It's time to change your relationship with sugar. Here's how



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If pressed to define their relationship with sugar, many people would say, “it’s complicated.” A 2018 study found that 70% of U.S. adults are concerned about how much sugar they consume, suggesting that plenty of us struggle with a toxic inner monologue when presented with cake, cookies, and other desserts.

Why do so many of us have a confusing connection with sugar—and how do we heal our relationship with it? 

Why so many of us have a complicated relationship with sugar

If dieting had its own Disney princess movie, sugar would most certainly be the villain. “It’s hard to have a positive or neutral relationship with something that’s constantly labeled as bad or addictive,” says Claire Chewning, RD, certified intuitive eating counselor. “Additionally, many of us have likely been on restrictive diets that demonize sugar and tell us to cut out or strictly limit our carbohydrate intake. This kind of restriction can lead us to feel out of control around sugar.” 

Feeling like we’re not in the driver’s seat when we find ourselves, say, eating birthday cake can lead to outsized panic about how much sugar we’re eating. “It’s true that eating ‘too much’ sugar is not great for your health. But in truth, eating some sugar every day is actually perfectly fine,” says Emily Van Eck, RD, of Emily Van Eck Nutrition and Wellness

Telling ourselves that sugar has no place in our diet can actually result in the ingredient feeling “forbidden” and cause bingeing behaviors when we are presented with dessert. For example, maybe you eat a whole sleeve of cookies today so that you can start your diet with no sugar in the house tomorrow. 

“If you’ve ever felt out of control around sweets or like you couldn’t stop eating them, consider how any food rules or restrictions could have played a role,” says Van Eck. 

1. Resist the urge to label foods as “good” or “bad”

Van Eck points out that the language we use to talk about sugar tends to worsen our relationship with it. “Labeling foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ keeps you stuck with anxiety about every detail of your diet,” says Van Eck. “Labeling foods as ‘bad’ can cause us to rebel against our own rules, and eat them in quantities that are out of attunement with what our body actually wants.” 

Take a moment to reflect on how you currently think about sugar. Does it dredge up fear or anxiety? Does it make you feel out of control? What ‘rules’ do you have around it? See if you can shift your thoughts to be more neutral toward the ingredient. For example, try telling yourself, “Sugar is just one of the many types of food in my diet.” While it may be hard to rewrite your inner script in one go, sending yourself neutral messages about sugar can lessen your sweet-related stress over time. 

2. Understand the vital role glucose plays in your body

“[Sugar] is the preferred source of energy for your body,” says Chewning. “Carbohydrates found in grains, dairy products, fruits, and veggies are broken down by the body into glucose—a simple sugar—that serves as fuel for your cells.”

When we deprive our bodies of glucose, they don’t function properly. “A preference for sugary foods (carbohydrates more generally) is deeply programmed into human physiology since so many of our body processes depend on carbohydrates to function properly,” says Van Eck. “It makes sense that it would be wildly disruptive to try to deprive our body of a core macronutrient.”

Glucose is especially useful for people who love activities such as walking, hiking, or running. In fact, the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) recommends consuming about one gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight one hour before a workout to help you perform your best. For example, someone who weighs 155 lbs, or about 70 kilograms, should consume about 70 grams of quality carbs before a workout. Pre-workout supplements or whole food sources such as whole grain bread, nut butter, or bananas are great options for hitting this goal and respecting the role sugar has to play in your body. 

3. Eat well-rounded meals 

“If you’re not eating enough in general, you may end up craving foods that you wouldn’t if you were adequately fed,” says Van Eck. Serving yourself meals that include protein, carbs, and veggies will help you feel satiated. Over time, this style of eating can help you regain trust with your body. You respond to hunger cues with nourishing food; your body gives you the energy to show up cognitively and physically for your life.  

And, of course, make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day. “Under-eating could be another reason why you fixate on sugar or feel out of control around it, so make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day,” says Chewning. “For most people, this will look like several meals with a snack or two in between as needed.”

4. Practice mindful eating

Yet another way to reconnect with yourself at mealtime is to practice mindful eating, says Van Eck. “Pay attention to how your body feels during and after eating. The more you can observe your body without placing judgment on the outcome, the easier it will be to make changes you want to make,” she says. 

While this practice may feel challenging at first, it will eventually help you pick up on hunger and fullness cues and enjoy the flavors of what you’re eating even more. If it feels daunting to focus on your food for an entire meal, challenge yourself to do it for the first bite, then the first three bites, and so on. Start small. 

4. Combine sweets with other foods

Rather than telling yourself that you can’t have sugar when you’re craving something sweet, try combining a cookie or a piece of chocolate with other ingredients. “Practice letting yourself eat sugar when you want it, but also keep in mind that your body will likely feel better—especially on an empty stomach—if you also have some fiber and protein. For example, if you like chocolate in the afternoon, have some fruit and nuts with it,” Van Eck recommends. 

Not only will combining your sweets with other foods help you feel satisfied, but it will also help you realize that all foods can fit on one plate. In other words, the fruit, nuts, and chocolate aren’t “bad” or “good”—they’re just elements of your diet, each with a role to play. 

5. Make small changes 

If you’ve ever picked up a fitness routine or tried to meditate, you know that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Improving your mindset about sugar takes ongoing work, so Van Eck recommends choosing one of the tips above and focusing on that before moving on to the next tip. 

“Healing your relationship with sugar is not going to happen overnight, especially if this can been a decades-long struggle,” she says. Be patient and remind yourself why reshaping your relationship with desserts mattered to you in the first place. 

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