The 5 Top Causes of Sugar Cravings and How to Deal
As I’m writing this, love (and the smell of chocolate fondue, yum) will soon be in the air. Why? Because it’s almost Valentine’s day! Everyone’s favourite sugar-focused holiday, I think to myself mid-coffee-sip—I’m still not fully awake as I’m writing this. As the caffeine kicks in, and my brain powers up, I realize, isn’t every holiday focused on sugar somehow?
Valentine’s day has its big red and pink boxes of chocolates and sickly-sweet cinnamon hearts. Easter has it’s adorably gruesome you-can’t-not-eat-the-head-first marshmallow chicks and chocolate bunnies. Most likely store-bought pastries for Mother’s Day and probably a homemade pie for Dad’s. Costco-sized black garbage bags FULL of candy for Halloween, of course. And then there’s Christmas and New Years, the ultimate sugar-fueled month-long marathon of seemingly endless amounts of sweet granny’s baking, chocolate truffles, and boozy cocktails available (and weirdly encouraged?) for partaking at all hours of the day and night.
When sugar is so tied to our memories of the good times, it’s no wonder why we’re so addicted to it. Especially right now.
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a little survey on Instagram asking our faithful tribe members to tell me what they need the most help with nutrition-wise these days. And by far the top answers were related to sugar: how do I quit it?, why am I so addicted?, and please, for the love of Cupid, help me curb the sugar cravings.
It seems we all know on some level that sugar is bad for us. Bad for our brains and mental health, bad for our skin, bad for our teeth, bad for our heart and organs in general, and bad for our waistline.
So I emerge from my writing hiatus to deliver exactly what you need—the ultimate blog post on Sugar Cravings: what causes them and what you can do to get rid of them for good.
What causes sugar cravings?
I wish there were a simple answer to this question. The truth is, your sugar cravings are most likely caused by a range of factors: poor diet, bad habits, nutrient deficiencies, too much stress, and straight-up addiction. Let’s go through them, one by one.
This is the most obvious one, and luckily, the easiest to “fix” once you understand what’s going on. One of the biggest dietary culprits I see with my client’s who crave sugar is a lack of strategic food combining.
Many of us tend to reach for something to squash our hunger that is full of sugar (or simple carbs that easily and quickly spike our blood sugar) without much thought of digestion-slowing fats and protein. This is a mistake. When the blood sugar spikes rapidly, it also crashes hard and fast, leaving us feeling irritable, tired, cranky, and in search of another high—ahem, more sugar.
The Fix: make it one of your dietary non-negotiables to always have your carbs with some good quality fat and/or protein. And make sure that your diet is high enough in protein in general, which can be another cause of a constant search for the next sugary meal or snack.
Example: if you typically reach for a banana chocolate chip muffin for breakfast (no judgement) try topping it with a dollop of protein- and fat-rich almond butter and a satiating sprinkle of hemp hearts. And if you have time to make a batch of your own muffins, try this paleo chocolate hazelnut muffin recipe instead… and thank me later. 😊
Another example: If you’re a big fan of strawberry flavoured yogurt for a snack, add some chia seeds and/or walnuts. Or better yet, go for an unsweetened full-fat grass-fed yogurt and add some fresh fruit for flavour instead.
Sugar from fruit is not exempt here either- it should also be consumed with a bit of healthy fat or protein. A handful of nuts, a hard-boiled egg, or some coconut chips are some nutritious add-ons to fruit to help keep you full for longer and protect you against the crash.
And if you’re wondering how much protein you should be eating per day, if you’re a decently active woman of reproductive age, a good rule of thumb for protein intake is 20-30g per meal, and around 10g for snacks.
Another helpful tip to curb sugar cravings with diet is to opt for higher fibre versions of your favourite blood sugar spiking foods like sprouted grain bread, homemade muffins using a paleo flour substitute, lentil pasta (don’t knock it ‘til you try it), brown and wild rice, etc. Ideally, you should be aiming for 25g of fibre per day, at the very least.
The thing with sugar is the more you eat of it, the less you taste it, and the less you taste, the more you crave. So something else I encourage you to do is to become a meticulous label reader. Understanding all the pesky ways sugar is entering your diet is key to making better food choices.
Also, beware of the processed and packaged foods that contain artificial flavours and sweeteners as well. Just because it isn’t a “sugary” food, doesn’t mean it isn’t contributing to the problem. A lot of processed foods like chips and crackers are literally designed to make us crave their artificial flavours and textures, which does us no favours when it comes to eating healthier and kicking sugar addictions.
There is one bad habit in particular that really affects the intensity of our sugar cravings and that is: staying up late.
Research has shown that staying up late for a single night reduces upper brain function in the cerebrum, the part of our brain responsible for decision making and complex judgements. The result? Major sugar cravings and intake of upwards of 600 extra calories from snacking on junk foods on average, as compared to the eating habits of people who got a good night’s sleep. Yikes!!!
Okay, so maybe you’re really good about going to bed on time during the week, and save all your Netflix binging for Friday and Saturday night. It’s no problem, you’re thinking, because I always make sure to sleep in on the weekend to make up for the lost sleep!
Bad news: even if you are still getting your 8 hours of shut-eye on the weekend, if you’re going to bed later and sleeping in, your circadian rhythm is still majorly disrupted. This is a phenomenon called social jet-lag.
Your circadian rhythm plays a huge part in keeping hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, regulated throughout the day. And when you stay up 3-4 hours later and sleep-in 3-4 hours longer on Friday and Saturday, your body feels like it’s taken a two-day cross-country trip. The result is a crappy sleep Sunday night (the real Sunday Scaries, IMO) and extreme sugar cravings all day Monday.
The fix for this one is quite simple: stick to a strict sleep schedule, seven days a week. No it’s not as fun as staying up all night to watch the latest true crime docu-series, but having sugar cravings really isn’t fun either (it’s called adulting).
This one is a bit less straight forward. Although we often assume that if we’re craving something, our body must actually need it, that’s not exactly the case with sugar. Often, when we crave a sugary breakfast or feel the need to reach for something sweet in the afternoon for a little pick me up, it’s not sugar that our body needs, per se, it’s energy.
A lot of women are deficient in iron and B vitamins, two very important nutrients for energy production. Sadly, use of the birth control pill can contribute to these deficiencies, and it’s difficult to find a woman these days who’s never been on the pill. So eating more foods and taking supplements that contain these important nutrients may really help curb your sugar cravings.
Foods that contain the most bioavailable forms of iron are meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. If you’re plant-based, supplementing with iron supplements and eating lots of nuts, seeds, and whole grains is a good idea.
As for B vitamins, make sure you’re having a few servings of dark leafy greens per day, as well as some whole grains like brown rice, eggs and fish, and nutritional yeast. Supplementing with a good B complex is also a good idea, just opt for one that contains methylated B12 and folate, as about 40% of the population has impaired methylation function and cannot fully absorb these important vitamins.
Imbalance of minerals required for hydration (calcium, magnesium, chromium, and zinc) may also make you feel like you’re constantly craving sugar—when you’re actually just dehydrated. A good multi mineral or trace mineral supplement should take care of this, along with plenty of filtered water per day—aim for 2 litres.
High Stress Levels
Stress. *Rolls eyes* Not sexy. But it’s very real for most of us, in a bigger way than ever this year.
High levels of stress lead to cortisol dysregulation, which can cause some pretty wacky food cravings. Cortisol imbalance also impacts levels of insulin and glucose, which means it’s more difficult to keep our blood sugar stable when we’re constantly worrying and running from one task to the next. Stress also makes for a decidedly unsexy Valentine’s, just saying.
The fix for this one is a non-negotiable for all humans living on planet Earth in the year 2021: find a stress coping mechanism (or two or ten) that really works for you to do every single day. This could be therapy, meditation, journaling, yoga, working out, walking the dog, EFT, or a nightly bath time. The list goes on.
When we’re stressed, every single body system is impacted. This means that the gut isn’t able to fully absorb nutrients (hello, deficiency!), hormones become imbalanced (hello, cortisol!), serotonin production is reduced (hello, more cravings!), and the vicious circle spins on.
The moral of the story is that it isn’t enough to just eat a healthy diet. To really curb your sugar cravings once and for all, stress levels need to be addressed, and ways to fulfill emotional hunger i.e., stress coping mechanisms, must be incorporated daily.
Up until this point, the sugar craving fixes have been somewhat simple, though not necessarily easy. To summarize, here are my top ways to kick your sugar cravings:
– Never consume carbs and sugary foods without some protein or fat, to increase satiety and balance blood sugar response
– Ensure you’re consuming enough protein per day- about 20-30g at each meal, and 10g for snacks.
– Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, seven days a week.
– Eat foods and/or take supplements containing typical deficient nutrients like iron, b vitamins, calcium, magnesium, chromium, and zinc.
– Drink at least 2 liters of water per day.
– Incorporate at least one stress coping mechanism per day.
Easy peasy, right? Here’s where things get complicated. Sugar is a drug, and kicking drug addictions can be tough. Although the tips above will help, some grit and willpower will be required to actually kick your cravings for good.
The reason for this is that consuming sugar elicits a natural opiate-response in the brain. The reward centres in our brain go off like fireworks every time we have a delicious piece of milk chocolate or cookie or hazelnut latte. It feels good, really good, to get that reward, and we’ve all been chasing that high since our very first slice of cake at our 2nd birthday party (or whenever that was for you), so it makes sense that such a deeply rooted addiction feels impossible to overcome.
So the key here is to simultaneously hold yourself accountable but be gentle with yourself. A technique that might work for you when you’re doing everything right and still dying for something sweet is to “surf the craving.”
When you notice that you’re really craving a brownie, for example, take note of the time and don’t give in right away. Instead, wait ten minutes before you allow yourself to give in and eat that brownie. Chances are, if you can go a full ten minutes without indulging, the craving will just pass.
In the meantime, as you surf that crave-wave, take advantage of the self-reflection time. Ask yourself why you want that brownie so bad. Are you legitimately hungry? Are you bored? Are you broken-hearted? Figuring out the type of hunger you’re trying to fulfill can be really helpful.
And that’s not to say that if you identify your hunger as emotional that’s not a good reason to eat! It’s just a clue that it’s a good time to be gentle with yourself and that maybe after you have half that brownie (or the full tray—it happens) it’s time for some big self-love.
Being gentle with yourself is one of the most important puzzle pieces to curbing sugar addictions. Sweet, delicious treats are a big part of life and celebrations, and it’s all about finding balance. Getting angry and punishing yourself for giving into your cravings is counterproductive. Instead, it’s better to eat the damn thing and then get really real with yourself about what’s going on for you in that moment.
You might just find that there’s something sweet in your life that’s missing, a void you’re trying to fill with sugar—to no avail.
So in conclusion, this Valentine’s day and beyond, as you work through your sugar cravings, make sure you’re gifting you the self-love you deserve. Ain’t no sweeter thing.
And if you believe it’s a nutrient deficiency that’s holding you back, or that you need a little support from a professional, I’m accepting clients. 😊 Check out my page here.