One of the purported benefits of a keto diet is that it will help tame unwanted sugar cravings. On the surface, it makes sense. If you want to get rid of sugar cravings, stop including a bunch of sugar in your diet. Out of sight, out of mind.
Or does it make sense? Maybe following a ketogenic diet where even nutrient-dense carbs are limited turns sweet foods into forbidden fruit (no pun intended). Sugar could theoretically become even more tempting because you can’t have it.
So which is it?
It’s clear that for a lot of people, keto does kick sugar cravings to the curb. There is abundant (anecdotal) evidence from the Keto Reset community and indeed across the keto-sphere that keto works to quash cravings and hunger. Empirical studies back this up. Compared to other diets, people find it easier to stick to their goals on keto. It’s one of the big reasons keto is so popular right now.
Of course, the next question people always ask is: How long does it take?
It takes two to three days of very-low-carb eating for the liver to start pumping out ketones, and research shows that cravings are significantly reduced almost immediately as people get into ketosis. The “expert” consensus seems to be that cravings will decrease noticeably within three to ten days.
Don’t expect cravings to vanish into thin air, though. While many folks do feel significant relief from cravings almost right away, not everyone is so lucky. There is a lot of individual variability, and some people do find that their cravings are as strong as ever—or stronger—on keto. Although there’s not much research that speaks to why some people get relief where others do not, my hunch is that it depends on the root cause of your sugar cravings.
One reason you might crave sugar is simply that you’ve trained your body to rely on sugar for energy—you’re carb-dependent. Perhaps it’s not the sugar you crave specifically, so much as the energy it provides. In that case, you should notice your desire for sugar is significantly reduced as soon as your body starts to produce ketones. Moreover, I’d expect it to get easier and easier to avoid sugary treats as you become more keto-adapted.
Sugar cravings can also be conditioned (learned) responses. Decades of experience have taught you that eating sugary treats is comforting and enjoyable. You’ve come to have a strong positive association with sugar. In some ways, you might think of eating sugar as a very entrenched, reinforced habit you need to break. Habits can be broken, but it takes weeks or months, not days.
The complicating factor here is that sugar is not just pleasant or fun to eat, it’s also physiologically rewarding. Sugar activates neurological reward pathways, creating a physiological drive for more sugar.
For some people, sugar is so rewarding that it feels like an addiction. These are the folks who struggle the most. The question of whether sugar is a true addiction, on par with other addictive substances like nicotine, alcohol, and certain drugs, is hotly contested. Academic debates aside, many people experience sugar, and quitting sugar, as an addiction. They struggle mightily even when motivation and intention are high. One “relapse” can send them spiraling. There is no doubt that there are physiological drivers at play that keep the desire for sugar burning so hot in these individuals.
All this is to say: It’s different for everyone.
What does “a while” mean? As I mentioned, it takes only a matter of days for your liver to start producing ketones once you drop your carbs low enough. The full process of keto-adaptation can take months, though. A recent review concluded that while fat-oxidation rates and ketone production increase significantly in the first week or two of keto, it can take months for the whole body to become efficient at using ketones for energy.
You don’t want to wait that long, though. There are other things you can do to fight back against sugar cravings. First, make sure you are properly fueled. Caloric restriction increases the reward value of food. That means you’re more drawn to food, especially palatable foods, when you’re eating in a caloric deficit, at least at first. That’s one of the reasons I suggest eating plenty of fat and sufficient calories when transitioning to keto.
If you’re also restricting calories, chances are your cravings will diminish according to this meta-analysis, but it will happen slowly over the course of months. (The analysis also showed that it gets easier and easier over time. Good news if you can stick with it.)
Next, ensure you have your lifestyle ducks in a row. Sleep deprivation and chronic stress have been shown time and time again to cause sugar cravings as the body scrambles for quick energy. Even dehydration and boredom can trigger hunger and cravings. If you want to get rid of sugar cravings, you need to practice good self-care.
You crave sugar due to the hormonal response to those stressors, but don’t underestimate the comfort factor here, too. It doesn’t feel good to be sleep deprived, stressed, and bored. There’s a good chance you’ve used sugar in the past to lift your spirits. If you’re using sugar to self-soothe, you also need to develop better coping mechanisms.
Dig deep and look at what really underlies these sugar cravings. I suggest you start journaling about your cravings. Each time a sugar craving hits, make a note of the following:
After a week or two, you might be able to spot some patterns. If it’s obvious that there are specific trigger(s) like time of day, workplace stress, or fatigue that precede your cravings, work at developing other coping methods that aren’t food-related. Solve the root problem. Meditate, exercise, drink a glass of water, eat an actual meal or snack with some protein and healthy fat.
Finally, try a period of cold turkey if you haven’t yet. Eliminate all sweeteners, even keto-friendly ones like stevia. Look at your fruit and beverage habits. See if you’re still using “sweet” even if you’ve eliminated the major sources of refined sugar from your diet. On the flip side, if you’ve been cold turkey, consider allowing yourself some low-glycemic fruit, for example. Maybe being too restrictive doesn’t work for you. Try to find your personal sweet spot.
If you have tried the strategies I suggested, you’ve given yourself enough time to be fully keto-adapted, and you truly feel addicted, it might be time to seek out a doctor, nutritionist, or therapist that specializes in sugar dependency. For you, there might be physiological factors at play that mean you need additional support.
Remember, though, that occasionally wanting or even craving sugar doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. Don’t beat yourself up. You might need to adjust your strategy, or it might just be a blip on the radar. Once you’re metabolically flexible, you can decide on a case by case basis how to respond.
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