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Are You Craving Sugar? Learn Why [+Tips to Fight Those Cravings]

Karen Davis, MS, LN, CNS, CKNS

Published in Nutrition

10 min read

November 9, 2021
a person holding a piece of cake sitting at a table full of different kinds of sweets
a person holding a piece of cake sitting at a table full of different kinds of sweets

Do you constantly want to reach for the candy in your pantry? Do you wonder why? If so, you’re not alone! We’re all susceptible to craving some sweet stuff from time to time. In fact, there’s more than one study focused on studying the effects of sugar on our brains and why we’re so ‘hungry’ for it so often.

The first thing to remember is that your blood sugar spikes when you eat foods that contain sugar. Your body will then release insulin to control the levels of sugar in your bloodstream. When left unchecked, this can become an infinite loop that causes health issues. If you find yourself craving sweets all the time, it may be a good idea to look at what’s causing those feelings and what you can do about them.

Causes of Sugar Cravings to Be Aware Of

letter cookies spelling sugar craving

1) Dips and Fluctuations in Blood Sugar

Blood sugar (or blood glucose) is, plainly put, the level of sugar found in your bloodstream. When foods are broken down after you eat them, your body converts carbohydrates into sugar. This sugar then enters your bloodstream and provides you with energy. Because blood sugar is an energy source, low blood sugar levels can seriously affect your food cravings. This could lead to you overeating calorically dense foods that are high in carbohydrates and processed sugar when your levels dip. So, what can cause dips in blood sugar levels [hypoglycemia]? For starters:

  1. Diabetes
  2. Medications
  3. Excessive drinking
  4. Hormone deficiencies
  5. Kidney disorders
  6. Eating disorders

Sweet Tips for Prevention

Many different factors can cause low blood sugar and lead to sugar cravings. It’s important to discuss what may be causing your hypoglycemia with a medical professional so you can learn more about it. It can also help you develop a long-term plan to track, monitor, and manage it. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to try eating small, protein-rich meals frequently throughout the day. You can also wear a CGM and check your levels if you think they’re dipping too low.

2) Too Many Carbs, Not Enough Protein or Healthy Fats

If your diet consists mainly of processed carbohydrates and foods high in added sugars, while lacking healthy fats, proteins, and vegetables, you may experience sugar cravings. Many meals that are dietary staples (especially if you’re eating ready meals, getting takeout or buying something off the shelf) don’t promote optimal blood sugar levels. For example, eating waffles with syrup for breakfast may fill you up, but you’ll break down these foods very quickly. This may cause your blood sugar to spike if your body can’t produce enough insulin to handle the amount of sugar entering your bloodstream. Some studies show that over time, a low-carbohydrate diet may cause a dip in the frequency of cravings for some people. 

Sweet Tips for Prevention

Focusing on what you eat may not completely cut out all your sugar cravings but it may be one way to help manage them. Try some of these tips:

  1. Consider finding some alternatives to sugary drinks. A simple way to begin may be by swapping out soda for carbonated water.
  2. Try to eat your proteins before your carbohydrates in a balanced meal.
  3. Prioritize larger quantities of healthy fats and proteins.
  4. Consider limiting carbohydrate-heavy desserts to special occasions.
  5. Seek out substitutes for sweets that contain refined sugar. Try dark chocolate or a piece of your favorite fruit.
  6. Start your day with a high-protein breakfast so that you feel fuller for longer.
  7. Find an eating pattern that works for you. For some people, smaller meals more frequently may work better. For others, larger, more satisfying meals less frequently helps keep blood sugar stable and cravings at bay.  

3) Negative Sugar-Related Lifestyle Habits

a person eating from a cup with sugar written on it

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans’ average daily calories from sugar is 14 percent. With so many sugary drinks, snacks, and candies available almost everywhere you turn, it can be difficult not to form some dietary habits around sugar. And because our bodies are built to convert sugar into energy, it can be easy to fall into a pattern of “sugar addiction.” The more you eat or drink these sugary things, the easier it is for your mind and body to crave those when you feel hungry, thirsty, or even just low on energy.

Sweet Tips for Prevention

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to making healthy substitutions to replace sugar. Still, here are some tips that may help you start your journey to consuming less sugar:

  1. Be aware of what and how much you are eating in a day. Learn to recognize how often you reach for sugary items over something high in protein or healthy fats.
  2. Prioritize eating unprocessed, whole foods.
  3. Integrate more movement into your day. This can help you feel fresh and energized, in addition to helping level your glucose spikes.
  4. Make sure to drink a lot of water. Dehydration can cause fatigue and hunger, which can make you feel like you need a sweet treat.

4) Magnesium in People with Type 2 Diabetes

Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies have not been concretely linked to sugar cravings, but some studies have found correlations. It may be helpful for seemingly healthy individuals who crave excess sugar to test their nutrient and vitamin levels, specifically magnesium levels. Some studies have shown that adequate magnesium intake may help manage blood sugar levels among people with diabetes.With estimates of 48% of the population not getting enough magnesium in their diet, this can be a crucial factor to monitor.  

Sweet Tips for Prevention

Talk to your doctor about testing your nutrient and vitamin levels. They may be able to help you create a supplement and dietary plan to help with your long-term health goals. If you take a magnesium supplement, try to take it with food (it helps it absorb better) and at night (it can create a feeling of sleepiness and promote better sleep quality).

5) Stress (Cortisol) and Mental Health Can Create Cravings for Sugar

a person working with a laptop and eating gummy candies

Do you find yourself reaching for a pint of ice cream when you feel overwhelmed and stressed? Stress eating is a common coping mechanism. Interestingly, a study from 2016 found that participants released a hormone called ghrelin (it controls appetite) whenever they felt any stress. The downside is that comforting yourself using something like sugar may form a cognitive pattern. Since sugar releases serotonin, it could train your brain to look to it for comfort whenever you feel low.

If you find yourself struggling with sugar cravings, you may want to examine when you eat what foods and why. Allowing yourself certain indulgences when you don’t feel good can feel like a comforting treat. But allowing them to become lifestyle habits may lead to health issues down the road.

Sweet Tips for Prevention

You may not need to cut out sugar entirely but focusing on why you have cravings and what you can do instead may be a good decision for your overall health. Here’s how to start:

  1. Think about when you indulge in sugary treats. Are you eating them after work every day? Are desserts providing comfort or satisfaction?
  2. Try to find healthy alternatives to your favorite comfort foods. Consider easy switches at first, like substituting a square of dark chocolate for that Rocky Road ice cream.
  3. Try calling a friend instead of reaching for sugar-laden snacks. Good conversations can provide serotonin too!

6) A Lack of Quality Sleep

You may not think about sleep and food cravings together, but some studies show that rest can have a direct relation to sugar cravings. If you don’t sleep well or get enough sleep, your body will likely feel low on energy. This may lead to food cravings that boost your energy levels in the moment, leading to a feedback loop. Carbohydrate-heavy, sugar-laden foods may lead to poor sleep. 

Sweet Tips for Prevention

Want to make sure you’re getting quality sleep so you can cut down on some sugar cravings? Here are some tips:

  1. Make sure you carve out a solid eight hours of sleep.
  2. Don’t eat anything right before you turn in for the night.
  3. Eat carbohydrate-rich foods earlier in the day and pair them with protein; prioritize protein-rich meals and healthy fats for dinner.
  4. Take a walk after dinner to help your body process and break down sugars from your meal before you go to bed. 

7) Your Environment

a person blowing out candles on a birthday cake

Did you know your environment can affect how much of your sugar cravings you give into? One of the hardest things about controlling the amount of sugar you consume is at social gatherings. Whether it’s a party, a restaurant, a bar, or a family dinner, social gatherings almost always include rich foods, alcohol, and desserts. Unfortunately, you can’t always control what foods you encounter at a party, or where your friends want to meet for dinner. What you can control, however, is what you choose to consume in those environments.

Sweet Tips for Prevention

Wondering how to navigate social gatherings when you’re trying to control your sugar cravings? Take a look at some tips to start with:

  1. Try to choose more protein-heavy foods at restaurants or bars.
  2. Eat something before you go out if you know that the food at your destination will spark a sugar craving.
  3. Try to skip heavier, carbohydrate, and sugar-laden drinks like beer.
  4. Try drinking clear spirits with club soda or water rather than sugary mixes.
  5. Pack your own lunch for work instead of ordering takeout, so you have more control over the ingredients in it.

Foods to Eat if You’re Experiencing a Sugar Craving

a person eating yogurt

For some people, certain foods may be able to help control blood sugar levels. But remember that whether it’s a specific food or a type of diet, there’s no one-size-fits-all to eating healthy. Still, it may help to add some of these foods to your meals to control your sugar cravings.

  1. Cinnamon: Cinnamon can be added to just about anything. Try sprinkling it on an apple or on your favorite whole-grain toast. Cinnamon may lower blood sugar levels and reduce heart disease risk.
  2. Fruit: Fruit is naturally sweet and may help satiate your cravings for sugar. Fruit also contains naturally occurring vitamins, fiber, and nutrients. When opting for fruit, choose whole fruit over dried fruit or juices. 
  3. Sugar-free gum: While there’s no added health benefit to chewing gum, this type of gum is a calorie-free and sugar-free way to kick those cravings.
  4. Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate is delicious! It also may help lower your blood pressure and your risk of cardiovascular disease. There are also several antioxidants in dark chocolate.
  5. Yogurt: Yogurt is high in protein and contains vitamins. Some studies show that yogurt can be good for your gut health too. 
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Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Reviewed by: Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.

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