When it comes to food hankerings, there’s a good chance you might be craving sugary sweets like pastries, cookies, candy or chocolate. And while having a triple-scoop ice cream cone or eating a slice of chocolate cheesecake may taste so good, indulging too often is likely more of a craving than a once-in-a-while treat.
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Have you ever wondered: Why am I craving sweets? Why do I crave sugar?
The reasons are partly physiological, partly psychological and partly because of the environment in which we live.
“The human body functions a bit like a car — you put fuel in the tank, and then you drive,” explains dietitian Anna Taylor, RD, LD. “If the body doesn’t get the fuel it needs, then strong physical cravings can manifest.”
What kind of fuel does your body need? A balanced intake throughout the day of high-fiber carbohydrates, lean protein and heart-healthy fats
So, before we talk about how to manage your sugar cravings, Taylor explains what may cause them.
Common causes of sugar cravings
Are you guilty of these factors that can contribute to your sugar cravings?
You don’t realize how addictive sugar can be
Why do we crave sugar?
For one thing, it tastes good. Many food companies conduct research to determine which food components will tempt consumers’ taste buds the most.
“Our brains are wired to enjoy things which make us happy,” says Taylor. “Sugar, in particular, releases brain chemicals, like serotonin, that make us feel good.”
This leaves us wanting to experience that good feeling over and over again, day after day.
“Many people say they’re ‘sugar addicts,’ consuming real sugar and artificial sweeteners in various forms,” she adds.
And some sweet foods and drinks are incredibly addictive. That’s why many processed foods are loaded with them. They trigger the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that motivates us to engage in rewarding behaviors.
Over time, our tolerance for sweet foods builds up, and we need more to reward ourselves.
“We’re basically feeding our taste buds,” explains Taylor. “This creates a vicious cycle because your taste buds typically crave what you feed them.”
You’re not eating enough
Think you’re being “good” by having coffee for breakfast and a garden salad for lunch?
“Truly, you’re setting yourself up for failure in the afternoon and evening,” warns Taylor. “If you go too long without eating, your body will crave the fastest fuel it can think of — refined grains and simple sugars.”
These are also known as empty carbs such as chips, as well as candy and cookies. Cramming them into your body late in the day means the calories will get stored as fat. Another popular trap you may be guilty of is meal-skipping or waiting too long between meals to eat.
“This leads to significant hunger, which makes you crave anything sweet you can get your hands on,” says Taylor.
Having an all-or-nothing mentality — forbidding all foods with sugar — can backfire, too.
“Some research suggests that eliminating sweet foods makes you crave them less,” notes Taylor. “But eventually, most people tend to give in and resume eating the foods they’ve restricted. That often leads to bingeing.”
Perhaps you often find yourself bingeing on sweet snacks. The next time it happens, pay attention to your stress level. Have you been anxious about a big work presentation? Are you dealing with family drama?
We bet you’re not surprised if during stressful situations, all you want is a pint of ice cream and other sugary treats.
That’s because your stress hormones contribute to your sugar cravings, raising your ghrelin levels. Ghrelin, known as the hunger hormone, stimulates your appetite. And research shows that an increase in ghrelin levels may contribute to your sugar cravings.
“Low serotonin levels can also trigger cravings for sugar,” explains Taylor. “So, if you’re feeling down or stressed, sugar can be especially appealing.”
You’re not getting enough sleep
Sure, we all know by now that we need at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night. And that our body and mind functions differently without sleep.
For example, a lack of ZZZs can contribute to your sugar cravings. You may tend to overeat when you’re tired and not make the healthiest choices when it comes to food.
Research shows that sleep deprivation plays a significant role in how your brain thinks about food and manages cravings.
Raise your hand if this has happened to you: You’re too tired to even think about making a home-cooked meal and instead opt for fast-food or packaged meals that may be high in added sugar.
“When people feel tired, they crave a pick-me-up, so what’s more tempting that the fast fuel source of sugar?” asks Taylor. “The problem is the energy doesn’t last. It peaks, then plummets and then the fuel is gone, leaving you tired again and seeking — you guessed it — another sugary treat.”
When you feel a craving for sweets during the afternoon, going for a walk around your building instead, suggests Taylor.
“And make sure you are sleeping seven to nine hours each night,” reiterates Taylor. “Practicing good sleep hygiene is essential when someone’s sleep schedule is off.”
How to manage sugar cravings
There’s a good chance you’re eating too much sugar each day. In fact, the American Heart Association says that an average adult in the U.S. eats between 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar each day. Yikes! Taylor offers up these tips on how to stop craving sugar.
Assess your energy level
Jonesing for a sweet or salty treat? Before you indulge, check your fatigue level.
“Research shows that when you’re tired, you’re more likely to turn to whatever you crave to get more energy or to wake up,” Taylor says.
So, instead giving into your sugar craving, she recommends taking a short walk or doing something that gets you moving to help curb your craving.
Before you reach for a cookie (or two), take your thirst into account. And there’s a good chance you’re not drinking enough water.
Basic guidelines state that women should drink 91 ounces (2.7 liters) of water each day, while men should drink 125 ounces (3.7 liters) of water daily. But other factors like your metabolism, diet, physical activity and health all contribute to how much water you need.
Research suggests that mistaking dehydration for hunger may trigger cravings as well.
Opt for a healthy snack
It’s the middle of the day and you’ve been busy at work when you realize you want a snack.
But instead of eating a piece of candy, choose a healthier snack like an apple with peanut butter or Greek yogurt and cinnamon or carrots and hummus.
By doing so, you’re eating fiber-rich carbs with either a lean protein or a healthy fat. And that combination will set you up to fuel your body better than a sugary doughnut would.
“Unlike sugary treats, which provide only short-term fuel for the body and can make you crave more sugary treats, a healthy snack that pairs a protein with a high-fiber carb will provide a longer lasting fuel source, satisfying your hunger,” clarifies Taylor.
“If an apple doesn’t appeal and the only thing that sounds good in that moment is the sugary treat, you probably aren’t hungry, just bored. If that is the case, maybe it isn’t time for a snack after all.”
Feel like you can’t break the sugar cycle? It may be time to talk to a healthcare provider about how much you’re craving sugar.
Certain medications like those used to treat depression and other mental health issues may affect your blood sugar levels. Others can affect your appetite.
And your healthcare provider, a dietitian or a mental health professional can help you identify strategies that can help you manage your sugar cravings.
“Overcoming your sugar cravings is likely not a willpower issue,” says Taylor. “Instead, you need to set up your environment differently so those cravings stay tame, allowing you to fuel your body with food not just sugar.”