How many times have you looked down at an empty bag of Halloween candy, scraped the bottom of a carton of ice cream or devoured half a cake after initially going in for one small bite?
As if our relationship with food isn't complicated enough, some foods seem to throw a grenade into our perfectly planned diets, like sugar! Sugar can feel addictive, to the point that our cravings for it consume our thoughts and crush our willpower.
If you are feeling utterly hooked on the sweet stuff, don't worry. There is nothing wrong with you. We all crave something sweet from time to time, some of us are just more addicted than others. If you're looking to kick the habit and get control of your diet, keep reading to learn why your cravings for sugar get out of hand and what can you do to stop it.
What is Sugar?
The word sugar gets thrown around a lot like some form of "evil" component found in food, but sugar is a broad term. All sugars are essentially carbohydrates. They can be found in a number of foods - including many fruits and vegetables, as well as processed foods - and there is more than one type.
Some sugars, like naturally occurring ones found in nutritious foods, shouldn't be avoided and can actually have a positive impact on your health. However, added sugars may be different.
Added sugars are simple carbohydrates extracted from plants and typically processed further to remove impurities. These "refined" carbs are then added to other foods and drinks as a source of sweetener. The process of extracting sugar from whole food strips away beneficial nutrition and leaves a carb-rich ingredient that is absorbed into your bloodstream quickly. Of course, some added sugars are found in nature, like honey and maple syrup. Although one could argue these are extracted and processed by mother nature.
Regardless of how it is produced (natural or refined), added sugars are a source of empty calories in the diet, and too much of either can lead to weight gain (when calories are exceeded), mess with your blood sugar levels and contribute to other health issues (1,2,3,4).
How Many Grams of Sugar a Day Should You be Eating?
Cutting back on added sugars in the diet is a great way to decrease calories without sacrificing nutrition. It can also help manage your energy levels, appetite, and mood better with improved blood sugar control.
The US Dietary Guidelines recommend keeping added sugar intake below 10 percent of total calories consumed and the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25g of added sugar per day.
To put that into context, a 20 oz bottle of soda contains 65g of sugar, which is equivalent to 1.77 shot glasses. One serving of kids cereal has as much as 20g of added sugar.
It doesn't help that added sugar is in just about every packaged food item you can think of, from bread to fat-free salad dressing. Also, there over 50 different names for added sugar on the ingredients label. The average American consumes anywhere from a quarter to a half pound of sugar a day (5). So processed foods account for nearly 90% of added sugar intake (6).
Your best bet for cutting back on sugar is to cook more of your food at home where you can control what gets added. Or learn to read the ingredients label - look for ingredients with sugar or syrup in the name, or that end in "-ose".
Why Do You Crave Sugar?
What is it precisely that allows some people to have a few bites of something sweet, or forgo it altogether, while others cannot seem to control themselves when it comes to sugar?
While a number of individual health and genetic differences may be at play here, there are a few common reasons why you might be craving more sweet stuff in general:
You are Not Eating Enough
Whether you are cutting carbs to drastic levels or just not eating enough, being too restrictive on your diet may be what's driving you to eat more sugar.
This is purely survival mechanisms at work. Under-eating can signal a request for more calorie dense foods that will supply additional energy and quick energy in order for you to support your daily needs (7). Since sugar is one of the fastest sources of glucose (fuel) you can get, it would make sense that you crave it when calories are sparse.
Your Diet is Lacking in Good Nutrition
If your macro balance is off or you're just eating too many unhealthy foods, your blood sugar could be way out of whack. And poor blood sugar control can cause your energy crash, increase hunger and cravings for certain foods (especially carbs), and mess with your overall mood. If you've ever been hangry, this is an actual symptom of low blood sugar and/or lack of carbs (8).
Certain nutrient deficiencies may also contribute to cravings. After all your body runs on nutrition (macros and micronutrients) not just calories, and if your body isn't getting what it needs, it could be signaling to your brain that you need more food to get it (9,10).
Sugar is Addictive
When you eat sugar, it causes a release of pleasure hormones and endorphins that make you feel good - mainly in the form of dopamine (11). Moreover, it doesn't take long for your brain to associate your sugar intake with pleasure and reward, leading you to crave it.
Of course, emotions also play an active role. If you are feeling stressed, sad, or unhappy, this could trigger cravings for feel-good foods like sugar (12). However, these effects are only short-lived. Eating high amounts of sugar can cause your serotonin to crash. Moreover, added sugar intake is linked to poor mood and depression in a number of studies, meaning your cravings could be making you feel worse in the long run (13,14,15).
Because of these effects, some studies have suggested that sugar could be more addictive than cocaine (16,17,18). But why is it that some people succumb to this more than others? After all, only 15% of the US population consider themselves as “food addicts”, and sugar addition alone is not strongly linked to obesity (19).
The truth is that the exact contribution of dopamine in reward is still unclear and more studies are needed, but most researchers still agree it plays an important role in feeding behaviors. In other words, sugar may have addictive like effects in some but there are a number of factors at play.
So, if you have a sweet tooth, should you cut out all sugar from your diet?
With traditional addictions, the treatment usually involves stopping the drug or behavior altogether. But for most of us, it is not reasonable to eliminate sugar from their diet forever. Yes, going cold turkey may work temporarily, but if sugar remains a trigger food for you, how will you balance your consume when you inevitably have it again?
Not to mention some sugars are found in nutrient-dense foods, like fruit, and these sugars can have similar effects on dopamine release (20).
Sugar addiction occurs partly because of the effect sugar has on our bodies, and partly because of your psychological relationship with this ingredient. One of these factors you may be able to control (21,22).
It is important to recognize the role of your personal relationship with food plays in sugar cravings and what is actually within your realm of control. It isn't necessarily from lack of willpower. If you feel addicted to sugar, scaling back on your sugar intake or stopping it for a bit can definitely help, but it won't solve the underlying issues.
Food addiction is a real disease, that can affect your life negatively if you feel your sugar intake is a serious issue you can't solve on your own, it might be worth seeking professional help (23,24).
9 Ways to Curb Sugar Cravings
Even when trying to eliminate sugar and avoid the temptation in the first place, cravings can still occur. To help combat some of this, sticking to a balanced and healthy approach to dieting is key. Here are some of the best ways to improve your relationship with food and help calm sweet cravings in the process.
1. Increase Your Calories
Feed your body. Find out how many calories you need each day and don't cut too low. This will help control your appetite overall, can improve your energy levels and help keep your mood in check. It is possible to lose weight without starving yourself.
2. Eat a Healthy Balanced Diet
The quality of your calories also matters. Eating more protein, more nutrient dense foods, and including fiber-rich foods may help.
Protein intake has often been associated with improved appetite and weight management, so it is no surprise that studies suggest including meat or fish with your meals can curb sugar cravings (25,26). In fact. in one study, increased protein intake helped reduce cravings a by 60% (27).
Some research suggests that restricting carbs to low levels can cause carb and sugar cravings (28). And fiber-rich foods, like whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and legumes, are associated with improved appetite, blood sugar control and improved weight management (29,30,31,32).
Low intakes of chromium, vanadium, magnesium, and zinc are also linked to an increased number of sugar cravings (28). Opt for broccoli, turkey, beef, potatoes, eggs, whole grains, and green beans for chromium; dairy, shellfish, dill and parsley for vanadium; whole grains, beans, spinach and pumpkin seeds for more magnesium; and meat, shellfish, beans, nuts and dairy for zinc.
3. Opt for Healthier Sweets
When cravings hit, you may be able to satisfy your sweet tooth with healthier alternatives like fruit and sugar-free gum.
Fruits contain natural sources of sugar that can cause a similar release of dopamine but are less likely to mess with your blood sugar and energy levels due to their high fiber and nutrient content. They also contain significantly less sugar per volume compared to sweets and desserts. Try reaching for some avocado, berries, apple, banana, oranges, pear, or mango next time you need a fix.
Some studies have also linked chewing gum with better appetite control and decreased cravings for carbs later in the day (34,35,36,37).
4. Drink More Water
Some believe that dehydration can cause cravings. Since your body uses up glycogen stores more quickly during dehydration, drinking water could help calm your desire to eat more carbs (38).
More importantly, opting for water helps you cut out sugar-sweetened drinks and soda that are going to enable your sugar addition. Not a water drinker? Try sparkling water with added fruit and herbs for a sugar-free soda option that will help keep you hydrated.
5. Stay Busy
Keeping your mind active, especially while trying to restrict certain foods, can strengthen your willpower. Keep yourself occupied by finding activities that allow you to be creative or think strategically (39). This could be reading a book, playing a game, spending time with family, or just going for a long walk.
6. Cut Out Artificial Sweeteners
Some research has linked intakes of artificial sweeteners with sugar cravings (40.41). These sweeteners are sugar and calorie free but mimic the taste of sugar, which can leave you hanging for a reward response. Eating a lot of foods with artificial sweeteners can also encourage the intake of sweet flavored foods by developing a preference for them.
If you are looking to manage your sugar cravings, it might be worth cutting out artificial sweeteners as well or considering them a source of sugar in the diet, at least to start.
7. Manage Stress
High amounts of stress can cause an increase in cortisol, a hormone that causes increased appetite and cravings for carbs in particular (42,43). Finding ways to decrease stress or manage it in a more positive way, may be an effective strategy for controlling your cravings.
To help manage your stress levels try some of the following:
- Increase your physical activity
- Meditation or yoga
- Take more time to take care of yourself and slow down - go for a walk outside, get a massage, take a nap, read a book, etc.
- Surround yourself with positivity - spend time with close family, friends, or pets, watch a funny movie, or listen to music.
8. Get Enough Sleep
Lack of sleep can also cause cravings for unhealthy foods due to changes in appetite-regulating hormones and low energy levels (44).
If you are sleep deprived and feel like it may be affecting your diet, aim to get at least seven hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep a night. Here are some tips to help you get more sleep:
- Limit distractions before bed by cutting off the TV, putting your phone away, and settling into a dark, quiet space.
- If your thoughts are racing (thinking about all the things you need to get done), keep a notepad by your bed and write these things down. Then put them out of sight and mind and deal with them in the morning.
- Eliminate all sources of light and sound. Use a sleep mask or earplugs if you need to.
- Avoid caffeine within six hours of bedtime.
- Eat a balanced diet with foods that help promote sleep.
9. Practice Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is the practice of being more present and aware of what you are putting int your body. If your relationship with food is a constant struggle, learning to eat more mindfully can help.
Research continues to suggest that mindfulness and intuitive eating can remove restrictions and negative thinking around certain foods and promote a healthier relationship with dieting, weight management and help address problematic eating behaviors such as food addiction (45,46).
You can learn mindful eating using a few tricks for slowing down and thinking things through. Stop and ask yourself the following during your next meal or snack:
- Why are you eating? Are you hungry, bored, sad, etc?
- What does the food look like? Smell Like? Feel like? Taste like? Sound like when you eat it?
- How does this food make you feel, physically and emotionally?
Low Sugar Meals Delivered
Cooking more of your meals at home is one way to decrease added sugar in your diet. But if you don't have the time or skill set to meal prep for yourself, how about a healthy meal delivery program?
Pick a meal plan that fits your taste and fitness needs and get consistent, healthy meals to help you stay balanced and on track. Plus, little to no added sugar to help you detox and cut cravings for good.