A sugar craving can hit you like a ton of bricks. One moment you’re minding your own business and the next you’re rummaging through the pantry looking for a box of cookies. When someone frequently craves sweet treats they may say they have a “sweet tooth,” and although they don’t mean it literally, it suggests that wanting sweets is unavoidable for some people.
While the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases says it’s okay to enjoy sugary treats once in a while, they discourage indulging every day. If you feel like your sugar cravings have gotten out of control, we examine the reasons you may be triggered and how to manage your cravings when they occur.
The Difference Between Refined and Natural Sugars
Natural sugar is found in foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and even nuts and seeds. When it’s extracted and processed, refined sugar is created as a result to be added to foods and beverages to improve taste. While the body breaks down and processes natural and refined sugars similarly, natural sugars are typically found in foods that provide other beneficial nutrients whereas refined sugars are typically considered empty calories because they contain virtually no beneficial nutrients. Additionally, refined sugars may increase your risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease and have been linked to a higher likelihood of depression, dementia, liver disease, and certain types of cancer.
The Reason for Your Sweet Tooth
There are both physiological and psychological reasons you might crave sweets. We found 5 common situations people find themselves running to the ice cream aisle.
1. You’re Not Eating Regular Meals
If you think skipping meals is helping your diet, it could actually be doing the opposite. Skipping breakfast and eating a lunch lacking lean protein, whole grains, fruits and vegetables or waiting too long between meals to eat, is the perfect way to get your body to crave sweets.
“Truly, you’re setting yourself up for failure in the afternoon and evening,” says Taylor. “If you go too long without eating, your body will crave the fastest fuel it can think of — refined grains and simple sugars,” said dietitian Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDCES.
When you indulge in sweets late in the day, the body stores these calories as fat.
2. You’re Too Restricted
When some people feel like they can’t control themselves, they eliminate sugar completely. While this seems like it would be a good idea, most people tend to give in eventually and may binge the foods they’ve been restricting.
3. They’re Designed to Induce Cravings
The companies that make all of our favorite treats often research which ingredients will be the most tempting for our taste buds. Essentially, we’re already fighting a losing battle when we buy these treats.
“Our brains are wired to enjoy things which make us happy,” said Taylor. “Sugar, in particular, releases brain chemicals, like serotonin, that make us feel good.”
The body is then trained to want this experience over and over again in order to feel good.
So, can we be addicted to sugar?
Yes, we absolutely can. These foods also can release dopamine, a chemical in the brain that motivates us to engage in behaviors that reward us. Similar to drugs, our tolerance for sweets builds up over time and we need even more to feed our addiction.
4. Your Body is Trying to Tell You Something
When you crave sweets, are you…
- Tired: Researchers found that when you’re tired, you’re more likely to crave something that will give you more energy or help you wake up.
- Stressed: It’s ironic that “stressed” is “desserts” spelled backwards. When your body experiences stress, it secretes hormones, like cortisol, that have been linked to food cravings. According to a study, the appetite influencing hormone ghrelin is also released when you feel stressed.
- Dehydrated: Some research suggests that dehydration can be mistaken for hunger, triggering cravings.
- Low on Blood Sugar: Those with diabetes experience hunger more than most people, but excessive hunger indicates your blood sugar is either too high or too low.
How to Curb Cravings
You’re not doomed to a lifetime of sugar cravings. There are easy and realistic ways to help change your habits.
- Eat the Dessert: No, seriously! Sometimes give into your cravings in order to overcome them, but be choosy. Enjoy a scoop of ice cream from your favorite shop or a piece of cake on your birthday. Allowing yourself to eat something that truly satisfies your craving everyone once in a while can be good for your mental health.
- Look at the Label: When restaurants started putting the nutrition facts on their menus, we got a serious reality check. When you see just how many calories and grams of fat are in something, it can be the wake-up call you need to get out of your sugary stupor.
- Walk it Off: A short 15-minute walk was found to curb cravings, according to one study. Plus, taking a walk can give you a burst of energy.
- Take a Nap: Unless you sleep walk, you can’t eat sugar while you’re asleep. A quick power nap can help revive your energy levels and take your mind off your cravings.
Eat a Healthier Alternative: If you need a little something sweet, grab some fruit, trail mix, piece of dark chocolate, or one of these recipes:
- Chocolate Mousse with Olive Oil and Sea Salt: Maple syrup lends a natural and smooth sweetness to a delicious dessert that’s sure to please chocolate lovers.
- Choco-Cado Fudge Pops: These decadent, fudgy pops are extremely creamy thanks to avocado, which is a great source of antioxidants, healthy monounsaturated fat, fiber, folate, and vitamin E.
- Cashew-Cardamom Chia Pudding: Chia seeds are a great source of fiber and are packed with valuable omega-3 fatty acids. Plus, add a scoop of Smarter Skin Collagen to help nourish your skin from the inside out.
Cleveland Clinic. “3 Reasons You Crave Sweet or Salty Foods.” 2021.
Stanborough, Rebecca Joy. “Why Am I Craving Sweets?” Healthline. 2021.
Petre, Alina. “What Is Refined Sugar?” Healthline. 2019.