Calling all cookie monsters and candy junkies: If you struggle with sugar cravings, you’re not alone. The desire for the taste of sweet is natural, and common among humans. But if your enjoyment of the sweet taste has crossed the line to craving, that indicates some sort of physiological, nutritional, lifestyle or emotional imbalance is occurring—and it’s worth investigating what the cause (or causes) might be.
We’re Biologically Programmed to Love the Taste of Sweet
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, five tastes exist: sweet, salty, sour, pungent and bitter. The “sweet” taste corresponds to the energy of the earth, which is nurturing and maternal. (Does that help explain why a bad day seems better after a few bites—or maybe a little more—of ice cream?) And from an evolutionary standpoint, fruit—nature’s candy—was a cruical part of our ancestors’ diet. “Our ancestors ate a lot of fruit when it was available in the summer and fall, and thus became prediabetic,” says Nori Hudson, a certified nutrition consultant, professor at Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and owner of Radiant Vitality. “That was actually a good thing, because they were about to enter a period of famine during the winter. They’d go into their caves and use up the energy they had stored from the sugar, which protected their cells from freezing.”
Enjoying a sweet flavor, in and of itself, is no problem. “Mother’s milk is sweet. Safe herbs are sweet. Sweet is nature’s way of signaling that the taste is safe. It also tells you that the food contains energy,” Hudson says. However, if you’re battling ongoing cravings, there’s something else going on. When I talk about “craving,” I don’t mean looking forward to a special dessert once in a while; I mean thinking often about your next sugar fix, planning when you’ll eat it, being disappointed or even angry if you don’t get it, and pleased, satisfied or even a little high if you do. (And don’t forget alcohol, a very sugary substance, falls into this category as well.)
As a licensed clinical social worker and holistic nutritionist, I help women transform their relationship with food. I know that learning how to stop sugar cravings can be tricky because there are many potential causes, and it’s not usually as simple as “I don’t have enough willpower” or “I need to stick to a certain diet.” If you’ve been fighting a losing battle with what I call “the legal white powder,” start by exploring these possible physiological, nutritional, emotional and lifestyle culprits—and try my tips for kicking them to the curb.
Physiological Causes of Sugar Cravings
Certain foods provoke addictive reactions. You’ve probably experienced this. Notice how you never compulsively crave kale or brown rice? If you’re good at listening to your body, you may notice when it’s asking for them, but I find this type of slow, healthy, nurturing request feels very different than the hectic, sped-up feeling of a craving.
But sugar does elicit those addictive reactions. Here’s how: Consuming refined sugar (and refined flour, and highly processed foods in general) creates a number of problematic reactions in the body. For instance, it can make our blood sugar erratic, resulting in false hunger pangs. “The pancreas notices our higher blood sugar, and secretes insulin in order to create homeostasis in the blood sugar,” Hudson says. “It often overshoots the mark and secretes too much insulin, which ends up reducing the blood sugar below a normal range. When that happens, it sets off an alarm in the body to restabilize the blood sugar; that effectively turns on an appetite, which is actually unhealthy. We go for refined carbohydrates because it helps our body raise our blood sugar quickly. But these refined carbs go in too quickly, which re-creates a hypoglycemic cycle and keeps turning on hunger.”
In an effort to balance out these haywire reactions, our bodies actually release opioids and dopamine—neurotransmitters that bliss us out. (Narcotics work the same way.) The problem is that we are unaware of the havoc going on with our blood sugar—all we’re aware of is that sweet high we’re getting. And that’s what we become conditioned to crave.
Certain medical conditions also can trigger sugar cravings. Candida overgrowth is a common one. Candida, also known as yeast, inhabits the digestive tract. An overgrowth of candida can cause all kinds of physical and emotional problems, from recurrent yeast infections to mood swings. And yeast, as you may know if you’re a fermenter, feeds on sugar. It’s a vicious cycle for those suffering from candida overgrowth—you crave sugar, you give in and binge on sugar, which just grows more of those little fungi asking for more sugar. Other conditions that may cause sugar cravings include hormone imbalance or overtaxed adrenals.
Nutritional Causes of Sugar Cravings
My clients are always surprised when I explain that there are ways of eating that can trigger sugar cravings and ways of eating that can mitigate sugar cravings. Some of the cornerstones of a craving-free diet are pretty basic, but in our hurried, hassled world many of us neglect to regularly integrate them into our meals—and suffer the consequences as a result. Here they are: regular meals, protein, fat, water and high-quality food.
Low blood sugar is a recipe for sugar cravings. As we discussed earlier, when our blood sugar plummets, we tend to seek candy bars and caramel lattes for a quick fix. In addition, Yale researchers found that when glucose levels in the brain drop, we experience more difficulty controlling our impulses. Simply put, if you get hungry, you’re more likely to overeat. When it comes to creating balanced blood sugar, protein and regular meals are your best friends. Every single one of your meals should contain protein, whether plant-based (such as nuts, beans or legumes) or animal-based (such as chicken, turkey, pork, beef or seafood).
I’ve been hearing the dying gasps of the fat-free dynasty, and I, for one, am thrilled. More and more, people are cottoning on to the fact that not only is fat yummy, but our bodies require it to function properly. Simply put, a diet that is too low in fat leaves us hungry. And when we’re hungry and have low blood sugar, we’re likely to reach for things like cookies or candy. So add fat to your meals and enjoy feeling satiated.
Water’s a hugely overlooked weapon for any ailment. Without enough water, our detox and cellular processes just don’t work as well. And dehydration can cause irritability, sluggishness and…you guessed it…cravings. “It’s easy to mistake dehydration for hunger,” says Matt Reddy, a naturopathic physician at Denver Sports Recovery in Colorado.
Finally, consuming high-quality, nutrient-dense food has innumerable advantages, including mitigating sugar urges. “People overeat when their bodies still need nutrients, even though they have already met their requirements for calories,” says Laura Knoff, a certified nutrition consultant. “Food cravings are often a sign of nutrient deficiency.” In other words, when we eat, our bodies are biologically hard-wired to seek nutrients. So if you’re munching on highly processed “fake” foods, your body will actually “ask” you to keep eating in order to reach the vitamins and minerals it so desperately needs.
Lifestyle Reasons for Sugar Cravings
The three major lifestyle reasons for sugar cravings are lack of sleep, lack of exercise and stress. All create blood sugar roller coasters notorious for awakening sugar demons. Chronic stress and lack of sleep both cause an increase in cortisol (the fight-or-flight hormone). When cortisol rises, so does blood sugar. High cortisol often results in a jittery, anxious sensation, and in that state it’s all too easy to throw back a glass of wine or some chocolate to medicate. Whether or not you do that, a crash inevitably follows a blood sugar spike, prompting you to reach for a “treat” to get your energy back. It’s a vicious cycle! As for exercise, The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the American Diabetes Association both point to the link between exercise and blood sugar regulation, and recommend daily exercise if possible.
Emotional Reasons for Sugar Cravings
There’s a reason compulsive snacking (or bingeing) on sugar or carbs is called “emotional eating,” but the psychological aspect of sugar cravings is often overlooked. When I explain to new clients that they may be hankering for cake and cookies because they’re unconsciously using them to medicate painful feelings, some of them think I sound ludicrous. Instead, they believe they suffer from a lack of willpower, and if only they could stick to a diet and not fall off the wagon, all their problems would be solved. However, they’ve usually tried that—many times—and it hasn’t worked. And they can almost always acknowledge the fear, shame, frustration and sadness they associate with food and their bodies. As we start working together, they often begin to see they’ve been using sugar to cope with difficult emotions that they may not have even been aware of.
In my work, I’ve found that becoming aware of your emotions is a key first step in ending emotional eating. Feelings aren’t something you can reason your way out of or simply deny—they need direct attention and compassion. In our hectic and logic-oriented culture, we don’t place a high value on exploring how we feel. However, when we ignore our emotions, they get louder and louder, forcing us to resort to more and more extreme measures to silence them.
The bottom line is this: The diet and lifestyle interventions I have described can help greatly with mild sugar cravings. But if you’ve got an out-of-control sugar demon and you’ve ruled out medical conditions, the only explanation is an emotional one. We don’t eat in a compulsive way if everything else in our lives is okay. So if you have found that, despite repeatedly trying various tactics, you continue to return to sugar, consider how your emotions may be impacting the way you eat.
Kick It to the Curb Tips
• There’s no sense telling ourselves, “I’m never going to have sweets anymore,” or, “I’ll just have a piece of fruit when a craving strikes.” That just leads to feeling deprived, which is likely to set off even more sugar intake. Instead, try forgoing refined white sugar and experimenting with natural sweeteners such as stevia, honey or maple syrup. Natural sweeteners don’t create such harmful physiological reactions and often come packed with minerals and enzymes that support the body’s cellular processes. Candida overgrowth and other medical conditions can be diagnosed by a qualified naturopathic doctor, who can also provide treatment protocol.
• Integrate high-quality meats, veggies, grains and fruits into your diet. Also consider exploring nutrient-dense traditional foods such as bone broth, fermented veggies and organ meats. Make sure each meal includes protein and fat, and keep water close by. Contrary to popular opinion, eight glasses a day is not for everyone. Instead, divide your body weight in half and drink that many ounces. Remember, caffeine can act as a diuretic and—if you consume more than the equivalent of three to five cups of coffee a day—can be dehydrating. Caffeine also deregulates blood sugar, which can kick off cravings.
• There’s a reason we always hear about the importance of sleep, exercise and stress management for a healthy lifestyle—because it’s true. If your lifestyle needs an overhaul, start by setting small, manageable goals so you can have success. Then build from there.
• Learning to identify and work with our emotions takes time. It may be worth seeking a therapist who has experience in eating issues and body-centered practices to help guide you. To get started, though, here’s a simple and potentially effective first step to try: Sit in a quiet place, take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose, and close your eyes. As you continue breathing, bring your awareness to any physical sensations that may be occurring in your body. Observe them without judging and without trying to “fix” them. Spend some time with these sensations, and track them as they shift and change, or as they dissipate, or even increase.
As you keep breathing, now notice any emotions that may be associated with those sensations. Again, just observe with compassion, without trying to figure out, “Why am I feeling this way?” or, “What do I do about it?” This isn’t about thinking—it’s about feeling. Again, spend some time with these emotions. Notice any memories or images that might arise, or whether the emotion shifts and changes.
Bringing awareness to your internal experience in ways like this helps you understand yourself better, and prevents your unheard emotions from yelling so loudly they’re running the show.
For a list of tasty desserts to satisfy your cravings read Healthy Baking Recipes.
Stephanie Small is a psychotherapist and holistic nutritionist (and recovering sugar addict) who teaches women how to end emotional eating without feeling deprived. Via her practice in Boulder, Colorado, and Skype, Stephanie helps women transform their relationship with food. She also offers online programs, writes, blogs and speaks at live events. Visit her at Stephanie Small Health.