There are various suggestions for why this can happen:
- alcohol and sugar both boost our levels of dopamine (the “reward” chemical in the brain) which triggers feelings of pleasure. So, when we stop drinking, we might crave sugar to trigger the dopamine release we were getting from alcohol;
- many alcoholic drinks contain sugar, especially if we're adding mixers to them - when we're no longer have that intake of sugar in alcohol, we can desire and seek out sugar in other forms;
- psychologically, if we’ve been using alcohol as a treat or reward, we need to find other treats and rewards to replace it – sugar often becomes an alcohol replacement after meals, in the evening after a hard day’s work or at weekends when we want something to look forward to;
- some scientists argue that sugar in itself is addictive because of the dopamine effect – the more we eat it, the more we want it;
- sugar can also help alleviate boredom. If alcohol used to do this job for you then it makes sense that sugar could fill its place.
The good news part one: not everyone gets these cravings – most people find that they lose weight and get healthier virtually as soon as they stop drinking.
The good news part two: even if you do get these cravings, they don’t last forever. For most of us, this is a temporary phase that lasts from a few months to a year.
What to do about it
First of all, don’t worry. Just knowing that this can be a normal part of the transition into an alcohol-free lifestyle can help you relax about it.
The important thing is that when you first stop drinking, you go easy on yourself. You deal with one thing at a time.
There’s no point becoming overwhelmed by all the different aspects of you and your life you want to change–that’s one sure-fire way to end up stressed, feeling like a failure and back on the booze. Instead, allow yourself whatever you need to feel better. Eat the ice-cream/chocolate/cake if it gives you something to look forward to. You can deal with your diet and fitness once you’re living life happily and confidently sober.
When I stopped drinking, I put a lot of energy and concentration into finding different habits, treats and activities. Sometimes that meant a whole bag of peanut M&M’s and a TV box-set. Sometimes it meant a herbal tea and a candle-lit bath. Sometimes it meant a fierce and sweaty workout. I wasn’t looking to get a healthy balance right from the start, just to find alcohol replacements. Just to stay sober and do what it took.
As time goes by and you gain in confidence in your new sober habits, you can start to put your energy into getting a healthier nutritional balance if you need to. (A word of caution here: avoid faddy diets that are short-term. Finding a balanced and healthy approach to eating and staying fit that works for you can take a long time – it’s taken me years but how I eat now is completely sustainable and allows me occasional sweet treats.) When you no longer need to put quite so much energy and concentration into staying sober, you can start to put it into other habits or things you want to change.
If you do find yourself reaching for the sugar initially, your clothes might get tighter and you might feel like you haven’t got things quite right yet and that’s okay – give yourself a break. Remember, one step at a time. It’s only temporary. Having a short love affair with sugar is still healthier for you than if you had carried on drinking. When you’ve dealt with the drinking, you can deal with nutrition and eating healthily.
Whenever you can make healthy choices about what you put into your body, do but don’t put yourself under pressure about it. Do what works for you. Here are some tips for sugar alternatives. Some people even find that getting sober kickstarts them straightaway into a much healthier lifestyle and they end up fitter and healthier than they’ve ever been.
Of course, when you’re sleeping better, feeling better, waking up clear-headed and full of energy, it becomes much easier to stick to fitness and exercise commitments. When I was drinking, hangovers often got in the way of my workouts. I would cancel and reorganise a lot! Being sober has given me the freedom to choose what I put my energy into and has given me the resilience and strength of mind to stick to my goals.
The other benefit of setting yourself fitness goals is that it provides a useful distraction from thinking about drinking. Having this kind of healthy distraction not only helps you to stay on your sober tracks but it also burns more calories and helps you earn those treats and rewards!
So if you’re worried about your waistline when you stop drinking, if sugar suddenly seems like your new best friend, just remember:
- don’t worry–it’s a phase–it won’t last–you’re still healthier than you would have been if you’d carried on drinking
- deal with one thing at a time–getting sober first, then other changes you want to make–you can’t do everything overnight
- make healthy choices as often as you can without putting yourself under pressure
- give yourself a break–do what you have to to make life easy
- get physically active –set yourself fitness goals and focus on those
- when you’re ready–and you’ll know when that is–experiment with diet and find a balanced and sustainable way of eating that can work for you long-term (don’t go for the quick-fixes!)
Now I’m several years into living my life sober, I still have a healthy appreciation for different types of food, including the sweet stuff! I have a coffee and cake date set up for next week with a new friend I’ve made and I’m already looking forward to it!
But my appreciation of things that taste good and are probably quite bad for me is balanced with a healthy lifestyle and plenty of physical activity. The way it works for me is that I put energy into fueling and exercising my body in a healthy way during the week and allow myself a bit of freedom at weekends. I don’t restrict myself if I’m eating out, on holiday or meeting up with other people. It’s roughly that 80%/20% rule. But different things work for different people and it’s important you find the way that works for you and only when the time is right and you’ve learnt to live your life confidently and happily sober.
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