We all know that sugar is unhealthy, and a diet high in simple sugars is linked to an increased risk of certain lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Sugar is ubiquitous in most processed foods. So unless you eat only natural foods, you are probably consuming quite a bit of sugar in all its various forms.
According to that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the average person in the United States consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, still the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends limiting your intake of added sugars to less than 10% of your total daily calories. On a 2,000-calorie diet, that would mean consuming no more than 200 calories from added sugar, which is about 12 teaspoons.
Many people struggle to reduce their sugar intake because they experience strong sugar cravings and turn to sweet foods to give them an energy boost or an emotional pick-me-up. Fighting sugar cravings can be difficult, especially when you’re stressed, tired, overworked, or depressed. To learn more about how sugar cravings work and for tips on how to reduce sugar cravings, we spoke to Brenda PeraltaRD, a Registered Dietitian, Health Coach, and Sports Nutritionist.
Why do you have cravings for sugar?
If you’re craving your afternoon soda, have trouble stopping on just one piece of chocolate, or even get headaches or feel irritable from not eating sweets in the morning, you’re not alone. Not only is sugar cravings widespread, but this compulsion to eat sugar is actually real and physiologically motivated. “Why do I crave sugar?” you might be wondering. It turns out that the answer is a bit complicated.
studies show that sugar is an addictive substance that elicits an even stronger response in the brain’s reward centers than drugs like cocaine. Although these reward systems play a biological survival role, they can also contribute to the addictiveness of a behavior and motivate you to seek out sweet foods.
All types of food activate the brain’s reward centers to some degree; Otherwise, the species would not be motivated to forage more and our survival would be threatened. Aaccording to research studies, sweet foods are particularly triggering because they produce more dramatic increases in dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, and endogenous opioids, which are natural pain relievers that also contribute to a natural high or pleasure. These chemicals cause an emotional high that can trigger future sugar cravings to replicate the feeling.
Finally, as with substances like caffeine and alcohol, the facts suggest that the brain can develop a tolerance to sugar, requiring you to eat even more sugar to get the same level of emotional pleasure.
Peralta says that sweet cravings typically stem from unstable sugar levels. After eating something high in simple carbohydrates, such as pastries, cookies, and refined cereals, your blood glucose (sugar) levels rise dramatically and rapidly, causing the pancreas to secrete insulin to help your cells break down glucose record and use.
“Insulin is so efficient that it lowers the sugar response very quickly. It can even decrease it too much — this is often referred to as a sugar crash,” she explains. “Because of this energy crash, your body needs instant energy now, and what can provide you with quick energy? Simple carbohydrates. Now it’s a vicious cycle of energy and desire.”
Which Foods Reduce Sugar Cravings?
Peralta explains that eating simple carbohydrates (sugars), like foods like cookies, cakes, pastries, white bread, and white pasta, can lead to more sugar cravings.
“Whole grains and complex carbohydrates, which are higher in fiber, release glucose more slowly, so you get more stable glucose levels instead of having sugar spikes. Also, fiber takes longer to digest in the body, leading to greater feelings of fullness,” she explains. “Proteins and fats have the same effect. They take longer to digest, so they increase your satiety levels and reduce your cravings.”
In other words, sugar fuels sugar cravings. The more sugar you eat, the more sugar you’ll be craving. Focusing on whole, natural, unprocessed foods like lean proteins, vegetables, whole grains, eggs, seeds, nuts, and low-fat dairy will reduce sugar cravings.
Fruit is rich in natural sugars. Depending on how sensitive you are to sugar cravings, you may be able to use fruit to satisfy your cravings, but you may find that avoiding most fruits is best.
What to do when you have a craving for sugar?
If you have a craving for sugar, is it then best to indulge and eat something sweet to satisfy the craving, or is it better to use as much willpower as possible and avoid eating anything sweet ?
According to Peralta, it depends. First you should try to find out why you have a craving.
“Sometimes it’s connected to a feeling. For example, some people crave when they’re bored, stressed, or anxious,” she says. “If that’s the case, don’t rely on food to make you feel better. Opt for exercise, yoga, meditation and aromatherapy to manage stress.”
She says if there are no emotions associated with the craving and it seems physiological rather than emotional or behavioral, you can first try drinking warm lemon water to reduce the craving, then consider a more filling but low-sugar snack.
Tips to stop sugar cravings
Peralta’s top tip for reducing sugar cravings is to eat your foods in a specific, strategic order. “If you eat something sweet, make sure you eat protein, vegetables and fat first. This creates a buffer to keep your sugar levels from skyrocketing,” she explains.
She says that consuming apple cider vinegar can sometimes reduce sugar cravings, too. Dilute a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in water and drink 15 to 20 minutes before eating.
Finally, Peralta says sugar detoxes can be surprisingly effective for stopping sugar cravings. “I recommend avoiding all added sugars, opting for natural foods, and avoiding sugar sweeteners,” she advises. “While this may sound challenging, it can help reduce sugar cravings.”
Depending on your sugar addiction or dependency on sugar, a sugar detox can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Some people are better off slowly retiring. Play around and see what works for you. Even small steps are steps towards better health.