Sugar cravings are a common occurrence for many people. That feeling in between meals (or the middle of the night) when you feel like you need to eat something sweet. Sugar cravings have a way of wrecking just about any diet.
The important thing to remember about sugar cravings is that they have much more to do with your brain's reward system than hunger. We rarely experience sugar cravings because we need to eat. Rather, sugar cravings stem from the need to satisfy yourself with something that offers instant gratification.
Nevertheless, sugar cravings can be irresistible. When we feel the need to eat something sweet, it can feel impossible to deny it. No matter how health-conscious we may be, it can be sugar cravings that get us off track with a healthy diet.
What are sugar cravings? What causes sugar cravings? And what can we do to fight sugar cravings? This guide will help you understand and resist sugar cravings.
What causes sugar cravings?
Most often, sugar cravings are simply a function of the reward system in your brain. You feel the need for something that instantly satisfies you, and sugary treats are one of the easiest ways to satisfy this feeling.
The cravings for carbs, sugar, and chocolate can be a response to things like stress, depression, and anxiety. When you experience these kinds of emotions and conditions, the body can trick you into thinking sugary treats will satisfy you, even if this feeling is fleeting and temporary.
Sugar cravings can also be a response when your body is lacking certain kinds of nutrients. If you are not getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals, this will often manifest as sugar cravings.
More serious things may lead to sugar cravings. Imbalances in blood glucose levels will lead to strong sugar cravings. Low blood sugar levels that lead to sugar cravings can lead you into a potentially dangerous feedback loop. Indulging sugar carvings due to low blood sugar will provide temporary spikes in blood sugar which fall just as quickly, and this leads you directly back into sugar cravings.
Some of the common reasons for sugar cravings include:
- Psychological or emotional stress
- Certain prescription and over-the-counter medications
- Hormone imbalances (especially in relation to pregnancy and the menstrual cycle)
- Physical and mental health conditions (such as type 1 diabetes, depression, and eating disorders)
While sugar cravings are normally a simple matter of feeling the need for a treat, they can be a symptom of more serious issues. If you find that you are feeling sugar cravings that cannot be satisfied, you should consult your doctor to make sure there is not something more serious that may be the cause.
Why is sugar addictive?
The term “addiction” tends to get used rather loosely. People speak of being addicted to a tv show, for example. But the definition of an addiction is a situation where someone’s brain chemistry has been altered to compel them to repeat a substance or activity despite harmful consequences. This is extremely serious and leads to devastating consequences.
There is some disagreement as to whether or not sugar counts as an addictive substance. That said, eating sugar does release opioids and dopamine into the body, and the presence of these chemicals are precisely the same chemicals that are at work in addictions to drugs like heroin and cocaine. This leads some doctors to treat sugar as a powerfully addictive substance that can have serious health consequences.
Since dopamine, for example, is a neurotransmitter that sets in motion the “reward circuit” associated with addictions, anything that triggers this mechanism is likely to become addictive. Sugar does cause the release of dopamine, and the same reward circuit associated with other addictions is at work.
Sugar also activates opiate receptors in the brain and the nervous system. These are obviously the same receptors that are activated by opiates and opioids, drugs that are known to be some of the most addictive substances. When these opiate receptors are activated, it leads to compulsive behavior similar to that of any addictive substance, and these behaviors lead to negative consequences like weight gain, headaches, and hormone imbalances.
A study by Princeton University on rats found that rats can become physically dependent on sugar and that taking sugar away from them leads to the standard addiction response of cravings, binging, and withdrawal. Other research found that the ways that sugar activates the reward centers of the brain can make it just as addictive as cocaine.
Doctors are still reluctant to classify sugar as an addictive substance on the level of dangerous narcotics, but they do warn that sugar can be highly habit-forming and it can lead to consequences that are just as dangerous to your health as any other addictive substance. In the final analysis, sugar does operate like an addictive substance, and it can have devastating effects.
What is the proper sugar dosage?
The amount of sugar you should eat in a day depends on several factors. Your caloric intake, your level of physical activity, and the type of foods that characterize your daily diet will all impact the ways your body processes sugar.
As a general rule, you should avoid added sugars of all kinds. Eating too much sugar can lead to a range of health problems like type 2 diabetes. Most often we can get all the sugar we need from the foods we eat, provided we eat a balanced diet that includes a variety of foods. Things like fresh fruit contain plenty of natural sugar.
It is important to make a distinction between added sugars and sugars that naturally occur in certain foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables contain natural sugars, and these are not considered a problem.
Added sugars, on the other hand, are found in obvious foods like candy but foods like processed foods, soft drinks, and fast food contain high quantities of added sugars. The most common type of added sugar is high fructose corn syrup which provides no nutritional value. It is added to make processed foods more appealing and potentially more addictive.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends that added sugars should not exceed ten percent of our daily calories. Excess sugar intake is associated with obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer, tooth decay, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
How to stop sugar cravings?
Still, many of us experience sugar cravings, and these cravings are most often not related to health or psychological issues. And sugar carvings can be difficult to fight. Let’s face it, sugar tastes good. Some ways to stop sugar cravings include:
Drink more water
Some sugar cravings are directly related to dehydration. Simply by drinking plenty of water during your day, you can fight off sugar cravings. Drinking plenty of water also helps you feel full. When we get hungry, this is often manifested as sugar cravings. Even the desire for snacks, many of which are loaded with added sugar, can be taken care of by drinking plenty of water.
Exercise is one of the best ways to avoid sugar cravings altogether. Physical activity causes the body to release endorphins. Endorphins improve your mood, and they tend to biochemically satisfy the same neuro-receptors associated with sugar cravings.
What is more, you do not need to engage in high-intensity exercise to achieve the benefits of exercise. Something as low-impact and simple as a daily walk can vastly reduce sugar cravings.
Get better sleep
Lack of good sleep and general food cravings are inextricably linked. Not getting proper sleep will lead to sugar cravings because appetite-reducing hormones do not get released. This will lead you to crave foods that provide instant gratification, and sugar is chief among these foods.
When you get proper sleep, your body suppresses the production of a hormone called ghrelin that causes you to be hungry. Proper sleep also allows for the production of another hormone called leptin that suppresses hunger. This helps you stay asleep.
By getting plenty of restful sleep, you can facilitate the biochemical mechanisms that reduce the possibility of sugar cravings.
Removing temptation is a simple psychological trick. If you do not have sugary snacks on hand, you cannot eat them. It is as simple as that. In the absence of sugary snacks, you can replace them with things like fresh fruit that contain natural sugars that do not have the same negative health consequences and have tremendous health benefits. If you are having trouble with sugar cravings, just get rid of the sugar and make it inaccessible to yourself.
Remember that cravings are always temporary. Even something as compelling as nicotine cravings last only about ten minutes. You can easily deal with sugar cravings by doing something that distracts you from the moment. Take 5-10 minutes and do something engaging. Reading, listening to music, stepping outside for a few minutes—almost anything like this will distract you from the immediate cravings and get you past the sugar craving.
Other ways to handle sugar cravings:
Most often sugar cravings happen because we are hungry. Simply eating healthy and satisfying meals can help avoid sugar cravings completely. There are a great many diets that involve severe calorie restrictions. While many of these diets do work, they will inevitably lead you to experience hunger. When getting hungry, we are likely to crave sugar. Stay full, eat healthy balanced meals, and you probably will not experience sugar cravings.
Increase your protein intake
Protein tends to make us feel full longer. By increasing your protein, you are likely to avoid feeling hungry in between meals, and you will cut down on sugar cravings.
Take a multivitamin
As noted above, sugar cravings can be a function of a nutritional deficiency. By taking a multivitamin, you cover the bases for basic nutrients. This will decrease the likelihood of sugar cravings.
What foods reduce sugar cravings?
If you need some things to snack on to avoid sugar cravings, there are some healthy foods that will work for snacks and they work wonders for fighting sugar cravings. Some of these foods include:
Fruits are high in natural sugars and fiber. Fresh fruit will satisfy your need for between-meal snacks, and the natural sugar content will satisfy your sweet tooth.
These are great for reducing sugar cravings because fresh berries taste sweet but are actually low in sugar. Fresh berries are high in healthy fiber, and they contain natural antioxidants.
Natural healthy fiber accounts for about 40 percent of chia seeds. They are naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids which are great for heart health. And chia seeds will provide a satisfying snack that reduces your sugar cravings.
Wrapping things up
We become accustomed to sweets at an early age. For many of us, holidays, birthdays, and special occasions of all kinds are celebrated with things like cake, ice cream, and pie. It is no wonder that we associate sweet sugary treats with positive things. This is how our brains become locked into the reward circuit and produce sugar cravings.
For most of us, sugar cravings are not much of a problem, We indulge in a little chocolate or ice cream and that is the end of it. But for others, sugar cravings can become problematic. When we experience sugar cravings with regularity, we run the risk of a range of health problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. This is when we need to find ways of dealing with our sugar cravings.
For others, sugar cravings may be a sign of other health issues. Blood sugar imbalances can lead to serious sugar cravings, for example. The danger with this kind of sugar craving is that it can lead to a cycle that only makes the problem worse. Binging on sugar to alleviate low blood sugar produces a spike in blood sugar. This will then lead to a crash that produces low blood sugar. The cycle compounds on itself until a serious health problem comes about.
For the more common sugar cravings, there are a number of things you can do to avoid them. Something as simple as taking a walk can vastly reduce sugar cravings. Learning to snack on things like fresh fruit and berries can also alleviate sugar cravings without adding unhealthy sugars to your diet.
If you are experiencing symptoms of things like low blood sugar, you should consult your doctor. For people who are just living with common sugar cravings, get plenty of rest, drink plenty of water, and get some exercise.