Health & Fit Why you crave sugar when you quit alcohol during Dry January, and how to curb your sweet tooth
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- 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.
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. So much so that for at least a month, he kept the candies in his desk and car.
"When the craving hit, I just allowed it,", now the head coach of , said during a video for participants of his organization'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.
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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. (I'm crushed but not surprised to learn my favorite canned cocktail,, has a whopping 32 grams of sugar.)
But even if your drink of choice is straight liquor or beer, both of which are, loosing booze can mean gaining a sweet tooth since , 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 foundersaid in the video. "And it looks for what it has in its environment, which is so often sugar."
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Heavy drinkers also tend to have low blood sugar, which leads to sugar cravings, according to, an addiction research center in Ohio.
Reaching for cookies and ice cream may also feel comforting in the absence of your old crutch,, a psychologist at the University of New Mexico's Center on Alcohol, Substance Use, and Addictions, .
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"Any time people change a behavior, 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."
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How to cope
Pinyard didn't try to fight his Swedish fish craving. 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, dietitiansuggests 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,, the organization credited with launching the 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, reach out for help to face the underlying driver of both. "There are," 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."
Dry January: Why is casual drinking the bad habit we're willing to cut out? .
After ringing in the new year, many people around the world choose to temporarily give up beer, wine and other types of alcohol for Dry January. In the U.S., Dry January continues to gain momentum. A survey by Morning Consult found that 19 percent of adults planned to take part this year in Dry January, up from 13 percent in 2021. There’s little argument against sobering up for a month, especially if you believe you’ve been overdoing it — and research shows that many are, with alcohol consumption in adults ages 30 and older rising by 14 percent during the pandemic.