Did you know there are neurotransmitters in your brain that cause you to crave sugar? It’s true. Sugar cravings are literally in your head. I get sugar cravings late at night and often grab a piece of dark chocolate to satisfy them.
However other situations such as health conditions, lack of essential nutrients, and even the types of food you eat can also cause sugar cravings. For example, have you ever noticed that if you drink a diet soda, you crave something sweet? Too much of a sweet thing can turn sour really quick.
Sugar is introduced into your diet through a variety of foods and is one of the body’s primary fuel sources for energy. Many people have a false understanding of how they get sugar in their diet. Sure, sugar is in the sweets you eat or the soda you drink. However, these are only a few ways you get sugar in your diet.
Most people don’t realize that carbohydrates from foods like breads, pastas, alcohol, fruits and even certain vegetables are converted into sugar by the body during the digestive process. The more sugar your body is used to getting, the more it craves it for energy.
The good news is that you can stop your sugar cravings! I will tell you how to stop your sugar cravings through making small changes in your diet, changing your lifestyle factors, and alternative treats to satisfy that sweet tooth! Before you can stop your sugar cravings, you need to understand what causes them in the first place.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
Have you ever wondered why you crave sugar? This is often explained by something simple like a bad habit, nutrient deficiency, or the food you eat. However, your brain plays a big role in causing you to crave sugar. 1
Your hippocampus, which is located in the temporal lobe of your brain, is what helps you remember the delicious taste of sweets. Think of your hippocampus as a computer. For example, when you eat a piece of dark chocolate, it is what remembers the taste.
It works with other parts of the brain. In each section of the brain, there is a caudate nucleus, which is what causes you to seek out a reward for behavior. This nucleus is what causes you to form habits.
The insula, also located in each part of the brain, is what produces satisfaction and emotions. For example, that first sip of a sugary soda increases dopamine and endorphin levels in your brain to provide you with pleasure.2
Dietary factors such as a low-protein diet, or eating a lot of simple carbohydrates such as starches, sugar, and fiber, also causes sugar cravings. Protein and healthy fats such as olive oil, omega-3 fatty acids, or avocado oil, regulate the release of sugar in your bloodstream and blood glucose levels. When you don’t have enough, it causes blood glucose levels to rise and fall and lead to insulin resistance.
Simple carbohydrates enter the bloodstream fast, causing a spike in blood glucose levels, which causes your pancreas to release insulin. This is quick energy and when you cut out simple carbohydrates, your body craves it. Let’s dive deeper into your body and its use of sugar.
Your Body on Sugar
In our hunter-gatherer days, a piece of fruit would be a welcome source of quick-release energy. Refined sugar, however, is a modern invention that our bodies did not evolve to have the capacity to deal with properly.
Americans consume an average of 7,300 teaspoons of sugar every year, which is double that the recommended amount. That comes to an astounding 66 pounds of added sugar per person.3
You might be thinking, that doesn’t sound like a lot in a year. Yet, consider that the American Heart Association recommends that only 100 calories a day come from added sugar. That equals about 6 teaspoons a day for women and 9 teaspoons for most men, or 2,190 and 3,285 teaspoons per year, respectively.
We are also consuming far greater quantities of sugar than we were ever designed to handle. In the course of a normal day, your body simply doesn’t need all those quick, intense bursts of energy that sugar provides because unlike our ancestors, we aren’t running away from animals trying to eat us.
Not only is added sugar unnecessary for proper body function, it’s actively detrimental to your overall well-being. Let’s take a look at some of the many ways sugar wreaks havoc on your health and why it’s so important to beat sugar cravings.
1. Autoimmune Disease
Sugar affects your entire body because it is an inflammatory food, and inflammation is at the root of nearly every chronic illness. Studies have shown that a high-sugar diet is linked to joint pain and increases your risk of developing autoimmune diseases.4
2. Insulin Resistance
Insulin is a natural hormone produced by your pancreas. It serves two primary functions: regulating blood glucose levels and aiding in the process of storing excess glucose for energy.6
Your body breaks down carbohydrates and turns them into glucose so it can enter the bloodstream and provide your cells with energy. This signals your pancreas to release insulin to control the amount of glucose that enters the bloodstream. Think of that insulin as a gatekeeper. When your pancreas doesn’t produce insulin or becomes resistant to it.
Insulin resistance occurs when cells in your muscles, fat, and liver don’t respond well to insulin. They can’t easily take glucose from your blood. Excess weight gain, too much belly fat, a lack of exercise, smoking, and too little sleep can all cause your receptors to begin to fail.7
As a result, your pancreas makes more and more insulin to help glucose enter your cells. Over time, these overworked pancreas cells wear out and can’t keep up with the demand, and this is what can lead to diabetes.
3. Candida Overgrowth
What you eat has the power to alter your gut microbiome, and research shows this can happen as quickly as 18-20 hours.8
This is important because a diet high in sugar feeds the yeast in your gut, which can lead to Candida overgrowth.
Candida overgrowth causes a wide range of health issues, including vaginal infections, seasonal allergies, digestive issues, and skin or nail fungus. Candida also causes leaky gut and can trigger or worsen autoimmune diseases and prolong inflammation. And because yeast feeds on carbohydrates, once you have an overgrowth, the Candida will cause you to crave sugar even more, leading to a vicious cycle that’s hard to break.
4. Premature Aging
Skin health is more than just vanity. Clear, glowing skin is an indication that everything underneath is functioning optimally.
Sugar messes with your skin in a few critical ways. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, foods with a high glycemic index such as sugar or carbohydrate-rich foods can cause acne breakouts on your skin. Sugar also binds to proteins in your bloodstream and forms molecules known appropriately as AGEs (advanced glycation end-products). AGEs damage your skin’s elastin and collagen (the protein that keeps your skin firm and plump), leading to wrinkles and saggy skin.
5. Addiction and Depression
Sugar cravings not only affect your physical health, they have a big impact on your psychological health as well. As I mentioned earlier, your dopamine levels surge when you eat something pleasing, such as sugar. However, sugar connects to the same neurotransmitters in the brain that causes people to have substance addictions.
When you form an addiction to something, your brain begins to require it for pleasure. When you starve your brain of this substance, neurotransmitters in your hippocampus send signals to other parts of the brain that it needs this substance, which signals a craving.
Because sugar actively depletes your dopamine levels, a high-sugar diet can also lead to depression. A study that followed 8,000 men over 22 years found that those who ate more than 67g of sugar daily were 23% more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who ate 40g or less.9
6. Heart Disease
Your body is pretty resilient and will make adjustments for a short period of time to compensate for poor dietary habits, typically by packing sugars away as stored fat. Eventually, these mechanisms are not enough, and people become insulin resistant and move down the path toward diabetes. Insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar is associated with increased blood clotting, inflammation, oxidative stress, problematic cholesterol particles, and endothelial dysfunction, all of which contribute to cardiovascular disease.
Surprising Sources of Sugar Cravings
Unless you are constantly checking labels, or making your own food from fresh ingredients, you likely are unaware of the amount of sugar in your food, even if you try to eat clean and healthy. Here are a few common hidden sources of sugar:
- Store bought granola and cereal
- Protein bars
- Gluten-free bread
- Premade sauces and dressings
- Nut and seed butters
- Non-dairy milk
- Whey protein powders
Common Names for Sugar on Ingredient Labels
Sugar can also hide under many different names on food labels. Here are the most common names for hidden sugar in food products:
- Ingredients ending in “-ose” (sucrose, fructose, sucralose)
- Ingredients ending in “-ol” (sorbitol, inversol, carbitol)
- Brown rice syrup
- Concentrated fruit juice
- Corn sweetener
- Evaporated cane juice
- Malted barley nectar
The good news is that the FDA now requires most companies to list added sugars on packaged goods, so you’ll be able to tell how much sugar is naturally occurring in the foods used to make the products, and how much is just empty calories.
Now that you understand what causes your sugar cravings, what it does to your body and how to spot hidden sources, let’s talk about how you can stop sugar cravings.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings
Fortunately, once you’re no longer relying on sugar for a quick fix for energy or to satisfy a sugar craving, you are able to stop sugar cravings. Here are a few tried-and-true measures you can take to curb those cravings.
1. Manage Stress
You’re probably all too familiar with the phenomenon of stress-eating. After a disagreement with your spouse, a hard day at the office, or any other emotionally troubling event, you find yourself reaching for the pint of ice cream, the candy bar, or another sweet treat that will trigger the release of feel-good chemicals in your brain. Don’t beat yourself up — it happens to the best of us! And it has nothing to do with willpower. In fact, stress-eating is hard-wired into our systems!
When you’re stressed, your cortisol levels shoot up.
Cortisol is your body’s “fight-or-flight” hormone that helps mobilize sugars to your muscles in order to give them the energy to fight or run away. If you are stressed out all the time as many of us are, your body thinks it needs a constant supply of sugar to fuel your muscles to overcome the obstacle at hand, causing you to “stress eat” loads of sugary foods.
The solution to this is to manage your stress with self-care. Find ways to reduce your stress levels, whether it be through meditation, a walk in nature, a fun hobby you enjoy, or pampering yourself with a massage. Whenever I’m feeling stressed I like to step into my Sunlighten infrared sauna. Infrared sauna therapy promotes relaxation by helping to balance your body’s level of cortisol.
2. Add Protein To your Diet
Another strategy for stopping sugar cravings is to nourish yourself with high protein. The best source of protein is animal protein. Surprisingly, ⅓ of adults over age 50 fail to meet their daily recommended allowance for protein! That’s frustrating because it’s so easy to ensure you are getting high protein amounts. One convenient way to get more protein in your diet is by replacing a meal or snack with a smoothie containing a high-quality protein powder. There are several options out there, so it can be overwhelming to choose the right one.
The Myers Way® Paleo Protein is one of the only clean, AIP protein powders on the market. It is gluten, dairy, and sugar-free, and sourced from non-GMO, hormone- and antibiotic-free, grass-fed beef (don’t worry, you would never know it from the delicious taste).
With 10 flavors, these Paleo Protein powders can be used to make many delicious sweet treats without sugar. A couple of my favorites include these AIP Mocha Protein Brownies and this Salted Caramel Apple Crisp.
Another way to get more protein is by eating a protein bar for a sweet snack. Double Chocolate Brownie Collagen Bars are a decadent delight! They’re keto & Paleo friendly, and stunningly delicious with a texture you’ll have to experience to believe. 10 grams of protein, 7 grams of fiber, and only 2 grams of natural sugars per bar.
Sugar cravings don’t have to be a part of your life. If you feel you can’t stop your sugar cravings, know that you can. Managing your stress and tricking your brain with a high-protein sweet treat that doesn’t have sugar or eating a delicious protein bar for a snack can help you stop those sugar cravings and lower the effects sugar has on your body.
- Study pinpoints brain cells that trigger sugar cravings and consumption. University of Iowa Health Care. 2020.
- Your brain on sugar: What the science actually says. Amy Reicheit. Western University. 2021.
- Added Sugar in the Diet. Harvard School of Public Health. 2021.
- The Link Between Sugar and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Hallie Levine. WebMd. 2020.
- Inflammation, free radicals, and antioxidants. E.M. Conner. Nutrition, vol. 12. 1996.
- Diabetes treatment: Using insulin to manage blood sugar. Mayo Clinic. 2021.
- Insulin Resistance Causes and Symptoms. Sari Harrar. EndocrineWeb. 2021.
- Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. Rasnik K. Singh, et al. Journal of Translational Medicine, vol. 15. 2017.
- The Connection Between Sugar and Depression. Kimberly Holland. Healthline. 2020.