Sugar Cravings: Nell Kauls - Ask a Nutritionist

April 4, 2024

Join Brandy and our special guest - Nutritional Weight and Wellness client and educator, Nell Kauls - as Nell shares her empowering journey that covers thirty years of dieting, battling intense sugar cravings and finally achieving a lifestyle free of sugar dependency.

Whether you're struggling with dieting or sugar addiction yourself or simply looking for ways to lead a healthier life, this conversation is a must-listen for anyone ready to take control of their habits.

Listen below, or subscribe to our podcasts through Apple Podcast or Spotify.

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BRANDY: Welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. My name is Brandy Buro and I'm a Licensed and Registered Dietitian here at Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are thrilled to be celebrating 20 years on air discussing the connection between what you eat and how you feel, while sharing practical real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. So I just want to thank all of our listeners for your support over the years.

Now let's get started with today's show. Listeners, I think you're in for a real treat today. I'm very excited about this episode of Ask a Nutritionist. This is a very special episode because instead of answering a question from one of our listeners, I am going to flip the script and I have invited one of our longtime listeners and I'm going to be asking her some questions. So I've invited Nell Kauls as our special guest today and we will be talking about sugar addiction and sugar cravings.

NELL: Wonderful. Hi, Brandy.

BRANDY: Hello. Welcome.

NELL: Thank you.

BRANDY: So happy that you're here today.

NELL: Yeah, I'm so excited to be here.

BRANDY: Yeah, this is very exciting. I'm excited to dive into your story a little bit further because it is so empowering. And it is an experience that I share with a lot of my clients that deal with sugar addiction and sugar cravings because it does give them hope.

NELL: Agreed.

Sugar cravings are not a willpower issue; it is biochemical

BRANDY: And I do want to talk about sugar cravings from a different angle today because we get so many questions about sugar cravings. And so many of my clients struggle with sugar cravings that it is one of the main hurdles that can actually prevent them from making progress towards their health goals.

So I wanted to talk to you today just to understand a little bit more about how you personally were able to overcome that sugar addiction and live the life that you have today free of those cravings. And I just want to remind all of our listeners that if you are experiencing sugar cravings, it often is not a matter of willpower.

There are so many reasons that you could experience cravings. And there's a really great episode that aired on January 4th, 2024 called Why You’re Craving Sweets. So I encourage everybody to check that episode out just to understand a little bit more about the biochemical reasons we experience cravings outside of that willpower ideas.

NELL: Yes. Excellent.

BRANDY: And we are going to explore that a little bit further, and I do want to talk a little bit more about the strategies that you use, Nell, to overcome your own sugar cravings. You've been doing this for a long time; 15 years, we did the math.

NELL: I think, yeah, maybe even 15 years plus.

BRANDY: Yeah, we're coming up on 16 years. And maybe some of you have actually heard Nell speak in some of our other episodes of Dishing Up Nutrition. Maybe some of you have actually been fortunate enough to be one of her students because you are now an educator for our…

NELL: I teach Nutrition for Weight Loss, the foundation classes, and I also lead the Ongoing Support and Education groups right now at the Eagan location.

BRANDY: Oh, fantastic.

NELL: Yeah.

BRANDY: Yeah. So some of you might be Nell's students. So you have embraced this way of life to the point that you're actually teaching others how to do this.

NELL: It’s a great way to channel some of that knowledge and education I got very early on from my nutritionist and from Dar and help other people. I'm so grateful for that opportunity.

BRANDY: And we are so grateful to have you.

NELL: Thank you.

BRANDY: So I do want to take this opportunity since you're here with us today to ask you more questions about that journey for you. So when did you first realize that sugar was a problem for you?

NELL: Oh let's see if I can remember back that far. Actually, I know exactly when it was. You can't just disentangle it from emotional eating and how I use food in my life. So I do remember that early, so I would say third grade-ish. I remember the first time that I had an uncomfortable situation crop up and immediately thought, geez, I want a cookie.

Then, fast forward to I'm an army brat and we moved around a lot. And so I would have to acclimate to a new school or just start over and over again. And so there was a lot of loneliness associated with that. And I just can remember just like eating just giant bowls of ice cream. And it was the seventies and eighties. So there was tons of processed foods around and it was also dovetailing with the low fat messaging.

That was at the time when fat was being removed from food and sugar was being added. So I just remember always thinking about food; thinking about when I'm going to have my next meal, when I'm going to get my next treat. And then that just went on for years, up until, honestly, I found Nutritional Weight and Wellness and never really making the connection between that out of control feeling around food and sugar cravings and carbohydrate cravings.

That was, right around 2008 when I was listening to this very podcast. It was the radio show at the time, but it was live and hearing one of those first interviews and really making the connection that all of this dieting I had been doing that was not addressing the underlying cravings was always going to fail me.

BRANDY: Right.

NELL: And hearing that message crystal clear got me thinking in a new way.

BRANDY: Yeah. So that message really resonated with you; a new take on why some of your like dieting attempts weren't successful. And maybe you thinking about some of your own eating patterns in a different way.

NELL: Yeah, and the shame that's built around lack of willpower because you think I just can't control myself and I'm weak and there's just a whole world of shame that gets wrapped around those. And then you hear a message like, it's not your fault, your cravings are not your fault. There is a, there's a biochemical way of addressing those with real food.

Those were incredibly powerful messages to me when I first started down the path. And for listeners who have not heard my story, the path was after probably I went… when did I first start my first real diet; was probably in, eighth grade. So 12, 13 years. And I think I found Weight and Wellness in my late thirties. So 30 plus years of continual yo-yo dieting And just going on and off programs and gaining more weight in the process.

So tilting the scale almost at my heaviest at 300 pounds, really then feeling hopeless about it and not really understanding how to get myself out of that. I had, yeah, found Weight and Wellness and over, I would say a two year period lost 90 pounds and have kept it off, I say more or less because it's not a perfect world for the past, now we've done the math, 15 plus years.


NELL: And really really every day doing the things I need to do to keep my sugar cravings at bay.

BRANDY: So it's a daily commitment and this is your lifestyle now. This wasn't a temporary diet.

NELL: There's no going back. Once you know this information, you may go off track occasionally and, but there's really no truly going back to what you were doing before. I can't imagine going to a diet center ever again. It just is just not something I think about anymore because I know this is the true way of balanced eating.

BRANDY: You understand yourself so much better.

NELL: Exactly.

BRANDY: And when I hear you talk about like your first realization or recognition of how food was serving a purpose for you and sugar was serving a purpose for you of how it was like this is comforting and at such a young age, like that's a reliable tool for you. And at that age, we hold onto those lessons and it just becomes more and more ingrained. So it's no wonder that, it took maybe 30 years to break the cycle.

NELL: Exactly.

BRANDY: And I think that's a pretty common experience for so many people.

NELL: So many people struggle. And I see it in my support classes and the foundations classes is, it's, I look at those, the teaching and guiding those groups as, as just as important for me as it is for my students because it does take a daily commitment to keep going because the reality is we are living in a world where there are food and sugar and snacks are everywhere.

I always tell my students the story of you go to a bookstore to innocently buy a book and browse the shelves and you're struck by the bakery counter at the coffee shop that's in the bookstore. And then you go to check your book out and you see, you know, chocolate bars and you can't get away from the sugar. You can't get away from foods that are not serving you. So what do you do instead? And it's that cravings prevention plan.

BRANDY: Yeah. That kind of leads me into the next question I have for you. At what point in this experience did you start to feel like you were gaining some control over the that decision making process, over your cravings, like did you have a moment where you're like, wow, I have this.

NELL: Yeah, yeah it was pretty early on because when you work with a nutritionist you get some of that personalized like here's the meal plan and here are the supplements you need. I needed that guidance and I think most people need the guidance. There's a sea of possibilities, especially now. There's a sea of possibilities.

The gut and neurotransmitter health connection to cravings

Everyone's trying to sell you something. And I always felt like I need that guidance to understand not only to point me in the right direction food wise, but what are the things I need to do to support getting my cravings under control? And so a perfect example of that is the attention to gut health with bifidobacteria and the attention to just feeding your gut appropriately with things like glutamine and I call it the magic three.

I think this is Dar’s magic three, which is a cocktail of bifido, glutamine and Crave Control. And those three things can help you get what I call over the hump of any craving. So a lot of students come in they crave their Diet Coke or their diet pop, sugar; there's a number of different things that you can crave; alcohol cravings


NELL: And so I think the missing piece for me was understanding it's not you craving those things. It's your craving gut, really. Your gut is craving those things and really setting you up for those food obsessions and those kind of uncontrollable desires to eat things that are not serving you.

So that guidance really helped get me beyond that. Plus the food. So then what I think people don't always understand is you get into this vicious cycle where you've got the cravings and then you've got the food and you just get into this spin cycle.

So if you can disrupt that with the appropriate food plan and the appropriate supplements to help you get through that, your cravings and your constant thinking about food really dies down. And so I do remember a very specific time when, I went in to the St. Paul location at the time, and I was talking to one of the nutritionists there as I was waiting for my appointment, and she's like, how are you doing? And I said, I feel like I've been let out of jail.


NELL: And she's like, say more. And I said, I can have food around me and I'm not constantly thinking about it. I feel free from those obsessive thoughts of food and not constantly thinking about when is my next meal? When is my next treat? And so that was really powerful. The trick is staying on top of that and staying on top of your cravings so that they stay quiet. Yeah.

BRANDY: Yeah. So that, I guess that statement like, freedom from cravings, was really true for you like, you felt you know, after you got out, you realized that it really had a significant hold on you.

NELL: Yeah.

BRANDY: And realizing for yourself I'm not obsessing anymore. Like I can see that candy bar at the checkout line and not put it on the, put it in my basket. Yeah. That's really powerful.

NELL: Yep. And that's that whole thing around the cravings prevention plan. So as long as I can always tell when things are out of whack or maybe my gut health isn't what it was when I'm in those situations and I'm like obsessing. And I start seeing the things and I'm like, what if I just had that? And that's when I know, boy, something's off with my food. It could be I had a recent illness; people struggling with, I've just recently had COVID and suddenly cravings come racing back , and you have to be in this constant kind of, checking in with yourself, real body awareness that I don't think a lot of people have and that's one of the things we do in my classes is check in with yourself. How are you feeling? It's just part of my self-care now.

BRANDY: Yeah. So I guess as you started making changes, working with your nutritionist implementing some of these supplements, I imagine that you did start to feel different and maybe that body awareness became something new to you. Like you're actually starting to experience changes in how you feel. What did change for you that you started to develop that skill of oh, I'm feeling this way. My cravings are starting to get a little off track or, oh, I'm feeling this way. This is really starting to work. What sort of signs or signals did you experience?

Many benefits are associated with eating real food in balance

NELL: Yeah. Yeah. It's a great question. Immediately I became very very into my sleep because I was had been an insomniac up until the point when I started so like late thirties when I started to address some of these food issues. So I had skin conditions. I had poor sleep. I had very bad allergies. And so it was not just the weight. It was a variety of conditions. And so then as I was addressing my sugar cravings and my eating and just getting that on track, I suddenly would very quickly make the connection between either drinking alcohol or having a high sugar day.

It was not perfect right away. So when I first started the plan, I would say I was eating the Weight and Wellness way, maybe 50 percent of the time, I was still pretty skeptical. But even that was helping, but then I would start to make the connection that, boy, if I had a couple glasses of wine, or if I went to happy hour and had a bunch of snacks, I wouldn't sleep that well. And so over the years, you get used to getting really good sleep. And when you have a night of bumpy, rocky, poor sleep, and you can immediately make the connection to something you ate or drank the night before, that's powerful. It helps to reinforce like, oh, this is why I'm doing this is because good restorative deep sleep isn't is not something you think about when you're trying to tackle your weight or tackle other digestive issues. It just isn't.

But it's the a single biggest driver of just feeling like a well human being. It becomes very reinforcing when you have a poor night's sleep because of something you ate. Or a lot of times you have high sugar, you feel bloated and your joints start to ache. I just remember that's how I felt all the time.

BRANDY: Right.

NELL: And so when I detoxed off of the sugar, it was like, oh, that's sugar that's causing joint pain and all of that.

BRANDY: So in a lot of ways, the way you were feeling was your baseline. Maybe you didn't really recognize that anything was “wrong”.

NEL: Exactly.

BRANDY: But weight loss was like your primary goal. But once you started to work on your gut health, work on the meal plan, incorporate some of these healing supplements, like a lot of these other benefits started to appear and then it's like, well, I really like that. And that's motivating to stay on track.

NELL: Exactly. I'm fond of telling people that before I started this plan, I was spending probably $100, $150 a month on skin cream.

BRANDY: Oh, wow.

NELL: And trying to put moisturizer into my face from the outside. And now if I miss a day of moisturizer, it doesn't matter because I'm eating healthy fats and my gut health is good. And it shows on my skin. So there are all kinds of benefits that you don't know necessarily when you start out that you start to notice like, oh yeah, and then your pants are fitting better on top of it.

BRANDY: So there's like a lot of other vital signs that you can check in with to know how you're doing. And I think, yeah, that's, I would say that's a really useful tool or skill that you've acquired. That's, would you say that's helped you maintain this way of life?

NELL: Yes. Definitely. Definitely. Because everyone has those experiences where they go on a vacation and you do, I just went to Mexico and drank a little more than I usually do; had a few more corn chips and tortillas than I usually do; more sugar. And inevitably, my weight popped up and I wasn't sleeping well and I more or less made the conscious choice that's going to be the way it is.

I'm deciding to have a little more freedom in, in what I do, but the important thing is that just that next meal or that next day you just go right back to, hey, I'm going to have my eggs for breakfast and my sweet potatoes and my spinach with all cooked in butter. And then it gets you right back on track. I think that's the mistake that we make is, you get a case of the I screwed that up, so I'm just going to go I'm a failure.

BRANDY: Yeah. That all or nothing mentality works against you in a lot of ways.

NELL: Yeah. Yeah. Cause you can really minimize those like little bursts of sugar when you go off track and you eat more sugar. You can minimize those by just That next meal or that next snack is your opportunity to curb that sugar craving.

BRANDY: Yeah. And I did want to ask you more about some of those scenarios that are a little more challenging, like vacation or maybe going out to eat or being a guest like a dinner guest or something where you're not totally in control, like any advice for how you navigate some of those more challenging situations or environments?

Navigating challenging food environments

NELL: Yeah, so I always have a bottle of Crave Control at the ready because it does produce a lot of anxiety and I know my students feel the anxiety of like it just seems like there's a special occasion all the time now.


NELL: It used to be, you know the holidays, white knuckling it through the holidays but, people find, any holiday, the opportunity to bring sugary snacks. I'll use, 4th of July, we always go to this big picnic. And there's always a ton of pie and I love pie. And so I always just make sure a couple weeks before I start with my, cause you don't have to be on Crave Control all the time. I just make sure that I've got that good foundation because Crave Control really helps with your brain chemicals around cravings.

So I make sure that is in the mix before I'm heading into a challenging season. And then I would say, before I go to a special event, one of the mistakes that I would always make when I was in that dieting culture mindset was, I'm going to starve myself until I go to the special occasion. And then that will give me license and freedom to eat whatever I want. And then that would typically send me down a very bad rabbit hole.

BRANDY: Yep. Yep.

NELL: So now what I do is I eat my normal meal. So if we, for example, have a dinner out I will have my normal breakfast, my normal snacks, and my normal, nice meals. And that keeps me from, as soon as you get to the restaurant, they say, would you like bread? And you say, absolutely. It prevents that from happening. Cause as soon as you eat the bread, then suddenly you're not so keen on the salad as your appetizer. You're more keen on something else.

And then that sets you up to have a big old dessert versus maybe sharing something small. So those are some of the strategies that I use for restaurants, but also just special occasions. I am not the kind of person that's going to say I can't have this, and this, so it shouldn't be anywhere near me. I use my cravings prevention plan just to make sure that I have a little bit of something, something nice that's maybe a dessert-ish type thing, but that is using the Weight and Wellness cookbook, for example.

So when the endless sugary snacks come out, I have something that I feel good about eating. Bringing deviled eggs: I make a great bacon deviled egg that I bring as the, I know, the appetizer. And that sets you up to feel satiated going into the meal. And so there are all of these kinds of ways that you can set yourself up for success. It doesn't mean you're going to be perfect. But again, you minimize waking up and feeling oh my gosh, I'm not sleeping, my joints are aching, and I feel super bloated, and I've failed.

BRANDY: I was going to say, I'm sure it's hard to avoid a feeling of shame or guilt or gosh, I should have…

NELL: Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

BRANDY: Yep. So it sounds like planning ahead is really critical for you and being prepared. And you said earlier when you're like on vacation or maybe indulge a little bit like you said have a little more flexibility or freedom in your choices that like the very next meal you just get back on track with the balanced meal.

NELL: Yeah

BRANDY: So what are you talking about when you say like I get back on track with the next meal? So what's a good example of a getting back on track meal?

NELL: Yeah. Yeah, so if I had a “fun day”, fun in quotes where maybe it was a little looser and things didn't go as planned, I always make sure I start out with a satiating breakfast. So that could be a couple of eggs, a couple of turkey sausages, and a good half cup to a cup serving of sweet potatoes and some spinach.

And so what that does is those bright colors and the good fibers feed my gut bugs. You've got the fat to make you feel satiated. And then you have that protein. So on vacation that may be kind of challenging to get. I always make sure I have some protein.


NELL: Because protein is like the ultimate cravings prevention plan is making sure you have enough to make muscle, but also your gut loves protein and protein is how you make those neurotransmitters that help you feel good and not bad about what you just did.

BRANDY: Exactly.

NELL: So having the, the protein part has to be that non negotiable when I'm trying to get back on track. Gas stations, say what you will, they are offering more and more healthy options. So you can get a couple of boiled eggs, some string cheese, some nuts. There's all kinds of ways you can get that protein in so that you don't, I call it careening, careen off track and into the arms of a bowl of cereal or a big, huge gas station muffin. There's all kinds of ways.

BRANDY: Yeah, no, that's a, that's an excellent tip, especially for people traveling, go to a grocery store, go to a gas station, like there's going to be a good option for you. And if you can gravitate towards protein, like love that.

NELL: Yes.

BRANDY: And you consider protein as a non-negotiable.

NELL: Yes. Absolutely.

BRANDY: Needs to be on my plate. I know that makes a difference for me. Are there any other boundaries or deals that you have with yourself that you've learned over the years, where it's that's a trigger food; I absolutely avoid that, or that's a, an environment I know I don't do well in? So can you speak to that?

NELL: Yes. So trigger foods, I have, I have a list as long as my arm. I would say they're trigger foods when my cravings prevention plan is not working because I'm either, yeah, on vacation or have had a stressful time or illness. If you get a cold or flu, sometimes that can make you more susceptible to going back into your old habits.

Just any kind of that standard, I call it cash wrap food. So M&M's or any kind of candy, those types of foods. When those start to look appealing to me, I know something is off. I would say pizza and beer is one of those things that it's just I just can't have it around. I just can't have meals around it.

That doesn't mean… I do a lot of substitutions. You can have pizza like food and feed that need, but it's more of a meatza or it's the crust is something that is not going to cause me to have cravings. And I would say the other thing is I really have to watch alcohol. So alcohol really does, whether it's wine, in my case it's beer, margaritas: those sugary drinks really do kick off a craving cycle that can get out of control very quickly.

Alcohol does a number of things, so it's hard on your gut, but it's also your liver is processing it, so it's not helping you maintain your fat loss. And it just is a triple, quadruple whammy in terms of your cravings. So you know, I have to be super intentional about when I decide, is this something that I want to have? And the other thing it opens up when you're having a lot of alcohol is it does make the cravings and like the food choices really difficult.

BRANDY: Yeah. Yeah, you're let down some of your other boundaries around food, probably. It's oh, like one piece of pizza won't hurt. But yeah.

NELL: Yep.

BRANDY: I think that's so crucial in your success knowing that you've come to learn yourself enough to know these are things that are absolutely deal breakers. It is an all or nothing perspective that works in your favor in that case.

NELL: Yeah. Not like they're like, I won't mention the cookies that come out this time of year when you have, a mint Milano or one of those kind of types of cookies that you're super obsessed with. You cannot stop with just one, so don't even open the sleeve. So those are, that's my, that's my guidance to myself. It doesn't mean I don't have things that are sweet. You can have dark chocolate and nuts. We have to have joy in life as well.


NELL: There are some things that I think I get when I get into that mode of thinking where I think something's going to bring me joy and it really just brings pain and misery. And that is those types of cookies and candy and ice cream and all of those things may bring me temporary joy.

But I feel a lot of misery, both physically and emotionally when I eat those foods. It's part of self-care. It's not punishing myself in any way. It's my self-care plan is eating the Weight and Wellness way.

BRANDY: Fantastic. Nell, this is all such great information. I think it's going to be really valuable for our listeners and I'm so thankful that you could be here with us today. It's clear to me that you have like completely embraced this way of life and that you're really passionate about it.

NELL: Yes, I am.

BRANDY: So I just wanted to ask you, for our listeners out there that are struggling with sugar cravings or maybe are identifying as a sugar addict, what is one thing that you could tell them to start the process of overcoming their sugar addiction?

NELL: Yeah. So my advice if I have some to give is start where I did, where it's, even if it's listening to more episodes of the podcast, but ultimately I think the game changer for me was making that first appointment with my nutritionist.

And that was at the time when we only did in person appointments. Now we Zoom around the world. And I have monthly still appointments with my nutritionist. I personally find it very hard to hear all the media, hear all of the news stories and advice, and in the food culture that we're in, I find it personally very challenging to navigate all of that alone.

And I, after all of this time doing this, I still have questions and I still hear things that, that cause me to say I wonder if that would work for me. And so having a trusted advisor dare I say, a detective for my own personal well being is, was like the single best decision I ever made because there's a sea of things you could potentially buy.

There's a sea of routes you could potentially go. Unless you have that ongoing support, it just it's super challenging. So I would just say, just take that plunge and make that first appointment or sign up for that first class. You will not regret it.

Check Out Our Nutrition Counseling & Class Services!

BRANDY: Yeah. Cause it sounds like that education and that personalized experience and that ongoing connection really saw you through the hardest part of starting.

NELL: Yes. Yes. And there's just a sea of information, especially now with all of the input. So you can listen to a million different podcasts and there's just a ton of books. And. what I think I appreciate about having that nutrition guidance is that it's just for me based on my symptoms, based on what is going on in my life at this moment, and there's no substitute for that in my mind.

BRANDY: Oh, that's incredible. What an incredible story. I'm so thankful that you had the time to meet with me today.

NELL: Thanks, Brandy.  

BRANDY: I just think it's so empowering and I hope our listeners feel the same. I just think your story helps illustrate that idea that willpower is to blame for your sugar addiction and cravings that just won't go away is really insightful and you’re proof that there's a path forward.

NELL: There is a path forward. Yeah. Yeah.

BRANDY: So you have the skills you have the strategies You're living it, you're teaching it, and I just really wanted our listeners to hear that today. So thank you so much.

NELL: Thank you, Brandy.

BRANDY: And thanks everyone for joining us today for our midweek episode of Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist”. If you have a question you'd like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community.

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