red and white swirly candy cane against pink background to represent sugar

What to do about sugar cravings when you stop drinking

When I stopped drinking, I suddenly developed a craving for ice-cream, chocolate and cake. Weird, because I’d never really been into sweet things before. And, it turns out I’m not the only one. It’s a well-reported phenomena that some people find themselves reaching for the sugar when they get sober.

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;
  • alcohol is converted to sugar in the blood so when we don’t have that any more we can desire 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. 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:

  1. 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
  2. deal with one thing at a time–getting sober first, then other changes you want to make–you can’t do everything overnight
  3. make healthy choices as often as you can without putting yourself under pressure
  4. give yourself a break–do what you have to to make life easy
  5. get physically active –set yourself fitness goals and focus on those
  6. 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.

If you want some support to help you live life happily sober, sign up for free bedtime reading at the bottom of this page. You'll receive motivating emails that link you to useful blogs and vlogs that help keep you on track.

And, I have an amazing recipe for a nourishing and healthy smoothie that helps with sugar-cravings and with detoxing from alcohol. I've shared it in my private Go Get Sober Facebook Group. If you want a healthy distraction from sugar which also satisfies those sweet cravings, click on the link below, come and join the group and get loads of support and encouragement. 


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61 comments

I am five days sober and i ate 7 pieces of candy and I feel like I should throw it up.Tonight I will write a list of new goals for tomorrow.bring healthy snacks to work carrot sticks vegetables low carb food drink lots of water and go work out half an hour cardio and a half an hour of weights.I rather become obsessed with exercise and becoming more successful at work. than drink alcohol or eat unhealthy.One bad habit shouldn’t be replaced by another.new beginning new goals.putting out a exercise outfit and buy a new one as an incentive.also, I have to take melatonin to sleep. i used to just pass out.

Jennifer Dion

Day 62. Feeling SO much better. Drank every evening until bedtime. I’m craving sweets like crazy! I keep a batch of no bake peanut butter “balls” for a quick breakfast or snack. Peanut butter, chocolate chips, coconut and lots of oatmeal. Roll into balls and refrigerate. Not a health food but at least the peanut butter adds protein and oatmeal adds fiber. Yellow apples are another go to. Yogurt and plain m&m’s …I’m trying to limit serving sizes. Still better than dulling my brain and acting like an a**. Keep on track!!! Life is good!

Janice

Thank you for this article!! I’m sober just over 9 months and I am obsessed with sugar. I have gained a bit of weight, but I feel so much healthier. Now, I’m trying to focus more on exercise and less about beating myself up for the weight gain.

Lisa

Ran across this story. Couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m 17 months sober, and now it’s time to lose the 40 lbs I gained quitting drinking.

Thank you!!!!

Monica

I reached day 30 today. I had sobriety for 2 years in the past and craved sweets that time. But, I had no sobriety support/program, and I was severely underweight; so I thought it was the latter. I picked up again in 2018 (I knew it was dangerous since I had liver disease). I quit again on Sept 17, 2020 and my body begs for morning pastries, carrot cake, and sour gummies. Glad to know that these cravings will pass.

mel

Melissa

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