How To Deal With A Sweet Tooth On The Paleo Diet



You can’t escape it.

Even after you cut out the usual culprits – desserts, candy, and simple carbohydrates – there are still plenty of places sugars manage to sneak into.

Even the “healthy” foods are loaded with it. Take for example:

It’s simply everywhere.

The paleo diet, the nutrition framework in Impossible Abs, cuts out most processed foods and sugars. That sounds fairly straightforward, but when you realize how prevalent sugar is in different types of food, it’s not always easy – especially if you have a penchant for it. The question that comes up a lot is:

How do you deal with a sweet tooth on the paleo diet?

Sugar has some of the addictive properties of crack. I know first-hand – I have a sweet tooth that makes small children at halloween embarassed for me. It’s bad, but I’ve learned to tame it. It’s been tough. but it’s important to learn how to wean yourself off your sweet tooth without shaking and convulsing like an addict if you want to burn fat and see results. More than that, it’s important since looking great won’t do you much good if you’re running around  disheveled with a crazy look in your eye.

I devote a good section of the nutrition blueprint of Impossible Abs to this problem and I thought I’d share how I learned to deal with my sweet tooth while getting six pack abs.


The following is an excerpt from Impossible Abs.

How To Deal With Your Sweet Tooth And Implement Healthy Cheats To Deal With Cravings

The fastest way to achieve results is to not to cheat at all. Unfortunately, this takes a ridiculous amount of will power and let’s face it – we all get cravings now and then. So, if you’re going to cheat, here’s how you can “safely” cheat every now and then without throwing all of your progress out the door.

Know How You Cheat

You should be very, very careful when you cheat. Know how you operate – otherwise cheating can become a dangerous proposition that gets you entirely off track. Ask yourself, “is this really just a “one-time” thing or will it lead into more cheating?”

For me, it’s never “just one.” If I have one Oreo, I’ll have the whole box. If I have one snickers, I’ll have twelve. If I have a spoonful of peanut butter, I might end up eating the whole jar – thank you very much.

For me, cheating is very, very dangerous, so I stay away from it as much as possible. You might be better than me – congratulations – but you probably aren’t.

Know what “cheating” means for you. If it’s an isolated occurrence, then feel free to partake every once in a while – but if it’s the start of a slippery slope for you – be very, very careful about how you choose to cheat.

Change The Meaning of “Cheating”

The best way to minimize the effects of “cheating” is to redefine exactly what cheating means for you. This means finding health(ier) alternatives for cheat foods that you usually crave. Then when you get cravings for something that’s not usually on the menu, instead of completely derailing yourself with a face-full of Oreos, peanut butter and shame, you simply press pause while you indulge in some of your favorite off-the-menu cheat food items that won’t set you back 4 weeks.

Typically cheat foods for me include the following:

  • Red Bull
  • Reeses’
  • Nutella
  • Snickers
  • Peanut Butter (in embarrassingly large quantities)

If it’s got an exorbitant amount of sugar – it’s got my number. So, for the entirety of the program, I changed the foods I allowed myself to “cheat” with to much healthier alternatives including:

  • Dark Chocolate (over 70% cacao, preferably 82%+)
  • Avocado
  • Bacon
  • Banana
  • Raspberries
  • Almonds

The benefit to these alternate cheat foods is that unlike most cravings you may get, they’re self-limiting. Unlike Oreos, where it’s quite easy to eat an entire box, it’s very hard to eat an entire bar of high-quality cacao, very dark chocolate.

When evaluating your alternate cheat foods, find something you enjoy that you

  • Are difficult to eat in large quantities
  • Low in sugar
  • Low in carbohydrates

If you can find something that meets these 3 criteria, you can cheat on occasion without experiencing the after-effects of eating an entire bag of Cheetos in one sitting.

Channel Your Cravings Elsewhere

The best way to deal with cravings is to channel that energy or desire into something else.

Every time you find yourself craving something, instead of indulging in it, channel that energy into something else. For example, if you find yourself wanting a snickers bar, do 10 pushups instead. If you want to have a slice of cake, do a 60 second plank instead. If you want a bag of chips, go do a 30 second handstand and channel your cravings for unhealthy food into healthy habits. This does a couple of things:

  1. It gets you closer to your goals. Most cravings you’ll have are NOT constructive; in fact, they’re trying to ruin everything you’re working towards. When you focus that craving into something good, instead of taking 1 step back, you take 2 steps forward.
  2. It builds up better habits. Over time, you’ll find yourself enjoying doing pushups, planks or handstands more than the chocolate cake. In fact, after you’ve weaned yourself away from the extreme sugar content found in most food you’re craving, you’ll find those types of food aren’t as nearly as satisfying as you thought they were and instead of chowing down on a snickers bar, you’d rather enjoy a few squares of 92% dark chocolate.

Channel that energy and those cravings into physical activities that get you closer to losing weight and improving your health rather than using it to destroy the things you’re trying to build.

Limit Yourself By Time

If you must cheat, give yourself a time limit and keep to it. Try to stay clean 80-90% of the time and keep your cheat meals to one meal or one day a week – but keep it limited. That way throughout your week, you can push off your cravings until the weekend and then cheat during your designated meal, but keep it limited – because it’s no longer “cheating” if you have it every single day – then it’s your choice.

Ask Yourself if It’s Worth It

If all else fails, ask yourself if cheating is really worth it. Impossible Abs is an 8-week program. 8 weeks. Eight. Can you do 8 weeks without eating junk food? Is it worth it to you?

Ask yourself if it’s worth it: How bad do you want it?

Do you really want it, or do you just kinda want it?

If getting into the best shape of your life isn’t worth it to you – then cheat. But if you really want to get in great shape, why give into a craving that you know is going to move you in the exact opposite direction of your goal?

Ask yourself, how bad do you want it?

Incoming! Impossible Abs comes out in exactly one week. Enjoy any of your cheat meals while you still can :). Otherwise, start getting ready for the challenge program.

photo credit: Pay No Mind

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  1. Murray says

    Besides trying to avoid buying anything too sugary in the first place, what I tend to do to get a ‘fix’ is to go with uuuuuber dark chocolate. I really like the taste but it’s so rich that you really can’t eat more than a square or two.

  2. Charon says

    This was PRECISELY the post I needed to read this morning. Sugar is my Waterloo as well and I’m identifying my craving patterns, finding they are very specific, habits, really. Hopefully easy to shift into something more healthy.

    I am in no way an athlete any longer. I work a sedentary job (awesome and win, but still sedentary). And I am REALLY looking forward to Impossible Abs because I am fascinated with the possibility that I could actually do it.

    I’m antsy about it and watching my inbox daily. I think I’ll end up being an excellent test case.

    Wow. I guess I just committed publicly right there. :)

    Thank you for all that you do.

  3. says

    My sweet tooth comes in the form of 1 can of soda once a week. I usually end up hating myself after I drink it too.

    I can always skip the chocolate and the cookies. My biggest problem is completely staying away from bread. Have you ever had the dinner rolls at Texas Roadhouse? They are ridiculous and they come with this cinnamon butter that doesn’t help things either.

    Discipline is the key. I will need to find good alternatives for my Paleo meals. It also hurts that I don’t eat avocados and bananas. :(

    • says

      The bread was tough at first, but I found I don’t even miss it that much anymore. It seems like “filler” before a meal of steak, avocado and some vegetables. It takes time, but I noticed a change about a month into the program.

    • says

      Bread is my thing too. Really, 95% of my diet is bread. And um, cheese. I mean, it’s easy to make a sandwich without cheese, but it’s not-so-easy to make a sandwich without bread. Just Sayin’

  4. says

    I read this and got kind of scared because I have Chobani plain every morning. Although some flavors of Chobani have 22g of sugar, the plain one has only 7 grams so that was comforting to hear. I always have that one and just throw in some almonds to make it a little more exciting to eat. Other than that my Paleo diet has consisted mostly of chicken and salads (no dressing, just the green stuff). Thanks for blogging, I love receiving your emails!

    • says

      Bacon quality depends on where you source it from.

      There’s quite a bit of sodium in Bacon that can affect you, but if you’re not eating refined & processed foods, soda, etc you should be able to have it regularly without too much of an issue (more here).

  5. says

    Oh lordy. This was exactly -EXACTLY- the thing I needed to read today. Yesterday I was so, so close to. Caving. Your intial post was what inspired. To do NFs current 6Week Challenge, and I decided to not only participate but to extend the challenge to 8 weeks. Long story short: I’m an actor, and I got cast in something where I’m going to be scantily clad. I have never been in great shape, so this was the kick in the ass I needed to finally get in shape. Serendipitously, I read your Impossible Abs post when I had about 8 weeks before filming. I just start week 4 of my challenge, eating strict Paleo and working out five days a week.

    I have never commited to anything this completely. And Joel, I just have to say thank you for the inspiration!

    Ps shameless self primtion here,but at my blog link above you can see my day to day progress reports. Consistincy is not usually my thing and I found that writing about it every day has really helped keep me on track.

    Looking forward to more Impossible Abs stuff; I am so on board.

  6. behaviorchangelifestyle says

    I was pumped to get my Impossible post today, but was immediately deflated. What are we saying…”cheat” foods? Yes, reducing sugar is a great thing, especially in our American culture where it is so prevalent.

    Let’s be real! We all have desire for and eat sugar, so let’s do it responsibly and with attention. Strategies like feeling guilty about a soda a week, replacing sugars with fat (i.e. avocados, almonds, etc.), or being “tough” on yourself because you “don’t want it bad enough” are not realistic. And these strategies aren’t compassionate to yourself. We get tough when we get real! And the reality is sugar like all things does need moderation, intention, and balance. This comes when we exercise more to burn the extra calories we consume; educate ourselves about what sugar is and the “why” of our cravings; and factor it in as a part of a whole view of myself. A diet with restrictions, self criticism, and unrealistic expectations IS impossible.

    • says

      Just because you have a desire to do something, doesn’t always mean you should act on it.

      Two things:
      I never said “feel guilty about a soda for a week.” Also, I’m not sure I understand how replacing foods or limiting the times you do stray off the path is somehow “not realistic.”

      The very FIRST thing I said was know yourself. If you can do limit yourself in moderation – go ahead – but know the impact it will have on your goals and accept that tradeoff. I’d rather stay away. I’m operating within an 8 week challenge framework. When you think about it like that – you can almost do anything for just 8 weeks.

  7. says

    I fasted once for two weeks to just let my body clean itself out. The first three days were killer, pounding headache, etc. After that I started feeling better and better every day.

    When I came off the fast I was just slowly easing back into food. I stopped at the local cafeteria because they had a great vegetable bar and that’s all I wanted, just something really light. So the first thing I ate was some cooked squash, just a small dish.

    Because my taste buds were so clean I had what I’d call ‘taste hypersensitivity’. So when I ate the squash all I could taste, or mainly what I could taste, was sugar. No wonder I always liked their vegetables (and everything else they made for that matter), their main seasoning ingredient was sugar.

    I’ve mentioned this to other folks who have a lot of restaurant experience and they tell me that you’d be surprised how much sugar is used for ‘seasoning’. So I guess unless you make it yourself you just can’t be too sure.

  8. says

    Great post, provided a lot of reminders to shore up my weak spots :) Every single thing on the “good” cheat list is already an item I love to eat and prefer over less healthy cheat foods. Sometimes, it’s just down to making sure to have the good stuff on hand all the time so you don’t have an alternative to the bad choices…which is helped by just not keeping any of the bad stuff on hand in the first place.

  9. Heidi says

    I find that a few dates will sometimes do the trick. They are pretty sweet and dense for a fruit and I can rarely eat more than a few.

  10. says

    Really useful post!
    I had been eating a low sugar chia pudding for breakfast over the past few weeks, and had been having topping it with rhubarb, almond slivers and shredded coconut. I was totally loving it, but, perhaps ignorantly, I hadn’t thought to check the ingredients on my packet of shredded coconut – surely the only thing in coconut is coconut, right? Wrong!!
    I was quite shocked to discover that what was labelled simply as ‘coconut’ was actually sweetened and contained 12% sugar… I have since bought organic, non-sweetened coconut and am much happier knowing what I’m actually eating.
    It was a shock to me that packaged coconut ain’t always just coconut!!

  11. says

    I find dark chocolate works really well for me to curb sugar cravings, although I have to go 85% or above (it’s too easy to finish an entire bar of 70%).

    I also find that it’s much easier to cheat when eating out with friends and they all get dessert! What do you do in those situations?

    • says

      Just say no :).

      Tell them beforehand what you’re working on and give them a heads up. Most are pretty understanding. If they give you a hard time, you need to think about spending more time with friends who support you in your goals.

  12. Patrick says

    Great post,
    love the idea of an 8 week challenge.
    I`ve decided to go 9 weeks, starting today, which takes me till Oct 31st.
    Doing what you did, and running sprints and hills every second day. Looking forward to the Amazing changes. Today`s weight is 239lbs and I WILL be 195lbs by Halloween. I have my before picture and will take an after pic in 63 more sleeps.
    Congrats on what you have achieved.

  13. says

    Joel, what are your thoughts on artificial sweeteners like Splenda? I am a big coffee drinker but drinking it totally black is rough, esp when you’re like me and drink the cheap stuff like Folgers. Yuck.

    • LynzM says

      Why not get better coffee, for starters? 😉

      I have cut my coffee sweetener down by 7/8 in the last 2 months. I did it over about 5 weeks, by measuring how much I was adding and then decreasing some each time I felt acclimated to the new taste. While I’m still putting a tiny bit of agave in (1/4 tsp.), it’s so much less than I used to use that I feel ok about it. A friend promised me that it was totally doable if you go slowly, and she was absolutely right. Give it a try!

      • says

        Hahah, I actually took your suggestion and bought some somewhat less cheap coffee at Target today and the difference is incredible. I add like a 1/3 of the sweetener I usually do and it tasted great. And, I can use this as an opportunity to explore better coffees! I’ve been eyeing some of that fair-trade artisany stuff at Whole Foods….-plots- It occurred to me that I don’t really mind shelling out for coffee because I love it so much, and saying “oh I can only buy the cheap shit” was just an excuse to load up on sugary creamer and whatnot.

    • says

      A friend gave me a great idea and it is delicious! I put a can of coconut milk in the refrigerator and it turns into a solid. I use this and stevia (MUCH better for you than splenda) in my coffee and it tastes Great!

  14. says

    Love love love this article. I’ve found over the years as I eat cleaner and cleaner my body really gets affected by sugar. Now that I can feel what it does to me, I have no addiction problems anymore. Whew! :)

  15. Hana says

    Hey Joel
    These tips are not only useful for the paleo diet. They are good for various low/no situations – like trying to keep to a diabetes diet. Thanks.

  16. kirk says

    Am I mistaken here or are avacados, almonds, and bananas paleo friendly. I eat atleast one of these items daily. If they are paleo friendly, how are they considered cheats?

    • says

      They are paleo friendly. The idea isn’t to “cheat”, but to deal with your cravings in a way that’s conducive to your long-term goals – not your short-term desires.

  17. Sara says


    I am just starting on Paleo today and I have a question. Can you eat sugar free candies on paleo? A friend who does paleo said you can? Thanks!


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