Disclaimer: This is general advice representative of one professional’s opinion, and does not necessarily represent the views of The Temper. Before making major dietary changes, please seek advice from your doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, or specialist.
Q: I quit drinking about a month ago, which is a miracle. But ever since, my sugar cravings have felt totally out of control. I can’t stop eating sugar, and I don’t really want to because it’s helping me get through this stressful time. However, I’m worried about my blood sugar skyrocketing. Is it really okay to replace alcohol with candy during early sobriety? Or is there a substitution?
Sugar’s siren call in early sobriety can be hard to resist. Many people who’ve recently ditched the booze have never experienced sugar cravings, and then suddenly have powerful urges to eat anything sweet in sight.
There’s a reason for that: Sugar causes the release of serotonin and dopamine (your feel-good neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals) in the brain. Alcohol, caffeine, and certain other drugs also temporarily raise levels of these and other neurotransmitters that make you feel pleasant, happy, and relaxed. Part of what’s happening is that when you subtract the booze, your brain screams at you to get relief from other substances that behave similarly in the body: carbs and sugar, caffeine, nicotine, pot, painkillers, etc. This is called addiction transfer.
What’s more, over 95% of binge drinkers are prone to hypoglycemia, a.k.a., low blood sugar. Glucose in your blood (a simple sugar) is your brain’s fuel source, so when it’s low you may feel irritable, anxious, or shaky. Think about when you’re hungry: Mood swings, energy spikes and crashes, and even panic attacks are signs of low blood sugar. Alcohol is a very temporary quick fix for symptoms like these because it briefly raises blood sugar. The catch-22 is heavy alcohol use can actually cause low blood sugar overall, which leads the drinker to crave more alcohol and sugar.
Know this: craving sugar is not an issue of willpower. You are literally fighting against your physiology, and nature always wins. But you can give your body what it needs in other ways, and eventually not feel controlled by sugar cravings.
But first, to answer your question: You can do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself in early sobriety.
Really, it’s okay. More than okay. You’re doing a super hard thing, and it feels raw. If you need to eat some ice cream every night for a while, that’s fine. Your body and brain are in a healing state, working to get you back to homeostasis, and it feels uncomfortable. It takes time.
Remember what’s happening to your body—it’s having difficulty regulating your blood sugar levels, and your brain is having trouble making you feel happy, because your dopamine pathways have gone haywire. What you’re essentially doing in having sugar is manually taking control of these two mechanisms for a while, until your system is more balanced. And it will get there.
What heals is time and patience. What doesn’t heal is beating the crap out of yourself or linking morality to your food choices.
That said, if eating sugar causing you distress, making you feel unwell, or you’re uncomfortable because now you have a sugar monkey on your back instead of a booze monkey, there are ways to ease the cravings. Here’s how:
1. Eat at regular intervals.
I’m talking breakfast at 8 am, lunch at noon, small snack at 4 pm, dinner at 7 pm. Early sobriety is not a good time to skip meals or wait seven hours between lunch and dinner. Whether you’re paleo, vegetarian, gluten-free or vegan, what your body needs is similar: Enough fat, protein, and fiber to keep you satisfied and to keep your blood sugar levels stable.
And don’t just grab a bagel—refined carbs like white flour are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream because they lack the fiber and other nutrients that break down slowly, keeping your energy even. What happens is that your blood sugar shoots up quickly, and you feel pretty good. But it comes crashing down again after a short while, and then you feel edgy, crabby, fatigued—you’re probably craving more sugar. Get off that roller coaster!
2. Protein-ify your breakfast.
Opt for eggs and avocado, a protein smoothie (add almond butter for extra good fats), or overnight oats (add protein to this because a higher carb breakfast can cause energy crashes, too). Fueling up on protein, fat, and fiber not only helps balance blood sugar levels, but these macronutrients provide your body with the raw materials to heal and rebalance.
3. Prep for the afternoon energy dip.
Sugar cravings can peak later in the day, so again you’re going for a high-protein snack, like hard-boiled eggs, nuts, or a low sugar protein bar. Or snag some fruit for a sweet treat—it may sound like a consolation prize, but a juicy and high-fiber peach or a fresh fig (pro tip: top figs with goat cheese or almond butter) can be surprisingly satisfying. Bonus: Fruit provides you with antioxidants. 70% or higher dark chocolate can do the trick, too.
4. Make healthier sweets.
Use fatty acid-rich almond flour or fiber-rich coconut flour, and sweeteners that do not impact blood sugar like granulated monk fruit sweetener or stevia. These won’t leave you craving more sugar. One of my favorite quick treats is a healthy “cookie dough” made with almond flour, dark chocolate chips, monk fruit, coconut oil, and cocoa powder, and vanilla. (Pro-tip: if you want to go sugar-free swap out the honey for granulated monk fruit or stevia to taste).
5. Don’t skimp on food.
Sugar cravings can also result from not getting enough calories—especially if your appetite feels insatiable at night, you may not be eating enough during the day. And remember: You are literally rewiring your brain and teaching it to focus on foods that make you feel good. It can take a few weeks before this process starts to feel more natural.
6. Protect your sleep!
Research has found that lack of sleep contributes to sugar cravings along with dozens of other side effects. Getting a good night’s sleep is critical for almost every aspect of your life, and your recovery. Check out my tips on sleeping soundly.
7. Move your body
Exercise will help with cravings and your mood, especially if you take it outside to get some sunshine. Being out in the sun boosts dopamine and vitamin D and just makes you feel pretty damn good.
8. Consider (the right) supplements
Certain nutrients, herbs and especially minerals provide extra support to rebalance your brain and body. Chromium, a trace mineral, works wonders to balance blood sugar. You can find it in a supplement, often with other trace minerals that also help. Herbs such as gymnema, berberine, kudzu, and cinnamon can help. You can typically find those together in one supplement.
Glutamine, an amino acid, may also help stop sugar cravings in some people (for others it may have no effect). Certain amino acids and formulas can help you rebalance brain chemistry and normalize dopamine and serotonin production, but please use caution and work with a professional who can help you with this.
9. Don’t be hard on yourself.
Our bodies have incredible wisdom. Even if you’re craving a food (or other substance) that isn’t doing your health any favors, in early sobriety your body is just trying to find its equilibrium. By making a few adjustments to your diet and lifestyle, you can help gently restore balance, which will take the focus off sugar. It will get better—I promise.
This is the first of a monthly advice column written by Mary Vance. Mary is a certified nutrition consultant specializing in women’s health and digestive wellness. She’s also a holistic health and wellness blogger at www.maryvancenc.com. She helps her clients reverse chronic health conditions and become the best versions of themselves. Mary is the author of 3 Weeks to Vitality and the 21 Day Gut Reset. She lives the good life in Tahoe, California with her two dogs.
Have a nutrition question for Mary? Email it to [email protected] with the subject line, “Ask Mary Vance.” You’re welcome to use a pseudonym.