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Why you crave sugar when you quit alcohol, and how to curb your sweet tooth

Business Insider US
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • Dry January can lead to a sweet tooth since both booze and sugar stimulate the chemical dopamine. 
  • Abstainers may also have low blood sugar and reach for sugar in place of their former crutch. 
  • Focus on the positive (staying dry), and try other dopamine fixes like fruit and exercise. 
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Scott Pinyard was never a dessert guy — until he quit drinking about five years ago. Then, suddenly, the dad and then-engineer began craving Swedish fish, a popular American sweet. So much so that for at least a month, he kept the sweets in his desk and car.

"When the craving hit, I just allowed it," Pinyard, now the head coach of This Naked Mind, said during a video for participants of his organisation's "Alcohol Experiment." The free 30-day experiment, which I signed up for this month, helps people rewire how people think and feel about alcohol while taking a break from booze.  

Sugar cravings like Pinyard's are common when going alcohol free. But the urge typically fades, and there are strategies to handle it in the meantime. 

Sugar and alcohol both stimulate dopamine   

If you're used to guzzling higher-sugar wines or mixed drinks, your body is missing both alcohol and sugar.

But even if your drink of choice is straight liquor or beer, both of which are typically sugar-free, losing booze can mean gaining a sweet tooth since both substances produce dopamine, a chemical associated with reward. 

"When you take away something like alcohol, which is over producing dopamine, it is so easy you for your brain to say, 'Oh my gosh, I need that. I need my fix,'" This Naked Mind founder Annie Grace said in the video. "And it looks for what it has in its environment, which is so often sugar." 

Heavy drinkers also tend to have low blood sugar, which leads to sugar cravings, according to Silver Maple Recovery, an addiction research center in Ohio.  

Reaching for cookies and ice cream may also feel comforting in the absence of your old crutch, Katie Witkiewitz, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcohol, Substance Use, and Addictions, previously told me

"Any time people change a behaviour, our natural gut reaction — literally — is to experience more hunger," she said. "There's the boredom factor and the reward factor," Witkiewitz added, "And food is a very accessible, natural reward."

Fortunately, she said, the intensity of the cravings shouldn't last. "The body is really miraculous in coming into a homeostatic state," she said. "Eventually, people feel more cravings for healthier foods and have more energy."

How to cope 

Pinyard didn't try to fight his sweetcraving. It worked: He stayed dry, the desire faded, and he's since found healthier ways to get his dopamine fix. 

Grace says Pinyard's approach can work if you practice self-compassion rather than blaming and shaming yourself up for each M&M. 

Tell yourself: "I'm going to let my body do what it needs to do by fixing that dopamine depletion in another way — a way that's not going to have me missing my memories or driving my car off the road," she said. 

If you want a more practical approach, dietitian Lauren Manaker suggests keeping fruit on hand and seeking natural highs through activities like exercise. Eating protein-rich snacks and meals throughout the day can also keep you full and satisfied, Pinyard said, helping to avoid the sort of sugar crash that leads you to reach for more. 

When a hankering strikes, Alcohol Change UK, the organisation credited with launching the Dry January movement in 2013, also recommends: 

  • brushing your teeth
  • mixing up your routine to fight boredom-induced bingeing
  • sipping a nonalcoholic beverage, such as peppermint tea.

People who prefer abstinence to moderation — likely most people drawn to Dry January over a "damper" version — may find going cold turkey is easiest. 

A final note: If you find you're swapping sugar in for booze to numb hard feelings, seek help to face the underlying driver of both. "There are treatments that work," Witkiewitz said of alcohol use disorder. "Just because you can't do it on your own doesn't mean you can't ever do it."

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