How To Make Peace With Sugar

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
We don't do diets. But we still love to eat — and we want to eat well. In her column, How To Eat, Refinery29's favorite intuitive-eating coach Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, will help you do just that by answering the food and nutrition questions that really matter. Send yours to heythere@refinery29.com. Get more sound nutrition advice here.

I always WAY overdo it when it comes to candy, pie, cake — basically all the fun holiday sweets. Not only does this make me feel physically not so good, it’s also guilt-inducing. What’s the best way to recover from a sugar hangover (and to quit sweets for good)?

What you’re feeling is pretty common this time of year, when sweets are everywhere. The holidays were basically invented so we could eat, be merry, and feel better about the coming dark and frigid months. (Okay, obviously, there are other reasons for the season, but it certainly feels that way sometimes.) And you’re right that the sugar hangover is actually often two-fold: It’s not just the physical sensations of overdoing it, it’s also the emotions this can bring up for you that can be unpleasant.

The causes of the physical feelings are not entirely clear, but as long as you don’t have diabetes or other rare blood-sugar abnormalities, the condition is most likely what’s called idiopathic postprandial syndrome — a.k.a. feelings of lethargy, shakiness, headaches, anxiety, or hunger a few hours after a sugary or high-carb meal, without clinically low blood sugar. When this happens, the best thing to do is simple: Take it easy and be sure to eat adequate meals and snacks and drink plenty of water, in line with your hunger and thirst cues. Trust that your body will recover on its own if you give it time and care.

As for the feelings of guilt, I have similar advice: Try to be kind to yourself. Research shows that self-compassion is associated with better health and well-being than self-criticism, so you’ll actually do more damage to your overall well-being by trying to “make up for” having that extra piece of pie. Don’t deprive yourself or force yourself to exercise. (Though exercise is mood-boosting, of course, so if you want to exercise for its own sake rather than to “make up” for your sugar intake, go for it.) Try a thought exercise instead: Take slow, deep breaths for a minute or more; with each breath in, say to yourself “let,” and with each breath out, say “go.” Use this and other mindful self-compassion practices to let go of guilt and re-focus on the present moment. And again, trust that by listening to your body’s cues, you will get back on track.

It's also natural to have the urge to make sure this doesn't happen again, but the worst thing you can do is tell yourself that you're not allowed to have sweets. That actually increases the likelihood that you’ll binge on them the next time they’re around, and it takes you further away from a healthy, balanced relationship with food.

So instead of vowing to cut out sugar, work on making peace with it. You might think that an “out-of-control” sweets binge means that you’re TOO much at peace with it, but you’d probably be surprised at the unconscious ways in which you’ve labeled sugar as “bad” in your mind. Try to be mindful of what you’re telling yourself about sweets, and work to change those thought patterns. To the extent that you hold these negative beliefs about any food, you’ll continue to have a tumultuous relationship with it.

The same is true for your unconscious beliefs about how much you should eat in general. If you’re afraid that following your hunger cues would lead you to eat “too much,” and if you’re skipping or skimping on meals in anticipation of eating sweets or other “fun” foods, you’re setting yourself up to feel out of control with those foods.

My clients have told me again and again that once they made peace with sweets and started to trust their hunger and fullness cues, the impulse to binge drastically decreased, because now they know they can have access to any food they want, anytime.

That’s been the case in my own life, too: When I was restricting sweets and counting calories, I never met a plate of holiday cookies I couldn’t polish off. But once I stopped fighting my hunger cues and started seeing sweets as everyday options, my body was able to tell me when it had enough and I was able to listen. Now I can stand by the dessert table all night without getting a sugar hangover — and it’s not a matter of “willpower,” it’s just a matter of eating what tastes and feels good.

Anyone can achieve this same freedom around food with time and effort. For now, though, just relax and let the hangover pass.

Christy Harrison is an NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in intuitive eating, eating-disorder recovery, and Health at Every Size. She writes about food and nutrition for various publications and hosts Food Psych, a podcast dedicated to improving your relationship with food.