Sugar Cravings and Ending The Battle With Sweet Stuff
We've all had a battle within ourselves when sugar is around...baking, chocolate, lollies....we crave it no matter how hard we try to resist. But why do we crave it and what can we do to stay on track and avoid falling victim to a sugar filled coma!
Many of us can relate to a good old battle of wills with sugar. Me vs jet planes round 9374. And sometimes it can feel like an all out (and extremely drawn out) war! But why? If it’s not good for us and we’re trying to live our healthiest life, why do we crave it? Answer...because it tastes so good! And it’s not going anywhere so you should probably learn to manage your sugar cravings and END that battle once and for all because trust me, you won’t win.
Why Do We Crave Sugar?
Food manufacturers employ food scientists to perfect their recipes and to develop the yummiest of yum foods for us. These foods are called ‘hyper-palatable’ foods due to their apparent addictiveness to the average palate. No mere mortal can stop after they have indeed popped re. Pringles. Research has found that foods equal in kcal amounts for sugar and fats tend to be ‘hyperpalatable’ and therefore irresistible to humans e.g. brownies, ice-cream, cake etc. If you crave these foods don’t worry it’s simply your brain purposely being manipulated by sneaky food manufacturers. Still, so good though!
Chronically undereating, being hungry or depleted carbohydrate stores may increase cravings for sugar as it is our source of quick release energy. Your brain is super helpful to human survival and will help you in times of famine and starvation to seek out the most energy dense foods. The helpful brain increases dopamine when you carry out behaviours conducive with staying alive and procreating (1). For that reason when you get a big hit of Calories, sugar and fat together in large quantities we get a big cranial, hell yes! Your brain carefully logs the smell, taste, and look of this euphoric food and increases your drive for more when it feels you're being a wee bit neglectful of your survival. That’s why dieting, cutting carbs and being hungry increases sugar cravings. It’s like a cat bringing you a present of a dead mouse (nobody had to die, Tinkerbell!), you can’t blame them, they’re just running on instinct, they just THINK they’re being super helpful.
The dopamine hit we get from high energy, sugary and fatty foods can also be helpfully associated with our environment and emotions. Again, nice one brain! Maybe you were given a lolly when you were upset as a child or movie night just wouldn’t be the same without passing around the maltesers? You can be in the habit of using sugar to pacify you when you’re sad, heighten the experience when you’re happy or just be there for you like an old friend coming to hangout when you're bored. As Mick Jagger said ‘old habits die hard’
Bad Nights Sleep
Lack of sleep creates shifts in hormones that can increase appetite. Especially appetite for carbohydrate based foods, with a preference for high Calorie, high sugar and high fat foods that taste sweet (2). Again the foods that fit this profile are biscuits, chocolate, ice-cream, cake etc. all the yumminess that you might call comfort food when you're feeling pretty tired.
We crave sugar because it tastes so good right? But why does it taste so good? It’s all driven biologically. We crave sugar in times of food restriction as our brain tries to keep us well fueled. This biological system can be hijacked by yummy processed food manufactured to be hyper-palatable. We can formulate bad habits around our environment and emotions with these hyper-palatable foods. We also reach for these comforting carbs when we are tired.
Is Craving Sugar Bad For Us?
High sugar, high fat diets (think cake, biscuits, ice-cream, chocolate, pizza washed down with coke) can have a negative impact on your gut microbiota. This type of diet can decrease healthy bacteria and increase bad bacteria (dysbiosis) leading to increased permeability of the gut or leaky gut as you may have heard it called (3) . This can have harmful effects such as chronic inflammation and is even linked to other nasties such as metabolic disorders and fatty liver (4). There is also some evidence that bacteria can change our food cravings depending on what they feed on, so if we have lots of sugar feeding bacteria guess what we would crave (5)?
Displacement of Healthy Food
If you are craving sugary foods on a regular basis that probably means that you are eating sugary foods on a regular basis. That’s just how it goes. You can’t fight biology! (you can work around it but we’ll discuss this later on). This frequent intake of sugary foods may be displacing a huge variety of other more nutrient dense foods. If you reach for a chocolate bar or lollies as an afternoon pick me up, that's seven lost opportunities for health a week. Seven pieces of fruit that could have contributed to your recommended thirty-five portions of fruit and vegetables a week. Every food choice is an opportunity for nourishment.
Overeating/ Binge Eating
Overeating on high sugar processed foods on a regular basis can lead to fat gain and eventually ill health. More acutely if you have a problem with binge eating it can feel like a psychological battle of will that you repeatedly lose. This in turn leads to all sorts of negative feelings about your lack of willpower and determination and it can even affect your self esteem. Overeating can vary in its affects from simply feeling too full to formulating unhealthy eating habits and developing a clinical eating disorder. However it affects you, please check in with yourself to consider any negative side effects overeating on sugary foods may have for you?
You may pride yourself on your strictness. Only a beautifully healthy diet void of any processed rubbish and refined sugars for you. Well done! Whilst you may feel like you sleep better at night knowing that no nasties are in your diet, if you have that nagging voice following you around, Eeeeat it! You, my friend, have emotional baggage and that’s not healthy. This won’t apply to everyone but if you know, you know. It can be difficult having that secret internal battle with yourself. Should I?, Shouldn’t I? Aww go on it’s only this once, No I can’t! If you have sugar cravings that build up over time and you never really satisfy them, this can feel like a never ending war, never ending mind battle. This in turn can make you irritable, mentally or physically fatigued, guarded or feeling emotionally hurt that you are in some way broken. You aren’t! You just need to find a way to deal with the cravings. It might even involve actually satisfying them for a change!
Sugar cravings can be bad for your health if they lead to the type of overeating or binges that cause excessive fat gain or emotional harm. Diets high in sugar can create disruption in the gut microbiota with negative health consequences whilst displacing other healthier foods from the diet. On the other hand, if you are being over restrictive and forever battling with cravings it can be very mentally disruptive.
What to Do if You Are Craving Sugar Frequently?
Psychological Habit Change
If you have an emotional link to sugar consumption, reducing the impact that that emotion has on your life is likely to help with the cravings. Meditation is a healthier alternative to deal with your emotions of stress, anxiety or sadness etc.
Mindful eating promotes increased focus on your food and therefore the delight it brings you. If you struggle with sugar cravings, mindful eating could help you to appreciate the reward you get from eating all food, especially healthy foods, to somewhat lessen the perceived reward of sugar. Eat your food with intent. How does it smell? How does it taste? How is this nourishing your body?
If you’re craving sugar try not to go straight to a negative mind set. Be rational. It’s totally normal to crave sugar. Now why is it happening this time for you. Are you dieting? Are you feeling stressed? Are you in a situation that you normally associate with sugar? Have you just seen one of those alluring hyper-palatable foods? Whatever it is that may have triggered the craving, be rational about what it was and work on THAT going forward. Most of the time the craving was a perfectly normal response. And sometimes we just felt like it. Own it!
Most and Sometimes Mentality
You need to drop the all or nothing mentality. Instead aim for a ‘most and sometimes’ mentality. Mostly healthy, sometimes sugary. Sugar cravings can be born from restriction and never quite satisfying a craving that is perfectly natural. If you struggle with an all or nothing mentality I would work on satisfying those sugar cravings with small sweet portions when they turn up instead of letting them build up until you find yourself in the ‘nothing’ phase.
Set Achievable Goals
Set achievable nutrition goals that aren’t psychologically damaging. It’s quite sadistic to berate yourself for not achieving unattainable goals. I would definitely put eating absolutely no sugar into the unattainable goals list. At least for me! And as we discussed, restriction can create cravings. So work within your means. A better goal might be that sugary treats are a social affair instead of an every night watching T.V thing.
Physical Habit Change
Eat Enough Food
If you chronically under eat you will crave food or even if you just let yourself get hungry one time you will notice, you are craving food. Often this food is tasty and high in quick sugary energy. A good way to tell if you don’t eat enough in your regular diet is to consider if your body has been getting bigger over the past few weeks. If you have stayed around the same size but you also manage to get quite a lot of junk and sugary foods into your diet, you are not eating enough. Your cravings for junk are simply making up the difference. Put in more of the nourishing foods and your junk intake will come down accordingly.
Swap one habit for another. You are less likely to succeed if you try to go cold turkey. The sugary food must be giving you some sort of warm fuzzy feeling because otherwise you wouldn’t be craving it so make sure to replace it with something that seems worth it for you. For example, don’t decide you'll forgo dessert and run 5km every night if you hate running. It’s not going to work! But maybe swapping dessert for family craft time, bubble bath bliss time or meditation time hits the right spot?
If you are cutting carbohydrates you may experience sugar cravings. Increase complex carbohydrate containing foods such as kumara, potato, pumpkin, whole grain breads, pasta, rice and beans. You may just be chronically low in carbohydrate, especially if you restrict carbohydrates or exercise a lot or with high intensity.
Just Eat the Treat
It’s not healthy to demonise a food. It’s just a food and we’re just hardwired to eat it so now and again give yourself permission to just eat the treat. It won’t have an impact on your health providing you also consistently take care of your nutrient needs. And, most of the ‘battle’ we have with sugar is us saying no and creating a cycle of wanting it more.
Sweet but Healthy
Why not explore sweet but healthy alternatives for sugar cravings and include these on a regular basis. They are nutrient dense and fulfill that sweet taste that you so naturally crave, and that’s just great!
- Add sweet spices to porridge e.g. Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger
- Protein powders flavoured with sweeteners in yoghurt, drink with milk/ water, add to greens smoothie, pancakes etc.
- Stevia, erythritol, xylitol are low Calorie and safe sweeteners.
- Berries go with all sorts
- Fruits. Any kind, Anyhow, Anywhere.
- Honey/ jam added to other healthy snacks e.g. honey, yoghurt and berries or jam, cream cheese and whole grain bagel
- Sweet hot drinks e.g. hot chocolate, herbal teas like fruit flavoured or Mai-chi
- Add vegetables or fruit to sugary snacks e.g. grated beetroot chocolate muffins/ apple and rhubarb in a crumble
- Kumara chips with sweet spices added
- Add honey to nuts and roast
- Add a little bit of salt to sweet foods to intensify the flavour
- Go for healthier versions of sugary foods e.g. dark chocolate, diet drinks (sparingly)
You can work on your sugar cravings through psychological tactics such as meditation, mindful eating, being rational, developing a most and sometimes mentality and setting achievable goals. You can also employ physical tactics such as eating enough food, swapping habits, increasing carbohydrate intake, eating sweet but healthy options and sometimes just eating the treat.
Let’s sum it up
Craving sugar is completely normal and it’s all thanks to our helpful brain forming habits and trying to keep us alive. Tasty processed food, restrictive diets and poor sleep can all contribute to cravings though. Eating lots of sugar isn’t good for us. It can mess with our gut microbiota, body fat levels, and emotional state. And just the ongoing battle with cravings in itself can be an emotional and not so fun rollercoaster. There are however lots of psychological and physical tactics you can try to end the battle with sugar cravings. Once and for all!