If you struggle with sugar cravings, you are not alone. Here are some of the most common causes of sugar cravings, why they happen, and some simple tips to help you curb sugar cravings once they occur.
Why do we crave sugar?
A sugar craving can come in many forms, be it for a bag of gummy worms or a milk chocolate bar, and the reasons for them are plenty. In fact, there are physical, psychological, environmental, and emotional reasons people crave sugar, but the exact reason we crave sugar depends on the individual and the situation and can be triggered by a number of factors.
Side Effects of Eating Too Much Sugar
While sugar can be consumed in a healthy and well-balanced diet, even with a goal of weight loss, when consumed in excess, sugar can impact our health. The negative side effects of eating too much sugar include high blood pressure, diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, weight gain, joint pain, poor dental health, low mood, irritability, and fatigue (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
Common Reasons for Sugar Cravings
Here are some of the most common sugar cravings causes.
1. Force of habit.
Interestingly, one of the most common reasons for sugar cravings is habit formation. While it would be nice to believe that nutrient deficiencies or hormones are solely to blame for sweet cravings, our environment, rituals, and habits have more to do with cravings than anything else.
Whether it’s a learned habit from childhood, such as always being fed dessert after dinner; a daily ritual, like enjoying a treat on your afternoon work break; or a habit you’ve created over time, like walking directly to the pantry when you get home, habit formation plays a major role in food cravings. What you eat, along with when, can turn into a behavior pattern because it feels rewarding (7).
2. Emotional response.
To no surprise, sugar can affect your mood. In the short term, sugar impacts the body’s “feel good” neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine, that boost our energy and enhance our mood (8). This immediate boost causes a positive association with the consumption of sugar, which can be used as a form of relief when certain emotions arise, such as stress, anxiety, sadness, or depression.
Furthermore, the consumption of sweets is often associated with memories, such as holidays, parties, and family gatherings, which invoke feelings of love, happiness, and safety. This positive association can further the habit of reaching for sweets when emotions arise, as it can serve as a distraction or provide comfort.
Not eating enough is a common cause of sugar cravings. Calories are essential to human life and consuming adequate calories is important for providing the body with the energy and nutrients it needs to perform optimally. Undereating or overly restricting calories may cause the body to seek energy, which can come in the form of cravings.
While a calorie deficit is essential for weight loss, the size of that calorie deficit can have a big impact on cravings. If you have a weight loss goal, it’s important to pick a calorie deficit that is moderate and sustainable, ideally no more than (10% – 20%), as a large deficit (25% or higher) is more likely to leave you hungry and craving sugar.
4. Insufficient protein intake.
Protein is the most satiating nutrient, and it plays an important role in our insulin and blood sugar regulation (9, 10, 11). Research has consistently shown that a diet low in protein can disrupt blood sugar and impact our hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which can trigger sugar cravings.
Consuming balanced meals with adequate protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats will help to increase feelings of fullness and dietary adherence.
5. Insufficient fiber intake.
In addition to protein, fiber plays an important role in regulating blood sugar. The presence of fiber in carbohydrate-rich foods helps to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, which helps to prevent blood sugar spikes (13).
Highly processed carbohydrates with little to no fiber, such as pastries, baked goods, and certain breakfast cereals, are more likely to cause spikes, which can lead to blood sugar crashes and, therefore, cause a sugar craving.
Consuming carbohydrates that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, has been shown to significantly improve blood glucose control and mitigate the blood sugar roller coaster.
6. Fluctuations in hormones.
In addition to hunger hormones, stress hormones and sex hormones can impact sweet cravings. Along with insulin, leptin, and ghrelin, changes in cortisol, estrogen, and progesterone are potential causes of sugar cravings.
When stressed, the body releases cortisol which stimulates ghrelin production, which enhances appetite (14).
Moreover, the changes in estrogen and progesterone levels during the menstrual cycle have been shown to cause cravings for high-carb and sweet foods before menstruation due to effects on glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity (15).
Furthermore, there is a small increase in metabolism, specifically resting metabolic rate (RMR), and demand for calories during the two weeks leading up to menstruation, which may cause women to experience increased cravings (17).
7. Lack of sleep.
Lack of sleep is a form of stress on the body and is another potential reason for sugar cravings. Lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep increases the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin, decreases the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin, and decreases insulin sensitivity, often causing people to crave sweets and reach for sugary foods (18, 19).
8. Poor gut health.
While more research is required, early studies suggest there is circumstantial evidence for a connection between cravings and the composition of gut microbiota (21).
The gut microbiota includes all the microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and others) present in the human digestive tract, and early research suggests that the absence of certain bacteria may be connected to the desire to eat sweet, palatable foods.
Moreover, certain gut bacteria have been associated with insulin resistance and insulin sensitivity, which are primary drivers of sugar cravings (22).
While these are some of the most common reasons you may experience sweet food cravings, it’s important to note that there are many other factors at play, and, in most cases, craving sugar is likely due to a combination of factors.
How to Reduce Sugar Cravings
Once you’ve identified some of the reasons you crave sugar, here are some simple suggestions to help you reduce your cravings.
Practice intuitive eating.
Given habits and emotions play a major role in cravings, learning to eat more intuitively is a wonderful way to help reduce food cravings. The hunger-fullness scale is an intuitive eating tool designed to help you get in touch with your hunger and fullness cues and build awareness around food choices. Using this tool can help you unlearn habits and identify emotional triggers that cause you to eat sweets or reach for highly processed foods and create new patterns and coping mechanisms instead.
Prioritize whole foods.
Whole foods are healthy foods and the most nutrient-dense foods available to us. While processed foods can and should be included in a healthy diet, whole foods are more satiating in nature and contain less sugar than their ultra-processed counterparts. Moreover, prioritizing whole plant and animal foods is likely to naturally increase protein and fiber intake without much effort.
Eat balanced meals.
Aim to eat balanced meals complete with a source of protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, and healthy fats at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Not only will this help to ensure you are eating enough protein and fiber to balance your blood sugar, but it will also ensure that you are consuming enough calories throughout the day to help mitigate a sugar craving from undereating.
Eat fermented foods.
Fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi, contain beneficial bacteria that support our gut microbiome. By consuming these foods regularly, ideally daily, you can help to provide the body with the bacteria required for good gut health.
Get good sleep.
Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night and implement sleep hygiene practices to ensure that you are getting good quality sleep. By implementing a small checklist of sleep habits like going to bed at the same time every night, removing electronics from the bedroom, and ensuring your room is dark and cool, you can help to ensure that your sleep is restful, and recovery is optimal (23). Consistent high-quality sleep will help to balance your hunger hormones and balance blood sugar levels making cravings easier to manage.
While it may seem unrelated, regular exercise is another great way to reduce sugar cravings. Physical activity has been shown to lower blood glucose levels up to 24 hours or more after your workout by making the body more sensitive to insulin (24). Be it resistance training, aerobics, or a brisk walk, incorporating 30 minutes of activity into your day is highly beneficial for your health.
Eat some sugar.
Ironically, eating sugar is a great way to tackle sugar cravings. While the consumption of sugar does have negative side effects, when consumed in small doses as part of a well-balanced diet, refined and added sugars are safe to consume. As opposed to trying to omit refined sugar from your diet completely, indulge in sweet treats from time to time in amounts that honor your hunger cues and your health.
If you’ve tried all these suggestions and are still struggling with sugar cravings and excess sugar consumption, reach out for help. It is best to work with a registered dietician and/or mental health professional to help develop a personalized plan that is best for you.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re craving dark chocolate or a sweet treat, sugar cravings occur for many reasons including habits, emotions, hormones, poor gut health, lack of sleep, protein, and fiber. In fact, a sugar craving is most likely caused by a combination of factors as opposed to an individual one. By practicing intuitive eating, eating balanced meals with adequate protein and fiber, and getting regular exercise you can keep your blood sugar balanced, reduce your cravings, and learn to indulge your sweet tooth in a more balanced way.