These days sugar seems like the bad guy in almost every story about health or medical conditions. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, four times the amount recommended by the World Health Organization.
From diabetes to weight loss, most diets recommend a decrease in sugar consumption. But that can be easier said than done. Much easier. There is something about sugar that is addictive for most of us, and those cravings we get for sweet things can be as powerful as if we had fallen under a spell.
The good news (or bad news, depending on how you look at it) is that there are actual scientific reasons that we crave sugar. Our bodies and brains need carbohydrates to function, it’s just a matter of not overdoing it. Rather than beating ourselves up for those cravings, let’s look at the actual theories out there and maybe we can be a bit more understanding to ourselves.
Stress-eating is something that affects many of us – eating to push away a negative feeling or fill a void. When we’re experiencing short term stress (i.e. an immediate threat), our adrenaline levels go up and our appetite decreases. Think: being chased by a tiger or almost getting into a car accident. Not usually times when we think of eating.
However, long-term chronic stress is a different story. Persistent stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol, which increases appetite and sugar cravings. Stimulated by stress, the increase in cortisol raises blood sugar levels needed for a “fight or flight” reaction. Then carb and sugar cravings kick in to replenish the body’s used up glucose, and a vicious cycle is created.
In addition to cortisol fluctuations, neurotransmitters that are sensitive to stress may also play a role. In both human and animal studies, cravings for high fat and high sugar foods often kick in when we are stressed or anxious. Carbohydrates (and sugar) boost our levels of the “feel good” neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and endorphins that improve mood and ease anxiety.
Once a sugar “fix” works a few times, our brains then begin to make the connection that sugar makes us feel good. There is even research that shows that in times of stress, sugary and fatty foods inhibit brain activity in the areas of the brain that produce and process stress, therefore creating an association between sugary/fatty foods and temporary stress relief .
2. The Type of Sugar You Eat
The type of sugar that you eat may influence what you crave next. Glucose blunts hunger signals whereas fructose increases hunger. Many carbohydrates (e.g. table sugar, fruits and vegetables) are combinations of glucose and fructose. Fructose is found in concentrated amounts in high fructose corn syrup and agave. Grains contain glucose but no fructose. The take away message? Eat whole foods, particularly whole grains, more often than sugary foods.
Also, using artificial sweeteners may actually increase your sugar craving. It is thought that sugar substitutes may perpetuate your sweet tooth merely by being sweet.
3. How Much Protein Do You Eat?
Another theory about sugar cravings is that you are not eating enough protein or your body is not digesting protein properly (for example due to low stomach acid). Eating enough protein helps to sustain your blood sugar over a longer period of time, avoiding a blood sugar crash which can result in the biological response of a carbohydrate craving.
4. Your Stomach
One of the newer theories about food cravings is that your gut bacteria sends signals to your nervous and endocrine system, prompting you to eat food that contains the nutrient the bacteria needs, often being sugar. If you have an imbalance of “good bacteria” vs “bad bacteria” in your digestive tract, the bad bacteria could be causing the craving for sugar and sweets to feed on. If this is the case, consider taking a probiotic supplement or eating more probiotic-rich foods (e.g. sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, kimchi).
Yes you read that right, evolution! This theory states that your sugar craving may be just a natural part of human evolution. Millions of years ago, our ape ancestors survived on high-sugar fruit. It provided not just energy but was effective in storing fat. Later on, humans (for example in the Paleolithic era) had a better chance of survival and passing on their genes if they were able to store more fat from less food. That magical combination was present in sugary foods like fruit. The problem is that today, we don’t have a shortage of food or sweets, but have inherited the evolutionary craving.
HOW TO COUNTERACT SUGAR CRAVINGS
1. Pay attention to the cause of your cravings to determine whether they’re from physical hunger, dyspepsia or are stress and emotional related. If you think your cravings may be stress related, the logical approach is to deal with your stress. Meditation, exercise, and getting enough sleep are all helpful for reducing stress-related food cravings. Also try these tips for avoiding stress-eating.
2. Eat enough healthy, nutrient-rich food so that you are not hungry. Eat 3 regular meals a day and several snacks if needed. Include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fiber, protein and healthy fats (omega-3 fats, nuts, olives, avocado). Eat low glycemic with green vegetables, lentils, beans and fiber rich whole grains. Don’t skip meals. All this will help maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
3. Some micronutrients are known to help curb sugar cravings. Zinc, Vitamin C, Tyrosine and Niacin help in releasing serotonin to curb the cravings. Food sources of zinc include oysters, crab, and beef. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruit and strawberries. Niacin is in fortified cereals and fatty fish.
4. Drink a glass of water. It will fill your stomach and help you know if you are hungry or dehydrated or you have an upset stomach.
5. Have healthy snacks on hand. Keep unhealthy and sugary snack foods out of the house. If you suspect that your sugar cravings are linked to blood sugar fluctuations, eat meals and snacks containing a balance of whole grain and unprocessed carbs, higher fiber foods, protein and healthy fats.
If you find yourself eating too much sugar, be gentle with yourself, let go of the guilt and keep trying. As you can see from the above, many causes of sugar cravings are not within our immediate control. But that doesn’t mean how we respond to these is out of our control. The best thing we can do is to nourish our body with healthy foods and to develop true compassion towards ourselves.
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at DearLea@tastefulpantry.com