Most of the time, sweet cravings come down to habit. For example, if you grew up always having dessert after dinner, your brain will be conditioned to expect that. Even your body will prepare — you will actually salivate, preparing for the delicious treat. Without it, the meal won't feel complete.
This doesn't mean you can't get rid of the habit. But it will take some time and an effective strategy to get there.
I used to drink diet soda. Every day, my body expected it between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., which is when my office schedule allowed time for a soda break. I was so conditioned that my body and mind wouldn't leave me alone until I got one. Even when I could honestly say that I didn't quite enjoy drinking sodas as much as in the beginning, I still craved them.
I didn't like the feeling of being controlled by the craving, and I knew soda wasn't contributing anything good to my health. It took a conscious effort and some time to get past the craving, but it's been more than 10 years since I've had any soda.
I once had a patient who thought she had a chocolate addiction. In truth, chocolate was her favorite food, so forgoing it for life didn't make sense. But her daily chocolate habit was getting in the way of her fitness goals. With patience, she found she could be fit and enjoy chocolate on occasion, without the candy controlling her.
Getting rid of sweet cravings isn't as tough as people think if you know a few facts and take the time that's necessary to eliminate the habit. Here are some techniques experts use to free people from cravings:
• Eat more nutritiously. Some cravings occur in response to a nutritional deficiency. If you're eating satisfying amounts of healthy foods, some cravings for unhealthy ones decrease.
• Wait 20 minutes after a meal before having your sweet. If the cravings are due to having gone too long without eating, low blood sugar can create strong cravings for sweets. Twenty minutes is enough time for your body to process your meal and raise blood sugar, decreasing that sweet craving.
• Don't try to go "cold turkey." Instead of ditching dessert, gradually change to more nutritious treats, such as those made with fresh fruit, so that you're having more natural sugars and fewer processed foods. For instance, rather than ice cream with chocolate sauce, try ice cream with strawberries. Then yogurt with strawberries. Then just berries. Also reduce the quantities of the sweets gradually until you have the habit licked.
• Have dessert first. Here's a little trick I used once with a patient that worked nicely: Eat a small amount — maybe a few bites — of your sweet before the meal. Then have your regular meal. This does two things: If low blood sugar is the problem, you start stabilizing it quickly with the sweet, and the balanced meal works to maintain it at a normal level. If habit is the problem, you will disrupt the routine, which could weaken the habit. Decrease your premeal sweet gradually until you've broken the craving.
The biggest obstacle to getting rid of a sweet craving habit is that people expect too much too soon. People who are the most successful at conquering any difficult habit do so by:
• Having an honest desire to be free of the controlling nature of the habit. They want to feel in control of themselves, want to feel healthier and more at peace.
• Having patience. They intend to do whatever it takes even if it takes longer than they wish.
• Not giving up. They recognize that there might be stumbling blocks along the way but, no matter, they will keep trying.
• Trying more than one method. There are many tools to help change a habit. You might discover a new one yourself. The more you use, the faster you will see a change.
• Not beating themselves up. Every person is different. It will take as long as it takes but the more praise rather than punishment you give yourself, the sooner the habit will be a thing of the past.
If you think a medical problem, such as blood sugar control, is standing in your way, talk to your doctor. Otherwise, if you have an honest desire to quit, you'll find that getting rid of sweet cravings is not as hard as you think if taken one small step at a time.
Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa clinical psychologist who specializes in weight management. She can be reached at (813) 240-9557 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her book, "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management," is available at FatMatters.com.