If you’re someone who craves something sweet after each meal, you’re certainly not alone. Sugar cravings are extremely common. But since they can interfere with your health, it’s important to understand how to get them under control.
This article will help you do just that, explaining why too much sugar can be a problem, what may be causing your sugar cravings, and what steps you can take to help prevent or reduce them.
We’ve all probably had the experience of not being able to eat just one cookie at the dessert table, or craving a piece of chocolate after dinner each night. While it’s certainly okay and understandable to enjoy sugar from time to time, it isn’t something you should eat in excess. This is because sugar provides what is referred to as “empty calories,” which are calories that provide no significant nutritional value.
Empty calories are easy to overconsume because they don’t contribute to that feeling of fullness that tells your brain to stop eating. Research shows that sugary foods are among the top contributors to obesity, and overeating them can lead to various chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, Americans are consuming more than 300% of the recommended daily amount of added sugars.
While you may think of foods like cake, ice cream, and cookies when you think of sugary foods, there are other sneaky sources of sugar in the standard American diet.
Sugar hides in many processed foods, such as:
To help identify added sugars, the FDA now requires the amount of added sugars to be declared on nutrition labels. It’s still a good idea to check ingredients for other forms of sugar, such as syrup, nectar, and words that end in “-ose,” like dextrose, fructose, and sucrose.
Now that you understand why too much sugar can be a problem, it’s helpful to understand what may be causing your cravings. Sweet foods are highly palatable and are one of the most tempting things you can eat, and there are many reasons why they’re so difficult to avoid.
Here are eight reasons why you may be craving sugar:
Research shows that protein is the macronutrient that contributes the most to satiety, or feelings of fullness, compared to carbohydrates and fat. Eating protein also slows the release of sugar into your bloodstream, resulting in more stable energy levels. When you don’t consume enough protein, your blood sugar can rise and fall more quickly. The resulting dip in blood sugar causes your body to crave quick energy from sugar.
Like protein, fiber, which is an indigestible form of carbohydrates, also contributes to a feeling of fullness. Without enough fiber in your diet, it’s easy to keep reaching for more simple carbohydrates like sugar.
Undereating can make food cravings worse. When your body is hungry, it craves foods that will provide a quick energy boost, such as sugar. Not eating enough can also contribute to vitamin and mineral deficiencies that lead to low energy levels and a desire for more foods that provide quick energy, like sweets.
Research shows that poor sleep can decrease functioning in the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, leading to overeating and junk food cravings. A lack of sleep also increases levels of the hormone ghrelin (which tells you you’re hungry) and decreases leptin levels (which tells you you’re full). Lastly, sleep deprivation can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can stimulate your appetite.
The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you’ll crave. Research confirms that sugar can be addicting to the brain. When you eat sugar, the hormone dopamine gets released, eliciting feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. However, the more sugar you eat, the less sensitive your body becomes to dopamine. Over time, you’ll need to eat even more sugar to get the same feelings of satisfaction.
Your surroundings play a significant role in the foods you eat. If you provide yourself regular access to sweet foods you enjoy, you’re more likely to eat them.
Stress causes your brain to desire rewarding substances like sugar, so the more stressed you are, the more cravings you’re likely to have.
The good news is that sugar cravings are entirely manageable with the right diet and lifestyle habits.
Here are some things you can do to help squash your sugar cravings:
While most Americans eat enough protein, they typically do so in an imbalanced way— getting the majority at dinnertime and not enough earlier in the day. Research shows that eating a high-protein breakfast can increase satiety and reduce hunger that can cause cravings later in the day.
Aim to get between 20–30 grams of protein at each meal from foods like eggs, poultry, lean meats, fish and other seafood, plain yogurt, beans, nuts, and seeds.
It is possible to train your brain and taste buds to desire less sweet things, but it takes practice. The key is to make gradual changes that will be easier to implement, such as using a little less sweetener in your morning coffee, skipping the dried fruit or honey in your oatmeal, and eating slightly smaller portions of dessert.
You can also try swapping out sugary snacks with things like nuts, whole-grain crackers, or fruit for more nutrients (and fiber) and less sugar.
Fueling your body throughout the day, such as every 3–5 hours, helps control hunger that can lead to sugar cravings. Try to avoid skipping meals and keep healthy snacks on hand to help ensure you can do this.
Even small improvements in your sleep can reduce sugar cravings. Most adults need at least seven or more hours of sleep per night. Practicing good sleep hygiene habits like setting a consistent bedtime, turning off screens at least an hour before bed, and keeping your room dark and cool can help promote better sleep.
While you don’t have complete control over all the temptations you may come across, you do have some control over what’s in your pantry at home. Make an effort to buy less sugary foods that you know you have trouble resisting, and you’ll have fewer opportunities to indulge in these cravings.
Stress takes a toll on your health in many ways, so doing what you can to help reduce it can positively impact not only your sugar cravings but a lot of other things as well.
Things that can help lower your stress levels include setting boundaries in what you commit yourself to, engaging in self-care activities, exercising, and asking for help when you need it.
Next time you’re craving something sweet, try reaching for your water bottle first. Most adults need between 11-16 cups of fluids each day, which should mostly come from unsweetened beverages.
We all eat sugar, but the amount and frequency in which we do so matters when it comes to our health. You can take action today to help reduce your sugar cravings by eating a balanced diet, prioritizing stress-relief, and modifying your environment to support healthier choices.