randolph Pitman

Are you someone who can’t stop eating sugar, once you start? Are you plagued with constant food cravings, especially for sweets or refined carbohydrates, such as pasta, bread or potato chips?

Oh, how I understand! I was a compulsive sugar addict for over 20 years (including bulimia, body hatred, and binge eating disorder), and have found healing and freedom. I wrote Overcoming Sugar Addiction so that you can also have that freedom – so that you can have the help and support you need to break free from the suffering of sugar bingeing. For more help, please read on for a beginner’s ten steps:

Here are ten steps to break your sugar addiction:

1. Add self care. Before you attempt to eliminate anything from your life – even something negative, such as sugar bingeing – it’s important to add to your life, so that you are operating from an overflow, not a deficit. Eliminating sugar will create a vacuum; better to fill it with something positive – self love and self care – than something that is hurtful, like self sabotage. Care for your tender self so that you feel nourished, capable, rested and strong.

Try this simple shift:  instead of eliminating your sugar habit, try shifting it to something that isn’t related to sugar – read a novel instead of eating ice cream in front of the TV; indulge in a hobby instead of baking; go for a walk when you would normally grab a treat.

2. Keep your blood sugar stable. Eat breakfast, eat protein with every meal or snack, eat low GI foods, and eat at regular intervals. Why? All of these things will stabilize your blood sugar, so that your moods and energy are at an even keel. Much of the time, I craved sugar because I was hungry (I was always dieting because I was chronically unhappy with my weight). Eat enough so that you feel satisfied, and regularly enough so that you feel stable, and you won’t crave as much junk. Learn more about what and how to eat from the sugar addiction reading list.

3. Treat yourself like you’re in detox. The first week of sugar abstinence can be uncomfortable, when the cravings are at their most powerful. Be kind to yourself:  this is not the time to tackle a large project, to implement lots of changes, or to work overtime. Why do people go to a spa when they’re detoxing? Because they need extra support. Likewise, give yourself extra support. Go to bed earlier. Take naps. Cook simple meals (and don’t make the same mistake I did:  don’t cook meals for your family that have ingredients in them that you are trying not to eat. Don’t make sugar abstinence any harder than it needs to be.) Spend time in prayer or meditation. Call on others for support and encouragement.

4. Don’t focus on weight loss. While weight loss is usually a natural consequence of giving up sugar, please don’t make it your focus. It’s better to channel your energy towards one goal at a time. So put aside your weight loss goals for now and focus your energy on healing your sugar addiction. Then, after you’ve found healing with sugar, you can decide how you want to approach any extra weight you’d like to lose.

Weight loss is often a pleasant, natural side effect of taking loving care of your body and freeing yourself from food addiction. In my experience, making it the focus puts too much pressure on your tender heart to lose weight quickly and easily – which can lead to a binge/restrict/binge/restrict cycle with sugar.

Furthermore, you might be delightfully surprised to see how much easier it is to lose weight when you’re not eating so much sugar.

(If you’re wondering what I eat when I’m not eating sugar, you may enjoy this list of sugar free snack ideas.)

5. Know your true value. While yes, your body may be sugar sensitive, and while, yes, you may gorge on sugar, it’s not “you.” It’s just a coping mechanism:  how you learned to care for yourself when life felt painful, overwhelming or scary. This is probably something you learned when you were very small. It’s not your fault. Being addicted to sugar or bingeing on sugar is not a character flaw – proof that you’re a terrible person. It’s simply a form of self protection, how you’ve cared for your tender heart.

And if you use sugar to care for your hurts, there’s hope – the story doesn’t end there. Your brain is remarkably malleable – you can retrain your brain and learn new ways of caring for your needs, feelings, emotions, and hurts without sugar. (I explain how to do this in Overcoming Sugar Addiction for Life.)

6. Create a supportive environment. For the first month after I gave up sugar, I asked my family to hide the few sweet foods we had in the house so that I wouldn’t seek them out and eat them. (They hid them well because I went looking a few times!) I avoided certain aisles in the grocery store, movie theaters, and abstained from any baking. Later on, when I was in the habit of not eating sugar, and no longer physically craving it, I felt stronger – I was able to be around sugar without dying for it.

Think of your supportive environment as training wheels. In the beginning, your training wheels give you the safety to try something that feels new and scary. This structure is supportive and helpful. As you get stronger, you take the training wheels off. The same structure may not be necessary anymore.

7. Be a detective. Give yourself time to experiment and learn about your unique, precious body. Only you will know what foods make you feel your best.

Use your body as a guinea pig: what foods make you feel good? What foods make you feel badly? How did I learn that dried fruit affects me in the same way that refined sugar does? By observing my body after I ate it. How did I learn that foods like kale, kefir, pinto beans, and almonds satisfy my hunger and give me stable moods? By observing my body.

8. Reconsider fake sugars. I know this is a tough one to follow:  many people rely on Diet sodas as a “free” sugar substitute, especially when they’re craving something sweet. But in my experience, aspartame, Nutrasweet, Splenda, and even low carb sugar products (protein bars that are “low sugar”) don’t quell sugar cravings, but increase them. For many people, they also bring unpleasant side effects. (For me, that’s headaches and stomach aches.) A study at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio found that a person’s risk for obesity went up a whopping 41% for each daily can of Diet soda. If you’re sugar sensitive, I’d include “fake sugars” in the sugar category, as a food to limit. You can see this list of hidden sources of sugar for more information.

9. Start over whenever you slip and fall. You don’t have to wait until the next morning, or succumb to the thinking that says, “I’ve blown it; I might as well have some brownies to go with it,” when you slip up and eat sugar. Giving up sugar is hard. It’s ingrained in our holidays, in our meals, in our society. Be kind to yourself when you mess up, and get right back on track. Use loving self talk to care for yourself when you make a mistake – you can tell yourself, “I can handle this.” Or, “Mistakes are how I learn. It’s okay, dear one.” Talk to yourself as the most loving friend would talk to you.

If you’re feeling shaky from too much sugar, you might want to eat a bit of protein. If your stomach is bloated and upset, try drinking a cup of mint tea. On an emotional level, it may help to give yourself space – take a walk, call a friend, go outside, go to the library. Do something to change your environment so you can switch gears.

Be mindful that there are 3 stages to healing a sugar addiction. What stage are you in?

10. Forgive yourself. I felt very ashamed about my sugar addiction. Releasing that shame was like lifting an enormous weight off my psyche. We’re all imperfect. We all cope with life in messy ways. If you have food issues, offer yourself compassion. Find self-acceptance. All those times you gorged on sugar? Recognize that you were doing the best you could.

Sugar addiction is not a character defect. It’s often due to biology, imprinting, long ingrained habits, our environment and a whole host of other factors – many of which are not in our control. Can you find forgiveness for yourself? Can you see that it’s not your fault? That it may not be something you could’ve prevented?

When we release the blame – and most of us blame ourselves, and terribly so – we find we can also release the sugar. It creates a spaciousness where we can act differently, where we can respond to sugar in a different way and let go of its hold on us. Forgiveness and compassion are the only way I found peace with sugar. It’s the only way I found that I could stay sugar free long term.

Wanting more hands on help?

If you’d like more support and you think we’re a good fit, I invite you to explore my resources for gentle healing from sugar addiction.

  • If you’re a beginner and are just starting, begin with Overcoming Sugar Addiction, the book that chronicles my own story and shares how you, too, can heal your sugar addiction.
  • If you want to make the transition to a reduced or no sugar diet, but you’re needing support for the first few weeks, Overcoming Sugar Addiction:  The 30 Day Lift is for you. You’ll receive 30 days of structured, daily tasks and audio coaching so you can walk through the first few weeks feeling extra supported and strong.
  • If you’d like to find healing with sugar over the long term – while creating a more loving, peaceful, and kind relationship with yourself – Overcoming Sugar Addiction for Life offers a map for emotional healing. It includes a workbook and 6 audio CDs.

More articles for you:

If you’d like to read more about healing your sugar addiction, you may enjoy these helpful articles:

Tools to soften sugar cravings:

When you’re feeling the urge to binge on sugar, what can you do – in the heat of the moment – so you can walk away from the fridge? Here are some helpful tools:

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