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Stopped drinking and reaching for sugar instead?

Here are 10 Tips and Tricks to help you Reduce Your Sugar Intake

There are many reasons why some people develop a sweet tooth when they stop drinking:

  • 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.

And, it’s important to remember that your body and mind are going through a significant period of adjustment when you stop drinking. Your body’s natural rhythms and chemical processes were completely disrupted by excessive alcohol consumption. Your body was having to work overtime and put all its energy into processing and eliminating all of the alcohol toxins and had to neglect normal bodily maintenance and functions in order to do this. Now you’ve stopped drinking, you can expect your body to go through a rebalancing phase as it works hard to heal itself. It needs to find a new, natural rhythm – it needs to find a new normal. This phase can result in different “side effects” for different people.

Everybody experiences this phase differently. My experience will be different to yours. Some people will describe feelings of exhaustion, depression and mood swings. Or irritability, insomnia and anger. Some people describe incredible amounts of energy, happiness and motivation. Others describe better sleep, mental clarity and a new zest for life. Some people gain weight and others lose weight.

When we're quitting drinking and going through this period of bodily adjustment, it's totally normal for some people to feel exhausted and depressed, to have mood swings, and to generally feel rubbish. It's also normal for some people to feel great, to feel awesome! And, it's normal for some people to feel great one day and awful the next. There is no one size fits all - we're all unique and we all react to the changes our body is going through in unique ways.

And, one of the things some of us can experience is a new-found desire for sugar.

For many of us, it’s just part of the adjustment phase. It doesn’t need worrying about. Eating more sugary foods is still healthier than consuming excessive amounts of alcohol with all of the guilt, shame, hangovers and bodily harm that brings. Eventually, you’ll get into a healthier rhythm and will find a healthy sustainable way of eating.

So, what can you do about it if you’ve stopped drinking and started eating more sugar than you’d like? What can you do if you’re worried you’re replacing an unhealthy relationship with alcohol with an unhealthy relationship with sugar?

Here are 10 tips and tricks to help you reduce your sugar intake

1. Get into a smoothie habit

There are natural sugars in fruit and veg that can satisfy a desire for something sweet.

There is a huge difference between the processed sugar in shop-bought foods and the natural sugars found in fruit. Fruit contains nutrients and vitamins that can help our bodies become healthier which shop-bought sugary treats don't. However, some people find that eating a piece of fruit just doesn’t cut it when they’re after something satisfying.

A smoothie can be a great way of treating yourself at the same time as nourishing your body with something healthy.

And, yes, some people might still be thinking that a smoothie won’t cut it when they want that slice of cake or that chocolate bar or that ice-cream but the whole point is that you want to replace the unhealthy sugary snacks with something healthier and you want to find a way of doing this that is palatable AND healthy.

For sweet and healthy smoothie options, watch this space – I’ll be posting some smoothie recipes on the website soon. But, in the meantime, you can find hundreds of healthy and delicious smoothie recipes online by doing a simple Google search.

2. Acquire a taste for dark chocolate

Not everyone likes dark chocolate but it’s a good taste to cultivate. It makes a great sugar or sweet replacement because it’s also full of healthy nutrients like iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus and flavanols. Flavanols are plant chemicals that have been linked in some studies to improving heart health and reducing the risk of diabetes.

One small chunk of dark chocolate is usually enough to satisfy a desire for sugar and is harder to binge on because its richer and more bitter than milk chocolate.

3. Use yoghurt

Sometimes you just want a dessert after a meal or you want a snack between meals that gives you a sugar hit. A small portion of natural (unflavoured and unsweetened) yoghurt is rich in protein so it’s satisfying and keeps you feeling full for longer. Providing you choose yoghurt made from whole milk and not the skimmed stuff which has all of the goodness skimmed out, it’s also high in calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin and phosphorus which are all essential vitamins and minerals.

Topping the yoghurt with some mixed seeds or nuts and drizzling with a little honey or maple syrup gives it the sweetness and helps you feel like you’ve had a treat at the same time as nurturing and nourishing your body. This option is still healthier than packaged desserts or pre-sweetened yoghurts as it doesn’t have any of the chemicals or artificial sweeteners in and you’re in control of the amount of sugar you use.

If you’re vegan or don’t want to eat dairy products, there are lots of good yoghurt alternatives to choose from.

4. Enjoy a hot chocolate 

Another good option to satisfy a desire for something sweet is to make yourself a hot chocolate. There are healthier and less healthy varieties of hot chocolate. The healthiest are those that use cacao instead of cocoa powder and the unhealthiest are the ready-made hot chocolate powders that you just add water to.

A healthy option would be to add a small amount of cacao to the milk of your choice (dairy, coconut, almond, etc) – I find coconut works well as it adds a natural sweetness - the cacao is quite bitter. Whisk it up over a gentle heat and add some kind of unprocessed, “un-chemicaled” sweetener like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar or demerara sugar. My preference is agave nectar as it has a more neutral taste than honey or maple syrup and doesn’t interfere with the chocolate taste. Simply warm through and serve when it’s at a temperature you like.

You can play around with the ratio of cacao to milk – cacao is quite strong so you don’t need much of it.

The reason this is the healthiest option is that cacao has nutritional benefits that cocoa powder just doesn’t have because cocoa powder is the result of processing the cacao and the processing can strip the cacao of its natural goodness. Cacao is an excellent source of several minerals, including selenium, magnesium, chromium and manganese as well as anti-oxidants. These aren’t present to same degree, if at all, in cocoa or drinking chocolate.

However, having said all that, if you fancy something sweet and you choose a hot chocolate made with cocoa powder over a bar of chocolate, slice of cake, packet of biscuits or some ice-cream, it’s still the healthier option!

5. Make your own “healthy” treats

It is possible to treat yourself to cakes and desserts and still get some nutritional benefit from them. The general rule is to avoid shop-bought treats as they will have been processed and will contain higher amounts of sugar and chemicals than anything you prepare at home.

Baking your own sweet treats at home is definitely the way to go!

There are even recipes for “healthier” sweet treats that offer more nutritional value and less processed sugar than standard, traditional options. Things like beetroot brownies, chickpea blondies and peanut butter fudge. Again, watch this space for recipe ideas – I’ll be adding some here for you to try.

The idea with any sweet treats is that you make them rich, avoid refined sugars, cut them small and eat one small piece. You turn this into a new habit and let it become automatic.

6. Scrub your teeth after your meals

It’s much easier to stay sugar-free after a meal if you scrub your teeth straightaway. Depending on what your normal routine is, usually the scrubbing of teeth is a signal to the brain that eating is over. This helps you to put your mind somewhere other than sugar – your mind is satisfied that the eating routine is over, you can put your energy, thoughts and actions into other things. Plus, nothing tastes good after toothpaste!

7. Only buy and stock the food you want to eat.

Make it harder to reach for sugary snacks by not keeping sugary snacks in the first place.

I know from my own experience how well this works. If I’ve done some baking over the weekend and I have a big tub of home-made cookies or cakes on the shelf, they’re gonna get eaten during the week. I cultivate a sugar-habit after my evening meal when I have sugar to reach for. If I don’t have any sugar to reach for, I don’t reach for it. It’s that simple.

8. Change your routine.

Decide on the routine and lifestyle that’s going to work for you and then take tiny, incremental steps to get there. Small, incremental changes work better and are more sustainable than doing a mad, extreme diet plan for a few weeks before discovering you can’t keep it up.

Trying to change too much too soon, especially while you’re putting lots of energy into practising living your life sober, can be counter-productive.

Tiny behavioural changes that represent a small step towards the person you want to be or the lifestyle you want to adopt are THE most effective way to nutritional and lifestyle success.

A good example of a tiny behavioural change towards eating less sugar is when I stopped eating dessert after my evening meal and replaced it with a small chunk of dark chocolate before scrubbing my teeth. The chunk of chocolate became the signal to my brain that it was time to scrub my teeth. The scrubbing of my teeth was the signal to my brain that eating time was over and it was now “winding down” time before bed. This became a new pattern that is now automatic and I don’t even have to think about it any more. It’s effortless. It’s one small thing that means I’m still getting a sweet treat but it’s giving me nutritional value, it’s nourishing my body and I can feel good about it while indulging.

We can train our brains to expect and value a different pattern, a different routine. Just like we did with cutting alcohol out of our lives, we can build a different relationship with sugar.

Your tiny behavioural change might be different to mine but choosing just one small thing to change about your routine can be a catalyst to more changes further down the line.

Just ask yourself:

What kind of routine would someone with a super-healthy relationship with sugar have? What would they do for snacks? What would they do to reward themselves? What would they do for dessert? What would they do if they fancied some sugar? What would their daily pattern be?

Use this someone as your role model and choose one small thing you can copy from them and do differently for yourself. Keep it small, keep it achievable and know that bigger changes will come!

9. Include physical activity

When you include physical activity into your daily routine, you help improve your physical and mental health. You also burn calories.

When my brother was running, he could eat whatever he wanted and was super fit and trim. When he couldn’t run because of injuries, he ate the same amount and ended up with a bit of a belly. The same has been true for me – when I’m working out, walking lots and getting plenty of fresh air, my body can cope with more sugary foods without it having too much of an adverse effect. If I’m doing less physical activity, I have to eat less unhealthy food otherwise it takes its toll and my clothes start feeling tight on me!

We’re all built differently and we all have different capabilities but we can all do something physical. From walking to swimming to playing a sport or dancing, there is something that you can do which will make you feel good, get your feel-good chemicals coursing and help you earn your treats.

10. Know your triggers and be prepared

It helps to know what triggers you to reach for the sugar. Being aware of your triggers means you can find alternative ways of responding to them. When you notice that you’re triggered, you can choose to respond differently. Having a bag of alternative options at the ready means you can pull one out and do something different…

Just like with alcohol, a trigger can be a time of day, an emotion, an event, a person, a place, a smell, a bodily sensation – pretty much anything can be a trigger.

Think about all the times you have reached for sugar in the last week and note down what happened just before. What did you see? What did you hear? What did you feel? What did you smell or taste? What did you notice? What were you thinking about? What was the prompt?

How did you know it was time to reach for the sugar?

Answering these questions will help you identify what your triggers are. And, once you know that, you can start thinking of other ways to respond to them:

• Go for a walk
• Have a bath
• Phone a friend
• Write a poem about how you’re feeling
• Do a workout
• Go outside and take 3 excellent photos
• Eat one piece of dark chocolate
• Do a 10 minute meditation
• Do some yoga
• Draw a picture of the trigger not working on you any more

The alternative options are endless and you will be able to come up with at least a dozen that could work for you.

Then, whenever you notice one of your triggers happening, you can choose one of your alternative options and you can do that instead of reaching for sugar. You could even write each alternative option down on a separate card or piece of paper, put them in a box or bag and pull one out randomly, making a promise to yourself that you’ll do it, no matter what. This introduces a sense of fun and challenge that can be motivating.

Put these 10 tips into practice and you’ll be surprised how quickly your automatic sugar habit will change into something much more healthy.


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