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How to eat sweets, feel good about it, and not punish yourself

November 26th, 2022 | 4 min. read

By Jen Azevedo

During the holiday season, there is literally dessert of some kind everywhere you turn — at work, social gatherings, holiday meals, and at home. The temptation to indulge is difficult to resist.


But for many of us, the guilt and shame from overeating leads to self-loathing, soothed with more poor food choices. This dynamic can become a vicious cycle.


The Paseo Club is a social club in Santa Clarita that supports members in their fitness, health, and nutrition goals. We have three certified nutritionists on staff available to help guide you through the holidays and into the New Year.


This article will discuss how sugar affects our bodies, why we crave desserts, how to make smarter choices, and how to get beyond the guilt of enjoying sweets. 


The science of the sugar high

We often turn to sugar-laden foods when we experience stress, upset, hurt, and loneliness. 


Eating desserts inspires feelings of joy, contentment, and pleasure. It acts as a temporary balm to any pain.


Why does sugar make us feel better?


Chemically speaking, when we eat sugar our bodies release the neurotransmitter and neurohormone dopamine. Dopamine circulates in our bloodstream, which gives us a euphoric feeling hence its reputation as the “feel-good hormone.” 


Dopamine also inspires the motivation to increase and maintain dopamine levels — which is why we crave sugar — and in higher volumes.


Simultaneously, sugar activates opioid receptors in the brain. When these receptors are stimulated, it encourages compulsive behavior even when there are consequences such as weight gain, abdominal discomfort, headaches, and skin breakouts. 


Because these chemical changes are so profound, how often we eat sweets, and in what quantity, is not based on willpower. 


When are you more likely to crave sweets?

Several circumstances frequently increase our sugar cravings.



Since sugar has an addictive component for many of us, it is easy to develop a treat-eating habit — the 10 am pastry from the cafe near your work, the 3 pm chocolate bar, or the before-bed bowl of ice cream. 


Being underslept and overworked is a way of life for many people. Striking a balance between diet, exercise, and sleep is not always easy. Sweet treats can be an easy pick-me-up (along with caffeine) to start your day.


Easy access

During the holiday season, easy access to sugary foods is the most common hurdle to surmount. Pies, cakes, sugar cookies, candy canes — oh my! 


Recently eating sweets

Once you eat that piece of cake, it sets off a chemical reaction triggering your body to crave more dessert to maintain the dopamine levels in your body. 


Stress, sadness, and depression

We are all under a certain level of stress. Sometimes the feelings of worry, overwhelm, pain, or suffering come to a head. In this situation, a percentage of people lose their appetite while others experience an increase in hunger. Eating sugary foods can give temporary relief.


People around you eating lots of sugary foods

Who you keep company with affects your lifestyle decisions — for better and worse. When your friends and family eat junk food regularly, your intake will likely increase too.


Having low blood sugar due to missed or delayed meals

Whether missing meals is intentional (intermittent fasting), or not (a busy day), your blood sugar will drop. Hypoglycemia can cause confusion, heart palpitations, shakiness, and anxiety. Eating something sweet is the quickest way to correct a low blood sugar level.  


How to make smarter choices when you crave sweets 

Depending on the cause of your craving, many approaches will help you find alternatives to eating sweet foods. 


  • Rest when you need to
  • Sleep 7-8 hours each night
  • Drink 2-3 quarts of water each day
  • Eat protein with each meal, snacks too
  • Minimize temptation by limiting desserts in the house
  • Have healthy coping methods for when you feel stressed
    • Journal
    • Exercise
    • Meditate
    • Be in nature
    • Talk to a friend
    • Rest or get extra sleep
    • Listen to music (dance too)


How to enjoy a sweet treat without punishing yourself

Sweetness was the first flavor we tasted as infants. We imprinted on its flavor. Therefore, enjoying dessert is natural for most people. 


Yet we often eat more sweets, more frequently, than we need to. Afterward, shame, guilt, and self-punishing behavior begin. Common thoughts are:


  • Why did I eat so much? I have no discipline.
  • Did everyone notice how much I ate?
  • Now I have to do an extra hour of cardio and skip dinner.


This negative self-talk keeps many people stuck in a cycle of restriction and overeating.


But there is a way to eat sweets, enjoy them, and not punish yourself. 


Eat dessert in moderation

Some people keep routines for this. Examples are eating dessert only on weekends or on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Try to purchase or bake desserts in smaller portion sizes and smaller quantities. 


Choose your favorite treat

During the holidays, there are dozens of opportunities to eat sugary foods daily. Instead of mindlessly grazing the cookie platter, try to choose the one thing you like best. Be selective. Love a good sugar cookie? Dark chocolate? Something nutty? Great! Look for that choice.


Eat when you are not distracted

Eating while watching a movie, on the phone, driving, working, or otherwise being distracted is associated with overeating. Take the time to do nothing else but to be still and eat your dessert.


Enjoy it

Whaaaaat? Yes, try to permit yourself to really enjoy your experience. 


Look at your sweet item and admire it. Smell how delicious it is. Take small bites and chew your food. Allow the flavor to explode in your mouth. Feel its texture on your tongue. After you swallow a mouthful, pause and savor the taste left behind. 


According to Harvard, this approach to mindful eating is associated with minimizing emotional eating, overeating, and weight gain


Final thoughts on having a healthy relationship with sweets

Sweets can be a food that brings up complex feelings.


But restriction and deprivation can lead to a path of overeating, negative self-talk, hyper-monitoring, over-exercising, and other unhealthy habits.


It is time to turn the tables on our relationship with sugar-rich foods. 


By paying attention to the circumstances in our lives, eating well most of the time, and being mindful when we choose to eat dessert, we can have a healthy relationship with sweets.


If you would like support in making healthier food choices and finding fun exercise classes, then schedule a tour of the Paseo Club. You can meet staff and instructors and check out the tennis and pickleball courts, gym facilities, and junior-Olympic pool.


Check out these three articles to learn more about nutrition and mind-body health.


Jen Azevedo

Jen Azevedo is a tennis professional, pickleball professional, personal trainer, group exercise instructor, and the general manager of the Paseo Club. She loves the community at the Paseo Club and that it is also a safe and fun place for her daughter. Jen’s favorite activities are joining her tribe for trail races or her partners for tennis matches. Occasionally Jen slows down to relax with a book — she reads over 100 a year!