So you’ve cut down on carbs, you’re eating fatty proteins and non-starchy vegetables, and you’re keeping an eye on your electrolytes. Maybe you’ve even lost a few pounds already and your blood sugar or blood pressure is getting better. Clearly, you’re doing something right! So…when do the sugar cravings go away? Social media makes it sound like as soon as your body switches from being a “carb burner” to a “fat burner,” it’ll stop calling out for sugar, but you still feel pulled toward the sweet stuff. What gives? What can you do if you still crave sugar on a keto diet?
The first thing I can say is, welcome to the human race! Stop worrying that you’re doing something wrong if you crave sweet things. We are evolutionarily hard-wired for exactly that. Sure, we can resist the temptations or find ways to indulge them without inducing a lot of metabolic damage, but if you’ve found it difficult to do this, give yourself credit for trying at all. You’re the underdog here. Evolution had a few-million-year head start on you.
There are two main ways to address sugar cravings on a ketogenic diet. One strategy is to attempt to kill the cravings altogether. The other is to find ways to satisfy them while still reaping the health benefits and weight loss potential of a keto diet. One approach is not better or more effective than the other. What matters is which works better for you. Let’s take a closer look at both.
STRATEGY 1: STARVE THE SUGAR BEAST!
In End Your Carb Confusion, the book I co-authored with well-known keto authority Dr. Eric Westman, we recommended the first strategy: get rid of the cravings entirely. Make them irrelevant. You don’t have to “resist” cravings when you don’t have cravings. And the way to stop craving sugar is to … drumroll please … stop eating sugar. If this sounds simple and straightforward, that’s because it is. Dr. Westman says, “You crave what you eat.” Keep eating sugar and you’ll keep craving sugar.
You might be thinking that the way to make a craving disappear is to satisfy it. After all, if the sugar monster in your mind is yelling to be fed, then if you feed it, it’ll be placated and go away. And sure, this works just fine—for a few hours! But what happens when the craving comes back? Feeding the sugar monster satisfies it only temporarily. Over the long term, giving in to its demands doesn’t make it go away; it makes it hungrier for more! It’s like a stray cat: if you leave a dish of food out for it on your porch every night, it’ll come back every night looking for it. Stop setting the food out and eventually the cat learns it’s not going to get fed there anymore.
If you feel you need to go this route, the best way to keep the sweet taste out of your mouth (and out of your brain!) is to steer clear of sweet-tasting things altogether. That means not just “real sugar,” which you’re already avoiding on keto, but also things like coconut flour brownies, almond flour cookies, “keto ice cream,” and other treats sweetened with sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners, or other keto-friendly sweetening agents. For some people, these foods can be a slippery slope. It may sound extreme, but certain segments of the population find it easier to abstain from sweet foods completely than try to eat them “in moderation”. (If it was difficult to eat just one cookie in your previous high-carb life, chances are it’s not going to be any easier to eat only one keto cookie. You’re not alone if you’ve learned the hard way that it’s easier to eat no cookies than it is to stop after a reasonable portion. You’re in good company if eating something sweet seems to flip a switch and you can’t flip it back. If this describes you, it may be best to stay far away from the switch in the first place.)
If you do choose to go this route, Dr. Westman and I suggest counting total carbs, rather than net carbs. This means that when counting carbs, you don’t subtract carbohydrate grams that come from sugar alcohols or fiber. If you don’t subtract these, then staying strict keto doesn’t leave much wiggle room for things like nut flours and sweeteners. If they don’t fit within your own personal carb threshold, then they’re off-limits. Problem solved. But an even easier way to go about this is telling yourself that keto treats are off the menu, period.
STRATEGY 2: BEFRIEND THE SUGAR BEAST
As effective as it is to kick your inner sugar demon to the curb altogether, what if you’d prefer not to? What if you’d rather befriend it and learn to peacefully coexist? This can absolutely be done, too!
The whole point of sugar alcohols and other keto-friendly sweeteners is to allow people to enjoy sweet foods and beverages without the negative impacts on blood glucose and insulin that come from regular sugar, corn syrup, and other high-glycemic sweetening agents. Plus, having these things once in a while can make it easier and more realistic to stick to keto—and that’s what you want, right? A way of eating that gets you the results you want in the long term.
If you can have keto sweets now and then—or possibly even every day—and still be satisfied with your health and your weight, then you don’t need to worry about preventing cravings. You can indulge them and do just fine. However, if you’re struggling to lose weight or are concerned about insulin resistance, I recommend being careful when it comes to keto treats. Keep in mind, some sweeteners have a bigger impact than others. Also remember that coconut butter, cream cheese, heavy cream, almond flour, and other commonly used ingredients can pack in the fat and calories. (Just because something is low in carbs doesn’t mean fat and total calories become irrelevant. If only!)
There’s no right or wrong and no good or bad with regard to including keto sweets in your diet or abstaining completely. After all, I wouldn’t be writing for Keto Chow (a sweet-tasting keto shake) if I thought everything sweet should be off limits all the time! The only rules you need to follow are the ones you set for yourself.
A WORD ABOUT MEDICATION
One important note: if you’re taking any medications, do some sleuthing to see if they’re known to increase appetite or induce sugar cravings. Medications for diabetes and hypertension, in particular, can cause fluctuations in blood sugar and blood pressure that might make you more likely to reach for food—including sweets. Keto can improve blood sugar and blood pressure all on its own, so doses of medication often need to be adjusted when you start eating this way. Don’t look to sugar to give you an energy boost or to clear the brain fog when the issue might be your medicines. (As always, be sure to work with your doctor to make any changes to your meds.)