Aug 23, 2021

How to beat your sugar cravings

Sugar cravings could be the result of a nutritional deficit, an overabundance of a certain food, or just a bad habit that needs changing.

It is mid Saturday afternoon -- you’ve just finished lunch, but can’t seem to shake off that sudden longing for something sweet. Be rest assured that you are not alone. Sugar cravings are common, and even though they may seem unexplainable at that moment, most of the time there are clear scientific reasons for their existence.  Broadly speaking, sugar cravings could be the result of a nutritional deficit, an overabundance of a certain food, or just a bad habit that needs to be broken. Many people crave sweets as a result of cause-and-effect interactions in which sugar is sought as a reaction to something else. So let's dive into the main origins of sugar cravings and explore strategies for beating them.

Why am I having sugar cravings?

Looking at things from an evolutionary perspective --  sugar was accessible to our ancestors only in the form of fruit or as honey. But with the industrial revolution, sugar is added to nearly all processed foods, making it impossible to ignore. In fact, in many countries, people report an intake of more than 500 calories per day, on average, from added sugar alone. [1] 

Similar to substances such as tobacco and alcohol, sugar has also been shown to be addictive, in that it “acts on the brain to encourage subsequent intake”. Specifically, sugar interferes with the suppression of the hormone ghrelin, which indicates to the brain that you are still hungry. It also disrupts the usual transport of the hormone leptin, which helps you feel satisfied and full. Furthermore, sugar reduces the signal of dopamine in your brain, thereby decreasing the pleasure you get from food and forcing you to consume more. [1] 

Putting the proliferation and addictive nature of sugar aside, cravings can be caused due to a number of factors that are all representative of your body’s attempt to communicate with you. Is your blood sugar unbalanced? Are you getting enough of the right nutrients? Did you sleep enough? Are you able to manage stress? 

Fluctuations in Blood Sugar levels: If you experience a sudden craving for sweet treats, you may be experiencing fluctuations in your blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar drops, your body can try to get more fuel to  keep your blood sugar levels stable. You should consume a healthy quantity of protein and high-fiber foods as well as complex carbs, to keep your blood sugar levels in check. 

Lack of protein, fiber healthy fats: Consuming a diet rich in processed carbs and sugar sweetened beverages, coupled with a lack of proteins and healthy fat, may be contributing to your sugar cravings. Unlike a sugar-fueled roller coaster, healthy fats and protein are gradual and steady sources of energy. Protein helps you feel satisfied and full, which can curb hunger and cravings.  Many of the amino acids found in proteins also help build brain chemicals, including dopamine, that make us feel good. When our food is balanced, we are less likely to seek comfort in sweet treats. 

A Gut Problem: On a similar note -- per Stanford researcher, Andrew Huberman, sugar cravings stem from the gut. We have neurons in the gut that seek Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) and amino acids from our food. Those same neurons respond when we consume sugar, by sending signals to our brains to trigger the release of dopamine. This release of dopamine, in turn, makes us consume more sugar. In particular, consuming processed foods is really harmful for our gut as processed foods contain emulsifiers which disrupt the lining of our gut, interfere with the feeling of satiety and make us keep eating. Most processed foods contain vast amounts of added sugars. [2]

Poor mental health: Some cravings can be a reflection of your mental health and lifestyle. When you are stressed, you are more likely to relax any eating rules that you impose on yourself and turn to sugar to make you feel better. Continuously elevated stress levels can also contribute to unbalanced sugar levels, which can contribute to increased cravings. Poor sleep can also trigger an increase in food consumption, including sugar intake, as your hunger and satiety hormones don’t function properly. It is important to get good quality sleep when reducing sugar consumption. [3] [4]

Sugar substitutes: Per Harvard Health, artificial sugar substitutes can modify our perception of flavour as well as alter our gut microbiome, causing  us to prefer artificial sugars over natural sugars like those found in fruit. Furthermore, they also give us a false sense of security that could lead us to replace the lost calories through other sources. “I’m drinking diet soda, so it is okay to have some cake.”  The good news is that not all sugar alternatives are equal. [5]

Magnesium Deficiency: You can also look at the type of sweet food you are craving to determine the reason behind it . For example, some nutritionists maintain that craving chocolate could be a sign of magnesium deficiency. To satisfy your cravings without jeopardising your health, choose dark chocolate (70 percent cacao content or greater).

Emotional eating: Sugar cravings, especially for women, are often induced in reaction to stressful emotions and unpleasant experiences. We’ve all been there, especially during PMS and mood swings. In those times, it feels natural to reach for sugar as we crave the release of dopamine. However, this doesn’t always end well as we more often than not end up feeling guilty later. 

Poor habits: It's conceivable that you crave carbohydrates or sweets simply because you've made the habit a part of your life. If you drink sugar-sweetened beverages everyday at dinner, you’ll stop questioning the habit after a while and just accept it as a part of normal routine. To break these habits, you may need to recondition your brain to stop moving on auto-pilot. 

How can I reduce my cravings?

Now that you’ve identified possible causes behind your cravings, take active steps to address those very causes and in turn curb your cravings. We’ve put down some general rules of thumbs and strategies below that have personally been useful to us. As always, it is a good idea to consult your doctor before making any drastic dietary changes.

  1. Stay hydrated: Before giving into your cravings, opt for a glass of water. Sometimes, we mistake thirst for a sign that our body is hungry. By staying hydrated, you eliminate the possibility that your body just needs water.
  2. Prioritize protein and healthy fats: This is probably the most important rule of healthy eating. Always prioritize protein sources (beans, legumes, fish etc.) and healthy fats such as avocados over refined and processed carbs. Mix in some fermented foods and your gut will thank you for it in the form of reduced sugar cravings
  3. Order your food correctly: When eating a meal, always consume fibrous green veg first, followed by proteins and healthy fats. As your gut neurons get enough EFAs and amino acids, it will allow proper functioning of the hunger and satiety hormones (ghrelin and leptin) preventing you from overeating sugary foods. 
  4. Recognize emotional eating: Before giving into your cravings, always ask yourself if it stems from hunger or from something else. Even a simple action like this can give you enough time to resist those urges
  5. Opt for complex carbs: These are digested slower by your body and balance blood sugar levels better than refined and processed carbs.
  6. Meditate and get good sleep: Make getting adequate sleep a priority. Sleep aids in hunger management since your body isn't striving for extra energy when you're well- rested.
  7. Look at the labels. Avoid buying foods that list sugar as one of the top 3 ingredients. Sugars are commonly found in processed foods with names that finish in "-ose.". Being mindful at this stage can prevent you from unwittingly consuming large amounts of added sugar which in turn trigger dopamine and make your cravings worse.
  8. Substitute sweets:  Opt for a piece of fruit or more realistically, some dark chocolate that will often do the trick.
  9. Supplement with Glutamine (after consulting with your doctor): If your cravings are really bad, you could consider glutamine to help you reduce sugar cravings. However, we have to caution that glutamine can raise blood sugar levels slightly and also has links to certain tumors/cancers. So, please consult a doctor for the same. [2]

Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, taking the time to observe your eating patterns, moods, and common desires may hold the key. It may also be wise to consult your medical provider if you feel that your cravings are far too frequent. 

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