What does it mean when you crave sweets? Sugar activates the opiate reward centers in our brain. It can help lift our mood, spike our blood sugar, distract us from a gloomy day, and remind us of happy moments in childhood.
We are biologically wired to prefer fat and sweet foods. In history, when food was scarce and a good meal ensured survival, rich or sweet food provided more calories and energy.
Today the grocery store shelves are lined with products competing for our budget. Food scientists process sugars and intensify flavors to titillate our tastebuds and win customers.
People lament the growing sugar addiction in America. They point out that excessive sugar increases our likelihood of having inflammation, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and high blood pressure. But the truth is the cards are stacked against us.
Don’t Feel Bad, Just Get Educated
I grew up without much structure or guidance around food. I was a picky eater, and my mom didn’t enjoy cooking, so she gave up when I was young and let me figure it out for myself.
I remember buying powdered hostess doughnuts from the 7-Eleven near the school bus stop in third grade. One day in fourth grade, when a sports team was selling World’s Finest chocolate bars, I bought so many a girl named Julie tried to cut me off. ‘You’ve had enough,’ she said, like a bartender at closing time. Chocolate was all I’d eaten that day.
Sugar is everywhere. We celebrate with cakes and ice cream. If you work in an office environment, people bring treats to share. One place I worked subsidized sodas so employees could have as many as they wanted at 25 cents a pop. (That’s where I began to suspect artificial sweeteners weren’t all that healthy. You’ve never seen a grumpier group than diet cola drinkers when their soda was out of stock.)
Savory Foods Have Sugar Too
It’s not only sweet foods that are full of sugar. Food manufacturers have found clever ways of tapping into our primal urges in savory foods as well. Processed meats, bread, snack foods, soup, crackers, spaghetti sauce, fruit drinks, flavored yogurt, ketchup, salad dressing, mayonnaise, and peanut butter may contain sugar or another sweetener.
If you find yourself overly dependent on sugar and craving sweets when trying to stop, don’t beat yourself up. You are part of a system that manipulates your natural urges for profit.
The good news, there are things you can do to break free. But, first, it’s helpful to understand what may be causing your cravings.
What it May Mean if You Crave Sweets
There are five big reasons why most people crave sweets. We’ll look at the five reasons and what you can do to stop the craving and enjoy a more balanced life.
Reason One: You May Be Dehydrated
Up to 60% of your body is water. Your brain, heart, skin, lungs, and kidneys hold the most water, but even your bones are 30% water.
We can extract water from the fresh fruits and vegetables we eat, but we need to drink fresh water every day to keep everything lubricated.
Dehydration is one of the most common causes of sugar cravings. Water is an essential component of digestion. When our cells lack water, our organs can have difficulty releasing the energy we need for our day. We may have consumed enough calories but cannot get their full benefit because we are dehydrated.
Sugar is readily available energy. Our bodies don’t need to do much to process it. So while what you need is more water, your body craves sugar for the quick glucose it provides.
Carry a (reusable and refillable) water bottle wherever you go. Take regular sips, aiming to drink about 64 ounces of water a day. Yes, you may have to go to the bathroom more often, but your weight will likely improve, and your cells will be happy.
Reason Two: You May Be Stressed
When I’m overly stressed or anxious, my mind goes to two things: chocolate cake and salt and vinegar potato chips. Both have lots of fat and sugar (potatoes have an even higher glycemic index than table sugar). Both also slow down my digestion and make my fingers swell. However, for a moment, they distract my body from the negative emotions.
Stress can invoke sugar cravings emotionally and physically.
On an emotional level, the delicious taste and spike in blood sugar distract us from our feelings. We escape into a moment of pleasure.
On the physical level, sugar increases our dopamine levels and gives us a temporary feeling of happiness. Dopamine is the chemical in our brain related to feeling pleasure, happiness, and satisfaction.
Unfortunately, while sugar may give us temporary relief from the experience of stress, it doesn’t solve the problems that caused it. Instead, we end up on a vicious cycle of craving sugar over and over to avoid our feelings. Even worse, the distraction may prevent us from making the changes we need to feel less stressed.
Why are you stressed? Is it a situation that you can change or avoid? Is it a habit of how you respond to life?
The cause of your stress will determine the best strategy to relieve it. For example, you may need to exercise or spend time in nature. You may need to spend less time with specific people, avoid social media, or shut the phone off in the evening. Your stress may be telling you to look for another job or take those steps your intuition has been urging for you.
Singing and breathing help relieve stress. Music helps some people release dopamine, as does getting enough sleep. Meditation practice is another good tool to train your body to slow down, step out of the chaos of the world, and tune into your authentic feelings.
Reason Three: You’ve Been Eating Too Many Carbohydrates
Not all carbohydrates are the same. While some people thrive on a low-carb, high-protein diet, others are not set up to digest all that meat. Legumes and complex carbohydrates can fuel a vibrant and balanced life.
The best way to judge a carbohydrate is to check its glycemic index (GI). The GI is a measure of how quickly your body converts carbohydrates into glucose. A food with a low GI will create less of a blood sugar spike and deliver more even energy throughout the day.
Foods like sugar, pasta, potatoes, or snack foods create a spike in blood sugar, resulting in a sharp drop in energy later in the day. When hit with a dip in energy, we may be tempted to reach for a soda, caffeine, a piece of candy, more snack food, or more easy carbohydrates.
If you’re experiencing regular sugar cravings, look at your meals and snacks. Even if you’re not eating sugary sweets, the bread from your sandwich combined with sugar in the mayonnaise is enough sugar to spike blood sugar and create cravings later in the day.
Many foods we consider healthy, like granola bars and yogurt, have a surprising amount of added sugar. Remember, sugar, honey, brown rice syrup, and corn syrup are all sweeteners. These days, there are many names for added sugar, and we have to read labels carefully to know the truth.
Some people experience benefits from adding more protein to their diet. However, a focus on lower GI foods is enough to create a shift in how you are processing glucose. Eat early in the day, and don’t skip meals. Include satisfying foods that will not spike your blood sugar. Avoid adding sugar to your coffee or letting it sneak into your diet through ‘healthy’ snacks.
Reason Four: Your Gut Bacteria is Out of Balance
The modern world can wreak havoc on your digestive system. We have 100 trillion good and bad bacteria living in our intestines and colon.
A healthy balance is about 85% good and 15% bad bacteria, but antibiotics, stress, and processed foods can give the harmful bacteria an advantage to multiply.
Scientists are discovering that our gut microbiome, or the balance of good and bad bacteria in our digestive system, is crucial to maintaining health. Your gut is where bacteria and your immune system meet, and an imbalance can cause chronic inflammation throughout your body.
Chronic inflammation is associated with or a precursor to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and bowel diseases. So those trillions of tiny bacteria have a significant impact on your day-to-day well-being.
If you eat a lot of sugar and your gut bacteria get used to it, they will become dependent on it and drive you to eat more. That’s right; researchers are discovering that your gut bacteria can sabotage your efforts to eat healthier foods!
Add a combination of probiotic and prebiotic foods to your diet. Remove a little sugar from your diet at a time, weaning your gut bacteria off slowly while introducing new good bacteria with probiotics.
Naturally fermented foods like pickles made in brine (not vinegar), sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, and kvass are probiotics that introduce new good bacteria to your gut. You can also take supplements with a variety of strains to replenish your gut.
Prebiotics are foods that feed good bacteria. You need both probiotics and prebiotics to change your gut microbiome.
There is a list of probiotics and prebiotics further down in this article.
If you’ve been eating processed foods for a long time and are concerned about candida, Candex is a tried and tested product that helps fight it. I use it in conjunction with probiotic supplements and prebiotic foods.
Reason Five: You Need to Take Supplements
Some vitamin and mineral deficiencies can cause sugar cravings. Magnesium helps regulate your levels of glucose and insulin, as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine. Minerals are crucial to help maintain proper hydration. If your body lacks what it needs to function, it asks for sugar for quick energy.
Chocolate cravings can be a sign your body needs magnesium. The cacao in chocolate provides magnesium and is also prebiotic. So choose very dark chocolate with as little sweetener as possible. Other low GI sources of magnesium include avocados, nuts, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, legumes, bananas, and dark leafy greens.
If you are feeling weak and tired in addition to sugar cravings, you may be deficient in iron. The most absorbable sources of iron are dried beans, dried fruits, egg yolks, liver, lean red meat, oysters, poultry, salmon, and tuna.
Zinc helps you metabolize insulin and glucose, and a deficiency can cause sugar cravings. Sources of zinc include poultry, eggs, seafood, oysters, red meat, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
The amino acid l-glutamine helps balance blood sugar. You can take it as a supplement with meals or in the moment you’re craving sugar. It is also available in eggs, nuts, beans, and red cabbage.
Vitamin B Complex
Vitamin B complex helps your body metabolize carbohydrates. B vitamins are building blocks of a healthy body, from cell health to proper nerve function. There are many supplements on the market, but the best way to get your B vitamins is through food. Sources include eggs, liver, chicken, red meat, tuna, mackerel, salmon, oysters, clams, dark green vegetables, beets, avocados, beans, nuts, seeds, citrus fruit, bananas, watermelon, soy products, and blackstrap molasses.
You could also need digestive enzymes like lipase, protease, and amylase. They help your body break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, so you get the most benefit from what you eat. You can find these enzymes in various supplements or eat more foods that contain them, like pineapples, papayas, mangoes, honey, bananas, avocados, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kiwifruit, and ginger.
What Should I Eat When I Crave Sweets?
Whole, unprocessed foods give your body the energy, minerals, vitamins, and nutrients it needs to thrive. When you are craving sweets, a piece of fruit or something sour is a better choice than any sugary, salty, or fatty snack food. Green olives in brine, not vinegar, are a tasty treat with a bit of natural fat that also provides gut-healthy probiotics and prebiotic fiber.
Sometimes we crave sugar because we’re not giving ourselves the food we need. As you reset your blood sugar and gut bacteria, eat regular meals of whole foods with plenty of protein, healthy fats, and fiber. Whole foods are your friends!
Ginger and turmeric are two delicious spices that also help prevent insulin resistance. They can be added raw to smoothies or cooked into almost any dish from the spice rack or fresh in root form. If you use fresh ginger, a grater is a fast way to prepare it. Otherwise, you have to peel and carefully chop it, which can take some time.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Trying new foods and changing our routine can seem daunting. However, having a steady flow of vital energy throughout your day is worth a little tinkering.
What you eat now isn’t just what comes out in 12 -24 hours. Your food fuels every cell of your body. What you consume becomes you.
Give yourself plenty of time and patience while identifying the source of your sugar cravings and addressing it. Don’t expect perfection immediately. Our body gets used to our habits and responds best if we make changes incrementally.
Radical changes or a lot of self-criticisms will likely send you back to where you started. On the other hand, a slow and steady approach to adding new foods, drinking more water, trying new supplements, and adding more self-care activities will cumulate in a lifestyle change that will amaze your friends and delight your body.