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The keto diet is one of the best ways to lose weight, burn fat, and still enjoy what you eat. It’s a low carb, moderate protein, high-fat diet that allows you to eat red meat, bacon, heavy cream, nuts, and many other foods that most other diets ban.
However, for the keto diet to work its magic, you need to become a carb detective so you can avoid the one food group that could sabotage your progress. Spotting carbs is easy enough, just read your food labels. But what about sugar? How much sugar can you have on keto?
Sugar is a simple carbohydrate which means, like carbs, eating too much will kick you out of ketosis and put the brakes on fat loss. Because of this, you need to develop a sixth-sense for sugar and avoid it whenever you can.
Does that mean you can’t eat any sugar? Absolutely not! But you do need to make sure you limit your intake. Sugar and keto do not mix well!
Sugar is everywhere
Sugar used to be a rare and valuable commodity. Like exotic spices, gold, and diamonds, it was hard to obtain, costly, and transported and traded all around the world. Fast forward to the 21st century and sugar is everywhere.
Food manufacturers quickly came to realize that people love sugar and adding it to their products had a very positive impact on sales. You’ll find sugar in almost all processed foods, even those that don’t taste sweet. From ketchup to soup to canned beans to potatoes chips, adding sugar to your food makes you crave more. The more you crave, the more you eat, and the more you eat, the more money food manufacturers make. Sneaky, right?!
Thankfully, with a few weeks of limiting sugar on keto, your cravings will start to disappear. However, if you’ve been carrying a sugar monkey around on your back for a long time, you will probably go through a period of withdrawal. Sugar cravings are a common obstacle for keto dieters.
Why is quitting sugar so hard?
It’s often said that sugar is addictive and, given how powerful those sugar cravings can be, it’s hard to argue with this opinion. Sugar all-but encourages you to overeat, and it can be a hard habit to break. People are only half-joking when they say sugar is as addictive as heroin!
Sugar appeals to not just our sense of taste but also receptors buried deep in our brains. On some level, humans recognize sugar as being something worth seeking out. We are hard-wired to appreciate and crave sugar.
Sweet foods, such as fruit and honey, are excellent sources of energy, and naturally sweet-tasting foods are often safer and healthier than unsweetened or bitter foods. Sweetness is a good indicator that fruit is ripe enough to eat. Unripe fruit can make you ill. Sweet-tasting food helped your hunter-gather ancestors avoid eating things that may have harmed them. They also knew that sugar would give them a quick burst of energy – just what they needed during a hunt.
Sugar not only affects your body; it affects your brain too. Sugar triggers the release of dopamine – one of the feelgood hormones. This is the same substance that is produced by addictive narcotics like cocaine and heroin. Our bodies reward us when we eat sugar by making us feel happy and relaxed. This is why sugar is so addictive, and why we crave sugar, especially during times of unhappiness or stress. It’s no coincidence that most so-called comfort foods are high in sugar.
Sugar cravings on keto
For your keto diet to be successful, you need to keep your carb intake to 50 grams or less per day. This will put you into ketosis which turns your fat-burning thermostat up to the max. As sugar is a carb, that means you need to limit your sugar intake too. While following the keto diet, sugar should be avoided.
Unfortunately, eating less sugar can produce some unpleasant cravings, especially if you are used to eating a lot of sugar. Craving sugar on keto is very common, especially during the first few days as your body makes the shift to full ketosis. In some instances, these cravings can be bad enough to make you quit your diet. Of course, if you do that, you will never get the results you want.
Some people have enough willpower to shrug off sugar cravings, but a lot of people end up dreaming about sugar and thinking about it all the time. This is hardly surprising when you consider just how many foods contain sugar. From breakfast cereal to soda to desserts, when you go keto and quit sugar, you are going to have to give up all these foods.
Like giving up an addictive substance, your body wants what it cannot have. This is human nature. Try this: Don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about? It’s a safe bet that it’s big, gray, and has a trunk!
Giving up sugar on keto is the same – you can’t help but think about and crave sugar, even if you didn’t want it before. The moment you decide to eliminate sugar from your diet, you’ll start to want it more. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to turn down the volume on your sugar cravings, making them much easier to ignore.
How to avoid sugar cravings before you start keto
On the keto diet, sugar cravings are common but not everyone gets them, and the severity can vary from person to person. If you didn’t eat a lot of sugar before you started your keto diet, you probably won’t miss it as much as someone who is used to eating a lot of sugar. However, if you are already something of a sugar addict, your cravings will be much worse.
Avoid this problem by weaning yourself off sugar before you go full keto. Think of this as going “warm turkey” instead of going full “cold turkey” from the get-go. This gradual withdrawal will help you get used to a lower sugar diet so that, when you start your keto diet, sugar cravings will be much less powerful.
Start reducing your sugar intake a week or two before you intend to start your keto diet. This should be long enough for your body to get used to the idea of eating less sugar. Limit your consumption of foods that contain a lot of sugar, such as breakfast cereals, baked goods, candy, and soda. Make a note of how much sugar you eat, and make sure you eat a little less day by day. Use a food tracking app to make this easier.
What to eat on keto to prevent sugar cravings?
Your body mainly uses sugar for energy. If you are craving sugar, and it’s not just your sugar addiction talking, you may be running low on energy. On a very low carb keto diet, your body has no carbs or sugar for energy and uses fat instead. However, your brain and muscles cannot directly use fat for energy, so it has to convert fat into ketones, an energy source it can handle.
Turning fat into ketones uses a lot of energy. This energy inefficiency means your body uses more fat than usual, and you lose weight faster.
The keto diet is a high-fat diet. Seventy percent or more of your calorie intake must come from dietary fat. A lot of keto dieters are nervous about eating so much fat, but it’s essential for keto dieting success. Low fat keto diets DO NOT WORK!
Eating too little fat means you may have less energy, and low levels of energy can trigger sugar cravings. Eating enough fat will ensure you have all the energy you need and should have fewer sugar cravings as a result.
Good sources to diet-friendly fats that can help you stop craving sugar on keto include:
- Olive oil
- Nuts and nut butter
- Chia seeds and flaxseeds
- Coconut oil
- Heavy whipping cream
- Beef lard and dripping
- Duck and goose fat
Dealing with cravings on keto
Even if you wean yourself off sugar before you start your keto diet, and eat enough fat, you may still experience sugar cravings from time to time. Because sugar affects you physically as well as mentally, these sugar cravings can hit at almost any time. You might be tired and need energy, or you could be feeling down or stressed. Sugar cravings can catch you unawares but, if you want to stop them derailing your weight loss journey, it is imperative you don’t give in.
Here are some tried-and-tested strategies for dealing with sugar cravings.
1. Walk it off
One of the best ways to deal with sugar cravings is to go for a walk. Walking, like all types of exercise, increases the production of the same feel-good hormones as sugar, namely dopamine. Because walking is so easy and accessible, you can do it any time you are struck by a sugar craving. As an added benefit, walking also burns calories which can contribute to weight loss.
2. Drink some water
A lot of us reach for sugary snacks out of habit. It’s 11am, so it’s candy bar time! Replace one addiction with another by drinking water every time you have a sugar craving. In time, you’ll find yourself automatically reaching for water when you used to reach for a sugary snack. As an added bonus, drinking more water will help reduce the severity of many keto flu symptoms.
3. Entertain yourself
Boredom makes sugar cravings worse. Avoid boredom and sugar cravings too by keeping yourself entertained. Good options include:
- Read a book
- Make a phone call
- Play a video game
- Listen to some music
- Tidy your house
- Wash your car
- Play with your kids
- Do some gardening
- Complete a puzzle or quiz
- Talk to a friend or your partner
Then more bored you become, the more likely you are to give into your sugar cravings. What started as a small craving at the back of your brain can soon grow and become all-consuming. Stop cravings in their tracks by pushing thoughts of sugar out of your mind with more engaging, distracting activities.
4. Treat yourself
Sugar and keto are not compatible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have any sugar at all. You just need to make sure that you take into account your sugar intake when counting carbs. Remember, your carb limit per day is 50 grams.
If you are desperate for a sugar fix, you can treat yourself with a small sugary snack. Make sure it’s something you know you’ll enjoy, and that you only consume a small serving. Take a moment to really savor your treat. Gobbling it will mean you miss out on all the enjoyment a little treat can bring.
Good options that contain 20 grams of sugar or less include:
- One ounce of 70-85% cocoa solids dark chocolate
- One ounce of jelly beans
- One ounce of dark chocolate covered almonds or brazil nuts
- One medium apple, sliced
- One cup of strawberries (150 grams/5 ounces)
5. Tough it out
Sugar cravings can arrive in an instant but can also disappear just as quickly. Just because you are craving sugar right now doesn’t mean those cravings are going to last. In a lot of instances, sugar cravings vanish all on their own in 15-30 minutes.
The next time you are hit by a sugar craving, acknowledge it but also choose to ignore it. Grit your teeth, tense your willpower muscles, and just tough it out. You may well find that your cravings vanish just as quickly and mysteriously as they arrived.
Like a naughty puppy, if you reward bad behavior with a treat, you have to expect more of the same. Similarly, if you ignore bad behavior, it will become less frequent. Treat your cravings with the same disdain; if you learn to ignore them, they will show up less often.
6. Avoid known triggers
Cravings are often caused by triggers. For example, if you usually have a cookie with your 11am cup of coffee, your midmorning cup of joe could be a trigger for craving something sweet. Similarly, if you usually have a bag of candy on your lap when you watch TV, chilling out in front of the latest episode of Game of Thrones could trigger sugar cravings.
Take note of where you are and what you are doing when your sugar cravings hit. Look for the triggers that may be responsible. If you can’t resist your cravings, make sure you avoid the triggers that cause the cravings in the first place. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
7. Eat some pickles
Weirdly, many keto diets find that crunchy, salty pickles are a great way to defeat sugar cravings. Their intense flavor seems to overpower your taste buds and cancel out your need for sugar. Keep a jar nearby so that, if sugar cravings strike, you are armed and ready to respond. Pickles also contain sodium and consuming this mineral can help prevent some of the symptoms of keto flu.
8. Remember why you started keto in the first place
When sugar cravings strike, your willpower can take a real hit. You may even be tempted to throw up your hands in surrender and give into your sugar craving, quitting keto forever. DON’T!
Take a moment to think about why you started your keto diet in the first place. Was it for weight loss, to get healthier, to improve your performance for sport, or to look better for beach season? You won’t achieve any of these goals if you give in to your cravings.
Your reason for going keto is bigger than your craving for sugar. Remind yourself of that the next time you find yourself craving sugar.
9. Chew sugar-free gum
Sugar-free gum contains artificial flavors and sweeteners. It’s very low in calories but tastes sweet enough that it may help conquer your sugar cravings despite not containing any sugar. Try chewing a stick of sugar-free gum the next time you have a sugar craving. It also tastes refreshing and is good for your teeth too. Pop a stick of gum in your mouth after lunch or dinner to stop you from reaching for a sugary dessert.
10. Drink a cup of unsweetened coffee or green tea
Sugar cravings are often linked to low levels of energy. Your body knows that sugar is an excellent way to pep you up! Boost your energy levels without sugar by drinking a cup of coffee or green tea – without sugar of course! The caffeine will give you a welcome energy boost without disrupting ketosis and fat burning.
What about artificial sweeteners?
Just because sugar and keto don’t work well together, does this mean you have to give up all sweeteners? Not necessarily. There are several artificial sweeteners that are keto-friendly, so you can enjoy some sweetness without derailing your diet. Here are six of the best keto artificial sweeteners.
1. Stevia is a natural artificial sweetener. That might sound like an oxymoron, but the fact is that stevia comes from a plant (so it’s natural) but has to be extracted (so it’s artificial). Stevia is a nonnutritive sweetener, which means that it contains little to no calories, carbs, or sugar. It’s about 40-times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a very long way.
2. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener that your body cannot digest. This means it tastes sweet but contains no usable carbs, sugar, or calories. It is a common ingredient in diet soda and is marketed as Splenda.
3. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols are naturally occurring substances that stimulate the sweet taste receptors on your tongue to mimic the taste of sugar. Sugar alcohols are about 80% percent as sweet as sugar, but only contain 5% of the calories. While there are several different sugar alcohols, erythritol is the least likely to cause digestive upset.
4. Xylitol is another sugar alcohol. It’s often used in sugar-free gum, candies, and mints. It’s as sweet as sugar but only contains three calories per gram. Xylitol can cause mild digestive problems when used in high doses, so dial back your intake if you experience any adverse effects.
5. Monk fruit sweetener is another natural alternative to sugar. It’s between 100–250 times sweeter than regular sugar, so a little goes a very long way. Monk fruit sweetener can be used anywhere you would use regular sugar, but you won’t need anywhere near the same amount.
6. Yacon syrup comes from the roots of the Yacon plant, which is a South American tuber. While yacon syrup tastes sweet, it is a type of fiber, and your body cannot completely digest it. This means it has no real effect on your blood glucose levels.
Artificial sweeteners might seem like a perfect way to beat sugar cravings, but you should avoid overusing or abusing them. Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners means you can keep on eating the very foods that caused you to gain weight in the first place, and the keto diet should be more than just a way to lose weight; it should be healthy too.
Also, replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners won’t stop your sugar cravings, it just provides short-term relief. You’ll still crave sugar, and that’s not something to ignore. Cutting down and then giving up sugar will make weight loss and weight management much more straightforward. Overusing artificial sweeteners is like swapping cigarettes for vaping – it’s more or less the same thing.
Giving up sugar can be tough, but it’s a necessary step for successful keto dieting. Many modern foods all-but guarantee sugar addiction, and like any addiction, quitting sugar can be hard. The food industry wants you to be addicted to sugar. It’s how they make so much money!
However, you CAN beat your sugar cravings and addiction, and once you do, you’ll find that the ketogenic diet is an easy way to lose weight fast and keep it off forever. You’ll also experience food freedom. Without the sugar monkey on your back, you’ll find it much easier to regulate what and when you eat. No sugar cravings mean you’ll be able to reconnect with what should control you’re your food intake – your appetite.
Going keto means slashing your sugar intake, but in a few short weeks, you should find that sugar cravings are a thing of the past. A few weeks of discomfort is a very small price to pay for dietary freedom. Giving up sugar may be hard initially, but it’s worth it!