Dessert Demons in Disguise

We re-released the Whole9 Guide to Eating Dirty (Part I and Part II) last year, and it prompted some good discussion on our website. For those of you about to embark upon a January Whole30®, you may find reader Katie’s question (and our answer) helpful for getting into the spirit of the Whole30. Katie wrote:

“I’ve been doing Paleo pretty clean, and trying to seriously restrict the fruit. I have noticed recently that my cravings have changed, and I don’t want the refined sugary stuff that I used to enjoy. But lately, I also don’t want certain Paleo foods that I use to like (eggs and chicken, for example) and do still seriously want carbs, which I give into from time to time.

For example, today after I ate my lunch of leftovers (turkey and the “stuffing” and green beans from your website), I ate some coconut milk with cranberry sauce, and then went to the store and bought some tomato soup, an apple and a banana. Then I felt satisfied. I didn’t feel like I needed more food because I was not into the idea of eating more turkey… but the carbs helped. What’s up with that?”

Paleo Dessert Land

Katie’s situation may sound strange, but this is a really common theme when folks transition out of their Whole30, or have simply spent some time thriving on a “Paleo” diet. She’s not craving the candy, cake or cookies she used to – but she feels like her meals aren’t complete until she adds a little something at the end. Surely a cup of tomato soup or an apple aren’t providing her with crucial energy her body has been missing… so what’s the story? The key is in one little sentence above… “Then, I felt satisfied.”

Have you ever chowed down on a really delicious meal until you were well beyond “full”? You know you should stop eating, but you don’t want to, because every bite is just so good. Your plate is cleared, and you rub your food-baby lovingly while desperately wishing your pants had an elastic waistband. And then… someone brings out the dessert. And despite the fact that two minutes ago, you were convinced you couldn’t eat another bite, you manage to make room for at least a few forkfuls of the sweet stuff.

Sound familiar? We’ve all been there, and that’s just where Katie is too. Except she’s in Paleo Dessert Land, where we’re still conditioned to want something sweet after a meal, but our food choices have dramatically changed. So instead of reaching for the cookie, cake or ice cream, we grab some frozen blueberries and coconut milk. Or a banana. Or… tomato soup. Yes, as we’ll explain below, in this scenario the tomato soup is still dessert. And dessert is a tradition that’s been imprinted into most of our brains for the entirety of our lives.

A Cupcake in Sheep’s Clothing

The long-standing habits associated with the concept of “dessert” are some of the hardest to break, because in many cases, they’re as old as we are. The kicker is that it takes only a few days for your brain to develop a craving, and a pattern, with sweet foods. Dr. David A. Kessler, author of The End of Overeating, referenced one study in which people were given a high-sugar, high-fat snack for five consecutive mornings. For days afterward, they wanted something sweet at about that same time each morning… despite the fact that they had never previously snacked at that time.

In just five days, desire had already taken hold. Now imagine 20 or 30 years of “Eat all your vegetables or you won’t get dessert.” No wonder we don’t feel satisfied until we’ve had our sweet stuff after meals!

This pattern, however, may not connect as “dessert” because our food choices are so dramatically different. A handful of berries after a meal doesn’t register like a cookie or a bowl of ice cream would. But voluntarily desiring “less bad” food when you choose to indulge is a common benefit of the Whole30 program. Your “treats” are no longer “cheats,” compared to the way you used to eat. Gone are the hot fudge sundaes, the decadent chocolate cakes, the cookies and pies. Now, you treat yourselves with an apple and Sunbutter, or some 90% dark chocolate, or some dried figs.

So that tomato soup after your meal doesn’t equate with “dessert”… except it totally is. That soup, or an apple, or cranberry sauce are all primarily carbohydrates. Carbohydrates break down into sugar in the body. Which means that tomato soup is just a cupcake in sheep’s clothing. And sure, that last one might be a bit of a stretch there… but we suspect Katie knows it to be true. Why? Because she’s already said to herself, “I’m not really still hungry, I just want some.”

Banishing Your Dessert Demons

Your safest strategy for successfully banishing all of your sugar cravings – even the Dessert Demon – is to try to break the habit of idea of dessert altogether. Slip a small amount of sweet stuff (which is usually fruit-based) in with the rest of your protein and veggies, instead of saving it for after your meal. Follow our Meal Planning template, making sure your fruit consumption isn’t taking over your plate. Make sure your meals include plenty of healthy fats – fat’s satiety signal to your brain may help you quell some of those dessert longings. Swap out dessert after a meal for a new tradition, like a cup of hot herbal tea (our personal favorite).

And when all else (including willpower) fails, go ahead and eat the apple, cranberry sauce, or tomato soup, but understand it’s not your body sending you a “hunger” signal, it’s just your brain responding to conditioning.

Got a question for Whole9? Drop it to comments on any relevant post, and we’ll see if it meets our main page criteria. (Which isn’t really defined – we just sort of answer whatever questions we like best. But still, you don’t stand a chance if you don’t ask, right?)

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  1. says

    We had dessert only on birthdays when I was growing up. Maybe that is why I have never expected a sweet treat after a meal. Thank you family for sparing me this one challenge.

  2. says

    What about as a symptom of a too low carb diet? If someone is not in ketosis and still using glucose for energy, and say they are eating a lot of protein (so they provide glucose via gluconeogenesis), so there need for sugar is still high.

    I guess my main point is that carbs are not evil. This person did not mention that they were trying to lose weight or had some issue where they had to restrict carbs. They just did not seem satisfied until they ate a bit more carbs. They choose pretty good sources IMHO. So I don’t see an issue here.

    Why is she severely restricting fruit? I can see not trying to rely on it as your only snack, but severely restricting seems a bit much. Fruit is not a problem for most people.

    Obviously we need more context for what this individual goals are, and their history in terms of health and diet. I just think we should understand that sugar, fat, salt, meaty flavors, are all cravings we evolved to sense and enjoy for our health. There is a reason why these foods taste good. Paleo has done a great service teaching everyone that fat in and of itself is not bad. (Sure certain types may be problematic, but saying all fat is bad for you was wrong). I see paleo making the same mistake with sugar. It’s not black or white here. Too much sugar is bad. Sugar, especially when combined with fat, can create ridiculously tasting engineered food that hacks our natural hunger/satiety signals, but that is not what we are talking about here.

  3. says

    @Tom: We weren’t a super-heavy dessert family either, for which I am immensely grateful. (And dessert was never a reward for eating all your vegetables – that was just plain expected of us.) We’ll certainly take care to raise our kid that way too – knowing how many folks struggle with sugar demons as adults, I hate the idea of setting up a child for that same struggle by plying them with “treats”… even the Paleo ones.

    @PBO: First, this wasn’t a consultation. We didn’t talk about Katie’s goals, or her context. This was simply an interesting question, for which we could jump off into what we felt was a powerful and helpful lesson for those new to our program, and our way of eating.

    Here, we’re not talking about “am I eating enough carbohydrate.” Something tells me you haven’t read our book, It Starts With Food – (please read, because this will answer pretty much all of your questions here!) – if you had, you’d know we don’t demonize carbs (or even sugar), and encourage consumption of healthy vegetables and fruit to fuel activity levels. But Katie’s question, as we heard it, wasn’t about ratios – it was about habits. Around here, we deal a LOT with changing habits, and our psychological relationship with food.

    While we don’t encourage restricting fruit on the Whole30, per se, we do caution folks not to use fruit as a sugar-crutch. You’d be surprised how many people say one handful of grapes has them craving donuts, candy, or cookies… our attachments (addictions?) to sugar are strong and fast. So for our lesson, this wasn’t about “she was craving more carbs to fuel activity.” This was about the habit, the relationship, with having just a little something post-meal.

    These patterns tie in with everything from our love with supernormally stimulating food, hormonal dysregulation (particularly insulin and leptin), and how the brain responds to willpower challenges. Obviously, we didn’t discuss every factor at play in Katie’s situation, but we were able to use her question to point out something helpful for those new to our program – dessert is still dessert, even if you change your food choices. And we desperately want you to break out of that habit of needing a little something after every meal.


  4. says

    Have not read the book, but it is on my wish list. I am familiar with your approach and I direct people to this site all the time (I helped run a paleo challenge at our gym)

    I guess what stood out to me was “severely restricting fruit” and “feeling satisified”. I get your points and I agree to a point.

    From my experience when people overly restrict anything the more a chance of them not staying committed long term, which usually starts with some sort of binge.

  5. says

    @PBO: Thanks for the referrals! It can be a knife-edge to walk sometimes, balancing what the body needs with what’s healthiest for the brain. Thanks for your well-reasoned comments.

    @Renee: Isn’t it fun? I love the stuff we find on Deviant Art. (Full credit goes to Randomly Cute, of course.)


  6. Kristin says

    I completed my Whole 30 in November and am completely convinced it changed my life. That is another story. I have 2 kids (4 & 7) and they have been conditioned by me to have a small treat after dinner each night. I have been wanting to transition them off of this, but want to come up with alternate “rewards” for eating well during dinner. Sometimes getting them to try new, differently looking food is difficult. Anyone out there have some ideas?

  7. Adam says

    I find once I start down the dessert road it is tough to get back on the wagon. Its like sugar is addictive…oh yeah it is. I need a Whole 30…and soon!

  8. Amy says

    This was a very interesting article. So often I feel like my day isn’t complete unless I have a “treat” after dinner. I thought I was the only one! In my house, growing up, dinner was always followed by a bowl of ice cream or some other kind of sugary snack. I really like the idea of replacing dessert with an herbal tea or something else.

  9. says

    @Amy: My family was the same way growing up but we often had dessert after lunch, too. And breakfast, oh wait, Poptarts aren’t dessert, right? My husband and I have taken to having evening tea as well. It really caps the night off nicely.

  10. Beth Anne says

    I have yet to break my conditioning! I often save my sweet potatoes for after dinner like they are dessert. Although it’s also because I don’t want them touching anything else on my plate.

    @Kristen: I am in the same boat with my kids (5&7). They have been pigging out on Christmas candy even though a month ago I swore they wouldn’t get candy for Christmas. My little one especially has a terrible sweet tooth and thanks to my mom asks “how many bites do I have to eat?” until he can have dessert. Ugh!!!! I’m doing my 2nd W30 in January and I think I will make everyone do it with me. Dessert will be hard. Plus they get candy and cupcakes at school.

  11. Ingrid says

    Considering that so many “paleo” blogs were posting dessert after dessert this holiday season this was a very timely article! It is also a nice and non confrontational way to address what I feel has become a bit of a problem in the paleo community, which is that anyone can promote any version of gluten free and slap a paleo label on it. I guess in the same way sex sells, dessert (or “sex with your pants on”) sells too:) As long as people think dessert can come after every meal if its made with almond flour, people who turn to paleo for increased health or weight loss will probably be disallusioned. Certainly treats have their place and I’m not saying all forms of sugar are horrible; however, I have several family members who wonder why they aren’t losing weight or breaking sugar addictions while chowing on almond flour cookies and coconut flour pancakes with agave, maple syrup, and “natural” sugars. I will definitely be forwarding them this article. Thanks as always for a great reminder to stay on track!

  12. MissDee says

    To kick the sweet treat addiction after meals, I drink hot tea and/or brush my teeth. If you brush your teeth, you’re less likely to eat more. Sometimes when my sweet tooth is really tempting me, I do the full floss, brush and mouthwash routine.

  13. Stepford WASP says

    @MissDee, yes! Brushing my teeth sends a signal to my body that I am done for the day. I make a pleasant ritual of cleansing my teeth and face every evening, which I find incredibly calming.

    I also recently implemented one rule: No food past 7PM. (I get up before 4AM, so early dinners are no problem for me.) I realize that rules can be creatively limiting for a lot of people, but I do best with a bit of structure. In any case, if I stuff my face before bed, even with clean food, sleep will not be restorative, and nothing makes me crave carbage like chronic exhaustion.

  14. Hilary says

    I’m on my day 5 of my first Whole30. After dinner I’ve been having a few dates with nuts, or a few clementines. While they are leaps and bounds better than what I was eating uncontrollably a few days ago (candy, cookies, fudge, icecream), I know I’m still feeding my Dessert Demon. I am hoping that as I get more comfortable and adjusted to my Whole30 that I’ll be able to tackle this habit. I guess it is on my “To Do” list this month!