scorecardWhy you crave sugar when you quit alcohol during Dry January, and how to curb your sweet tooth
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Why you crave sugar when you quit alcohol during Dry January, and how to curb your sweet tooth

Anna Medaris Miller   

Why you crave sugar when you quit alcohol during Dry January, and how to curb your sweet tooth
LifeScience3 min read
  • 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.

Scott Pinyard was never a dessert guy — until he quit drinking about six 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," Pinyard, now the head coach of This Naked Mind, said during a video for participants of his organization's "Alcohol Experiment." The free 30-day experiment, which I signed up for last year, helps people rewire how they 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. (I'm crushed but not surprised to learn my favorite canned cocktail, Cutwater Spirit's White Russian, has a whopping 32 grams of sugar.)

But even if your drink of choice is straight liquor or beer, both of which are typically sugar-free, loosing 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 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."

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 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 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 organization 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.

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 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."