Why Do We Crave Sugar?

The obvious answer to this question being; because it tastes so good.

While that’s true, there are also scientific and psychological explanations for why so many of us can’t get enough sugar.

Sugar is a ‘simple carbohydrate’ and carbohydrates as a whole, trigger the release of serotonin, a brain chemical which makes us feel good or contented.

Sugar does this through increased absorption of an amino acid called tryptophan which helps the body make serotonin.

Sugar also encourages the release of endorphins; these help us to relax and can promote a natural high.

In addition, if blood sugar levels drop, perhaps as a result of prolonged periods of not eating, our bodies send signals to our brain that we need energy fast and sugar is craved.

This can work in the same way when we are feeling down, our brain realises we need a hit of serotonin and before we know it we’re reaching for the chocolate.

For some women sugar cravings are linked to the menstrual cycle, while some people experience cravings as a result of imbalances in their adrenal gland when insufficient levels of adrenaline can lead the body to search for an energy hit elsewhere.

Psychologically speaking, we appear to be programmed to like sugary tastes; it’s the first taste we prefer as infants. As children we are often rewarded or comforted by being given sweet treats by our parents, which means we develop positive associations with and reliance on sugar.

We don’t seem to be able to escape this trap later in life either; we have been conditioned to need a sugary treat to boost our mood or to reward ourselves. These inevitably make us feel good and this in turn increases our desire to reward ourselves with sweet treats in the future and so it goes on and on.

The problem with using sugar in this way is that although it does give us a boost for a while we quickly ‘crash’ and fall back to our previous state, which starts up the cycle again.

sugar addiction

While there is no problem with the occasional reward or treat, some people’s relationship with sugar takes on a role more often associated with illegal drugs, with stages of binging, withdrawing and craving.

In addition, we are liable to experience intense feelings of frustration and disappointment at ourselves when we give into our cravings and emotional distress may itself lead to future cravings for sweet food.

We also need to think about the detriment to our health that the overeating of sugar can cause. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of nine teaspoons of added sugar per day for men and six for women. Many people exceed these guidelines on a regular basis and, other than gaining weight, prolonged overeating can lead to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Tips for curbing the cravings

But enough of the bad news, what can we do to break the cycle, and curb the cravings? Here are some tips on how to do just that:

    • Starting with breakfast, avoid carbohydrates as these will just set you up for cravings later in the day, instead opt for a breakfast full of phytonutrients, lean protein and healthy fats.
    • Remember too, breakfast is vital in ensuring blood sugars don’t drop to the level where the body cries out for an energy boost, in the form of sugar. Making sure you eat at regular intervals through the day will also help to prevent blood sugar levels falling later on.
    • Continuing from there, aim to include lean protein and healthy fats into each meal to control blood sugar levels as the day progresses.
    • Make sure you stay hydrated during the day too, as dehydration can trigger cravings.
    • Just as important is to ensure you are getting enough sleep, fatigue can lead to our bodies searching for a boost from elsewhere.
    • This might seem obvious but try not to keep sweet food in the house, if you make it easy to snack you’re more likely to do it, however hard you try not to. Linked to this too is organisation: plan what food you’re going to need in advance, taking healthy snacks with you when you know you’ll be out and about.
    • When you are buying food it’s really important to read the labels carefully, you might be surprised at what foods contain added sugar!
    • Remember too that sugar comes in many guises – high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, sucrose and molasses are all forms of sweeteners.
    • Thinking of sweeteners, using low-calorie sweeteners will not help you crack your cravings, so avoid where you can. If you can’t live without them opt for Stevia.
    • And if you can’t resist your cravings, eat a piece of fruit rather than artificial snacks. Or try chewing gum, some people find a stick of gum can reduce the desire for sugar immediately.
    • Some people feel that giving in to cravings in small doses can reduce the possibility of binging later and so should be encouraged, while others feel that going cold turkey is the better alternative. The first 2-3 days are extremely tough but after the first few days, cravings begin to fade away.
    • Supplements can prove useful in combating sugar cravings as nutrition deficiency is often cited as a trigger, Vitamin D3, Omega 3 and fatty acids are particularly important. Blood sugar control appears to be improved by Magnesium and Vitamin B3.
    • Moving away from food, exercise can be amazingly effective at halting cravings. Exercise releases endorphins making us feel good, it also gives us an energy boost and releases stress, therefore eliminating the need for a sugar hit.
    • Distraction and ‘time-out’ can also prove effective when cravings hit. Taking your mind off the craving by engaging in an activity, such as going for a walk, or taking a few minutes to de-stress and focus on breathing can render the need for sugar redundant.
    • Sugar is often used to comfort ourselves when we feel low, try to explore when and why you find yourself seeking comfort in sweet food and address the issues in a different way.
    • Sugar also functions as a reward when things go well so try to find other ways to reward yourself. Reward yourself too for resisting your cravings.

Final Thoughts

With all of this remember to be kind to yourself, it is very difficult to break habits, particularly those that have been engrained for most of our lives, like sugar addiction.

Feeling angry or guilty if you do give in to cravings will only lead to a fresh round of cravings as your brain will be hunting for a serotonin boost – so don’t be hard on yourself, no one’s perfect.

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