We’ve all been there. The burning urge and raging desire to get something, get it fast, and get it right now. Sure, we crave different kinds of things, maybe that is due to personal preferences. That said, there’s one thing that seems to get the best of everyone- sugar.
It’s like a relentless little beast that knows exactly what to tell you, so you always come back. To make things worse, there are different reasons to crave sugar. That is to say, there is no one-fits-all solution for everyone. It can make you wonder, what causes craving for sugar, and can it be tamed? Let’s find out.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
Now what causes sugar craving? Several possible things can make you crave that late-night parfait. It could be something as simple as poor eating habits that reprogram your brain or something complex like clinical issues.
Before getting into the details about each issue, let’s look at what happens in your brain whenever you crave sugar.
Your Brain And Sugar Crave
Multiple parts of your brain chip in when it comes to controlling your sensations. For instance, there is your hippocampus. This area is responsible for creating both long and short-term memories and controls your reward-seeking behaviors (9).
This means that your hippocampus helps you remember the difference in taste between vanilla and chocolate-flavored candy. Next, there is the caudate nucleus that is found in both hemispheres of your brain. It primarily influences the reward-seeking behaviors, but that’s not all. Whenever you develop a new habit- good and bad- that’s where the process is logged in (9).
That being said, do you ever wonder why you subconsciously look for a snack when you get home from work? These are conditional responses that occur in your caudate nucleus. This sudden sugar craving causes you to look for a sugary snack whenever you interact with specific stimuli (9). This means it doesn’t matter what time of the day it is, or where you are.
Finally, there’s your insula. This part can be found in each hemisphere of your brain, and it produces emotions to respond to a sensory experience (9). This is something that is widely exploited by marketing teams in most companies. Like in Coca-Cola’s epic summer advert back in 2018.
Subconsciously, the advert suggests you need a cold coke to create good, long-lasting memories. When you take that first sip or even simply think of it, dopamine levels are increased in your brain. This then creates a domino effect of great pleasure with every sip you take.
Other sugar cravings causes include:
While your brain can be a major foe in your quest, foods are also not to be underestimated. Dietary patterns are one of the causes for craving granulated sugar. One such pattern that can trigger your sugar crave is low protein intake. Proteins and fat inhibit the release of sugar into your blood (2).
When your body is in a deficit of either of these two, there will be erratic spikes and crashes in your blood sugar levels. Eventually you start craving for the quick energy boost found from sugar (2). Simply put, don’t drastically cut down on protein. You need it if you’re to overcome your sugar cravings.
Another likely culprit is high-carbohydrate diets. Simple carbohydrates are rapidly absorbed in your bloodstream leading to a sudden spike in blood sugar levels. As a result, your insulin production will also be triggered (2).
When protein, fats, and fiber are missing from your diet, simple carbs will end up reducing your satiety. Low satiety then translates to increased cravings. Interestingly, you can experience sugar cravings even when you’re on low-carb diets. So what are the causes of sugar craving while on low carb diets?
Being low on carbs is also what causes sugar craving after exercise. Your carbs are used up for energy during a workout session. The cravings that follow this period are an effort by your body to replenish these reserves.
When you begin cutting down on carbs, your body will crave the energy levels it’s used to. So in the first few days it’s common to have a ravaging sugar craving. That said, your body will eventually learn how to fuel itself using the available carbs, and the cravings will reduce.
Yes, sometimes it all comes down to your lifestyle. Interestingly, your lifestyle patterns are one of the causes for craving granulated sugar that is hardest to deal with.
The most common lifestyle pattern that can affect your sugar cravings is your sleep habits. Studies suggest that poor sleep habits will reduce the functioning of your cerebrum that is responsible for making decisions (1). This then results in junk food cravings the following day.
Okay, so how exactly does that work? Your biological clock plays a crucial role in managing leptin and ghrelin hormones. These two hormones promote and suppress your overall food intake respectively. So when you are sleep-deprived, your cravings will most likely increase (1).
Sometimes your health plays a role in your cravings. Some of them include:
Stress, for example, the levels of the hormone cortisol in your body. When this hormone is elevated, it can influence the circulating levels of insulin and glucose (13).
It’s true that stress can have different effects on hunger and cravings among different people. For most people, the body rapidly consumes energy reserves while it’s in an overdrive state. Eventually, you’ll start craving more sugar sources to replace these reserves (13).
Bad Moods And Depression
Bad moods and depression can have significant mental and physical effects on your cravings. Whenever you consume sugar, serotonin levels are increased in your body. This hormone is basically your “happy hormone,” so your brain will keep craving this hormone whenever you’re sad or depressed (10).
These fluctuations in emotions are sugar craving causes in women and men alike. So yes, both parties need to be on the lookout for these emotional fluctuations.
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It’s a common assumption that whenever you’re craving for a particular food, you must be deficient in it. For instance, you may crave salty foods when there’s a sodium deficiency in your body (12). This is technically true, but it’s not always the case.
So what deficiency causes sugar cravings? Sometimes when you crave sweet and sugary foods, it may be because of mineral imbalances in your body.
Iron is a good example of such minerals. When you’re deficient in it, you’re likely to feel weak and tired because of the depleted energy levels. Your body will then start craving a fast energy boost to fuel itself with, which can be easily obtained from sugar (12).
Other mineral imbalances that can manifest themselves in sugar cravings include Zinc, calcium, chromium, and magnesium. They are vital minerals that keep your body hydrated. This means that whenever you’re not hydrated, the lack of water may erroneously trigger a craving for sugar when you’re actually just thirsty (12).
What about vitamins? More specifically, what vitamin deficiency causes sugar craving, if any? Well, when you lack certain vitamins like vitamin B12, you may end up feeling fatigued (12). This may lead to an energy need that’ll be manifested as a sugar craving.
The Risks Of Eating Too Much Sugar
The thing about sugar cravings is that they’ll lead you to eat excess sugar. It’s just sugar, eating too much of it can’t be that bad, right? Wrong. There are health implications of taking too much sugar, and some of them include:
Obesity rates are constantly rising throughout the world, and sugar may be one of the main culprits. Sugar cravings ultimately create a chain of undesirable events. See how excessive consumption of sugar decreases your satiety (3). This then leads to increased levels of hunger that ultimately result in increased food intake and weight gain.
Multiple studies associate heart diseases with increased sugar intake. This can lead to inflammation, high triglyceride, blood pressure, and sugar levels (4). All these conditions will make you particularly vulnerable to heart diseases.
Risk Of Type 2 Diabetes
Over the past 30 years, the worldwide prevalence of diabetes has more than doubled (5). Sure, there may be a lot of reasons for this increase. However, obesity has been shown to be primarily caused by too much sugar, and is considered the strongest risk factor (8).
When you constantly consume a lot of sugar, you may end up developing insulin resistance. Your blood sugar levels will be left unchecked, thus increasing the risk of you contracting diabetes (8).
Risk Of Cancer
Certain types of cancer are associated with excessive sugar consumption. Also, metabolic conditions like obesity have been known to raise your risks of getting cancer (7). Inflammation and insulin resistance caused by excess sugar consumption can also have similar effects on you (11).
Increased Cellular Aging Process
Telomeres are structures located at the end of your chromosomes. These are molecules that hold most of your genetic information. They are essentially a protective cap that prevents your chromosomes from deteriorating or fusing (6).
Over time, telomeres naturally shorten, leading to cellular aging and malfunction. However, consistently consuming large quantities of sugar can accelerate cellular aging (6).
How To Outsmart Sugar Cravings?
Now you know what causes cravings for sugar and the risks involved when you give in. The only question left is, how can you tame them? True, it can be difficult to pull this off. Despite this, difficult is far from impossible. Plus, who doesn’t like a challenge, right?
Hungry? Eat Healthy And Satisfying Meals
First off, you must understand that having a craving is far from being hungry. Cravings of any kind are your brain’s way to ask for things that’ll trigger the release of its “happy hormone,’ dopamine. This call is often mistaken as meaning that your body needs energy.
Things get even worse if a craving and hunger hits you simultaneously. You’ll need a lot of willpower to resist that kind of scenario. One of the most effective ways to counter this is eating healthy meals immediately. Always stock your refrigerator with healthy snacks and pre-made meals.
Lean proteins like fish and eggs will increase your satiety, making you stay full for longer. Sure, real food doesn’t sound as good as junk, but neither do metabolic diseases.
Sometimes your cravings are caused by anxiety, boredom, and tons of other emotions. Whenever you’re craving sugar, getting an activity that’ll take your mind off it could help out.
Whether it’s taking a brisk walk or a shower, if it makes you forget the hidden ice cream, do it. Sometimes all you need to do is brush your teeth. Doing that will alter the taste of the food, and you’ll probably not eat it.
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Stop The Bad Habits
Simple routines like eating dessert after a meal can make it hard to tame your sweet tooth. You must understand what’s causing your craving since it can be habitual. Once you do this, be creative and try to break these patterns. For instance, if you feel compelled to eat dessert after meals, brush your teeth after the main course.
Find Better Alternatives To Satisfy Your Cravings
Taming your sugar cravings is not an easy thing to do. It’s not something that’ll happen overnight. Take your time, and whenever you feel the urge is overwhelming, try healthier alternatives.
Fresh fruit, for example, can do the trick. They are an awesome substitute for erratic sugar cravings. Sweeteners like stevia are also good, as long as you have them moderately.
Sugar can be addictive. No, scratch that. Sugar is addictive. And, it doesn’t help to know that when you get hooked to something that sweet, the health impacts won’t be the best. The best way to prevent a scenario like this is to deal with your sugar cravings decisively.
This won’t be an easy task, nor is it supposed to be. But with discipline and consistency, you’ll be able to get your sweet tooth under control in no time. So no more excuses. It’s time to take that first step.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Associations of Sleep with Food Cravings, Diet, and Obesity in Adolescence (2019, nih.gov)
- Change in food cravings, food preferences, and appetite during a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet (2011, nih.gov)
- Differential effects of fructose versus glucose on brain and appetitive responses to food cues and decisions for food rewards (2015, nih.gov)
- Estimating Deaths From Cardiovascular Disease: A Review of Global Methodologies of Mortality Measurement (2013, nih.gov)
- National, regional, and global trends in fasting plasma glucose and diabetes prevalence since 1980: systematic analysis of health examination surveys and epidemiological studies with 370 country-years and 2.7 million participants (2011, pubmed.gov)
- Nutrition and lifestyle in healthy aging: the telomerase challenge (2016, nih.gov)
- Obesity as a Major Risk Factor for Cancer (2013, nih.gov)
- Risk Factors Contributing to Type 2 Diabetes and Recent Advances in the Treatment and Prevention (2014, nih.gov)
- Sugar Addiction: From Evolution to Revolution (2018, nih.gov)
- Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study (2017, nih.gov)
- The Links Between Insulin Resistance, Diabetes, and Cancer (2014, nih.gov)
- The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation (2020, nih.gov)
- Why stress causes people to overeat (2021, harvard.edu)