10 Ways to Break Sugar and Carb Habits
My Completely Unscientific Method on How to Break Bad Food Habits Based on Personal Experience, Anecdotal Evidence, and Other Stuff I Believe Is Probably True
You’re not alone when it comes to the unrelenting primal cravings we get from sugar and carbs (yes, I know sugars are carbs… it’s just easier to separate them for this discussion). In fact, you’re actually wired to crave these things because that’s how we evolved.
In the good ol’ days of 150,000+ years ago, most humans had limited access to sweet and carb-dense foods in nature. There were fruits, honey, and starchy vegetables, but those were generally scarce or were only accessible when in season.
Your body knew that these foods were power-packs of energy. And since they were scarce or limited in quantity, having a hard-wired desire for them was extremely beneficial to your ancestors’ survival.
In other words: it’s not your fault these cravings are so strong.
But you can’t blame it all on your genes. There are other layers at work here: societal conditioning and personal choice.
We’ve grown up in a world were excessive amounts of sugar and carbs are normal, easily accessible, often encouraged, and even hidden in many foods that don’t naturally contain sugar. It’s difficult to be a conscious omnivore in a world that seems to be working against you at every turn.
Knowledge Is Power
Once you understand, even at a basic level, how your body processes food for energy, you’ll instantly have new-found power in your hands. You’ll no longer be a slave to your stomach because you’ll have a basic understanding of what happens to food after it passes your tongue.
Let’s Review the Hierarchy of Energy Usage
In the hierarchy of energy usage, your body prefers energy sources that are easily processed first (easily converted for immediate use). In our case, sugar — in all its varieties — burns fast and hot in the body. Our bodies don’t have to do much of anything to turn these molecules into immediately accessible sources of energy.
When the sugar is burned up, carbohydrates are next in line to get utilized. Think of carbs as packets of sugar. The body has to take a few more steps to break these molecules down into usable sugars (your body “opens the packets”), but it’s still not that much of a challenge.
The point is, the body craves sugars and carbs because they’re easily converted and easily utilized sources of energy.
And finally, there’s fat. Of course, not all fat is created equal, but for our purposes, fat is the last thing your body wants to use for energy. Fats are the body’s final reserves of energy being saved for a rainy day.
In the good ol’ days when you couldn’t buy a donut at 2am from 7-11 365 days a year, you might often go without food for significant amounts of time. This is where your wise old miserly grandmother kicks in and says, “See! I told you we’d need all this fat I’ve been collecting!”
So How Does This Knowledge Help to Break Vicious Eating Habits?
In my personal experience, I’m now highly conscious of what each bite of food is going to do to my body after it passes my tongue (I’m speaking very broadly here. I don’t know every last chemical breakdown of all food products, obviously).
This helps me when I bite into a chocolate chip cookie (my Arch Nemesis!). I say to myself, “Self. While that cookie is going to taste and feel fantastic on your tongue, you need to remember that once it goes down the pipe, your body isn’t going to be as happy as your taste buds were just then.”
In the past, I’ve done the “willpower thing,” the cold turkey thing, but this “past the tongue thing” has been a new revelation for me. It helps me to really “think” and not just “do.” Doing without thinking can lead to failure when it comes to breaking bad habits. If you don’t consciously think through all your actions, you’ll never understand why you’re “doing” something that’s perpetuating the vicious cycle.
This is a key point. People often don’t want to examine their actions or feelings that coincide with those actions. They’re fearful of confronting their weaknesses. It’s normal to feel this way, but you’ll always be stuck in a vicious cycle unless you confront these actions and feelings with an objective eye.
Let Me Describe One of My Last Great Battles That May Illustrate All of This.
As I mentioned before, a good chocolate chip cookie is easily my favorite treat. I particularly love those big, soft coffee shop cookies from the glass case.
Unfortunately, confectionaries like this are a perfect storm of refined white flour, loads of sugar, and rancid seed oils (the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse)… along with a laundry list of additives to maintain its soft shelflife so we can pretend it just came out of the oven (oh, and 300-400 useless calories to boot!).
At my old work, one of the vending machines had such a cookie, fresh off the assembly line.
Around 3pm, I would walk over to the other building where the cookie was, spend too much for it, gobble it down, and walk back to my desk.
I justified this to myself in many ways:
- “I’ve eaten healthy Paleo food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, one cookie won’t do much damage.”
- “It’s been such a slow day, I need a little boost.”
- “I’m a little hungry, and if I’m going to eat junk food out of a vending machine, I might as well go all in.”
- “I’m going to work out today, so it’s not going to impact me that much.”
- “It’s been so stressful today, I need some comfort food to make it through.”
- “I just did a fantastic presentation in that meeting, I deserve a reward!”
- “It’s Monday. Monday’s suck. I need something, anything, to get me through.”
- “It’s Wednesday and I need something to keep me motivate till Friday.”
- “It’s Friday! I deserve a treat for making it!”
Any of these sound familiar to you? They’re all pretty ridiculous when you actually write them out. Yet our minds do these logical gymnastics to justify shoving trash in our faces. The body thinks it desperately needs this fuel because it still thinks it’s in the Paleolithic era. It thinks it’s going to run out of food any moment because that’s what evolution has trained it to believe.
So What Did I Do About the Cookie?
At first, I tried the “substitution thing.” As 3pm rolled around, I still went to the vending machine but bought nuts or apple chips instead. Not bad, but these clearly didn’t satisfy my Cookie Monster. The next day, I would justify another cookie by telling myself “I was good” for eating the nuts the day before. Therefore, treat time!
Then I tried going cold turkey. I was determined to quit. If I could make it a full week without a single cookie, I figured, I would lose the craving.
As the weekend rolled around, I ended up binging on Starbucks cookies and justifying it by telling myself it was only a small portion of my overall weekly diet which was otherwise clean.
Of Course This Didn’t Work.
I then went back to the “substitution” method. I bought coconut treats, dark chocolate treats, and other “paleo” confectionaries that had very low sugar.
This kinda worked… for a while.
This is one area that I think can be very useful for some people. What I found was, if I just pop a small coco-roon or dark chocolate square in my mouth after lunch, the sugar cravings would typically fade fast. So, my body got the fix it thought it needed, and I didn’t actually consume that much sugar. Win-win, right?
The downside of this is, I was popping a coco-roon or dark chocolate square after every meal, justifying it to myself that this was just a temporary measure to kick the cookie habit.
What I hadn’t counted on, was this simply became a new habit. I was still popping sugar in an unconscious way.
The reality was, my body didn’t actually need that boost. I knew my Paleo lunch would easily carry me till dinner, and I sat at a desk all day for crying out loud! You don’t need sugar for that intense mouse workout.
Once I realized this, I felt a little depressed and went back to my daily 3pm cookie routine as an “I give up” moment.
And Then One Day I Realized Something.
On that particular day, I had back-to-back meetings. Not in a stressful way, but in a very productive “I feel great because I’m getting sh*t done” kind of way.
3pm came around and I had about 10min between meetings to spare. I ran over to the other building and gobbled down my cookie. I didn’t even taste it because I was consumed with thoughts about my previous and next meetings.
Walking back I suddenly thought to myself, “Why did I just do that?” It wasn’t pleasurable. I certainly didn’t “need” it for any of the reasons listed above. No, it was because it had become an ingrained habit. It was “just something I did” at 3pm. And that made me realize that there are more components at play here than just the eating part.
By just taking a few minutes to think about the whole process, I thought about the feelings and actions before the Cookie Monster munch:
- I liked breaking the middle of my afternoon in two parts to make the day go by quicker.
- I liked getting up from my desk to stretch my legs.
- I liked walking over to the other building because I could go outside and get some sunlight and fresh air.
What if I did those things but without the cookie part?
So I tried it for a week.
At 3pm I got up from my desk, walked over to the building… and then just turned around and walked back.
I sat back down at my desk and to my surprise, the craving was at least 75% gone. I could tackle the remaining 25% by diving back into my work. And sure enough, I made it to dinner without any trouble.
What Just Happened Here?
It’s my opinion that there are multiple components to any habit. There are multiple things you “do” to support those habits. And by doing the supporting things, but not the actual “bad” thing, your brain can get the same (or similar) reward. By doing mostly the same actions, your brain thinks you’ve done the whole thing even though you haven’t.
In other words, your habit isn’t just one action, it’s a set of actions. It’s a pattern you’ve created that tells your mind, “These are the series of things you need to do to achieve your final goal.” The problem is, we often think the final goal is an isolated event. It’s not.
Like it or not, you’ve created a strong pattern in your mind that your mind thinks is perfectly normal. You’ve convinced your brain that this is the desired action, and so it follows along like a well-trained dog to complete the task you told it was important.
You simply need to create a new pattern.
But to do that, you need to understand all the feelings and associated actions that created the pattern in the first place. That’s why simply substituting one sweet for another “healthy” sweet doesn’t work.
And that’s why sheer willpower doesn’t work either. Your brain is still holding onto that strong pattern. It hasn’t moved an inch. It’s still trying to “help” you by fulfilling that pattern its been trained to fulfill. Willpower doesn’t create a new healthy pattern, it just resists an existing strong pattern. You can only hold out so long before the established pattern reasserts itself.
So that was revelation #1, but that’s not a long-term fix. A fantastic tool, IMHO, but not a long-term fix.
Next came the knowledge part that I talked about before.
At this point, I could go about two weeks without a cookie. However, as life dictates, on stressful days I went and got a cookie.
But this time was different.
I replayed all that I’d learned to this point about habits and rituals, and I stared at that cookie and started thinking about it.
Where I used to just mindlessly gobble, now I was thinking.
I thought about how those carbs, sugars, and seed oils would enter my bloodstream. My body would try to burn the sugar first. But sitting at a desk, there was no way all of that sugar would get burned up. Some of it might get stored in my liver and muscle glycogen stores, but they’re probably already full from your previous sugar/carb fix. What about “working it off” later? Your body doesn’t work like that. The sugar doesn’t just “wait” until 5pm when you’re ready to hit the gym and use it.
So, what happens to all that sugar floating around in your blood stream with nowhere to go?
That excess sugar, along with the broken down carbs from that refined flour (remember, these are just packets of sugar), will get pushed into my fat cells from our friend Mr. Insulin. Not to mention the inflammatory effects of the seed oils on top of all that.
That was when I finally acknowledged the reality of the situation. Even though I had the knowledge about carbs/sugars/fats up to this point, I was ignoring it.
I ignored the fact that my body doesn’t “reason” with sugar or carbs to make them less potent, it just “does.” It’s the mindless machine that doesn’t care what you think, it just performs the actions it’s meant to perform: burn what energy it can for immediate use, and store the rest for a rainy day. The problem is, you’re eating every meal like it’s a rainy day. Every piece of toast, bagel, sandwich, pasta, cookie, soda, or donut is doing nothing but converting those carbs/sugars into fat. That’s just a fact. You can’t escape that reality (not to mention the havoc this is creating with your insulin response, which, over time often leads to type 2 diabetes… but that’s another story).
I ate each bite slowly, thinking exactly those thoughts with each bite. As I finished, I didn’t feel so good after all. My “reward” reaction was morphing into a “punishment” reaction.
It was now unavoidable. The logic of my body-machine could not be ignored. It just was.
As the days went on, and my cravings arose, my new self said, “Self. If you put that cookie in your mouth, these things are going to happen in your body whether you like it or not. You can’t change that or will that away. Your body doesn’t know any better. It WILL convert that sugar into fat. It WILL shuttle that excess energy away for a rainy day. You can’t hope that it won’t.”
And that was revelation #2. The inconvenient truth that could no longer be ignored: if I truly wanted a healthy mind and body, that cookie was the antithesis of that.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how long this method would last. However, I find that I have more power than ever before in understanding and controlling my behavior. I think you should do the same thing too.
Remember, it’s not your fault… well, not entirely. The point is, don’t feel bad, just use your brain more. Your brain can override all of your genes’ cravings. It knows what’s best for you, not your genes (necessarily). Your genes may still think they’re living in the Paleolithic era, but we need to bring them up to date.
And for the record, I don’t think all refined sugars and carbs need to be avoided at all costs. I still love to indulge in some tacos and beer every so often (it’s practically the law down here in San Diego), I just don’t make these things part of my regular diet. They are treats. And treats should only be indulged in once in a while, not every day or even every meal as we’ve been conditioned to believe.
So enjoy yourself! Just don’t make a habit of it.