Sugar craving is like quicksand; you may not realize you have slowly increased the amount you eat until you are entrenched in it. Slowly but surely it begins to take over more and more of food real estate in your diet. You need some understanding of how this happens to learn to beat sugar cravings.
No one is under the illusion that sugar somehow beneficial for us. “Hey, I should eat more sugar, it is good for me.” Those words have never been spoken and for good reason.
Yet, sugar often slowly encroaches on diet quality, but for some of you, it becomes like a giant claw taking hold. It grabs you and dominates your diet.
Do you need sugar every day? This might be you; sugar-dependent if not addicted.
Summer can be the worst for sugar cravings, where cold treats and refreshing beverages with sweet iciness are practically everywhere, promising our bodies energy and relief from the heat.
Then shortly after that, Halloween candy saturates your cells. Before you know it, the holidays are upon you, and half of your year is resigned to battling your will-power.
Spring is spent fighting the cravings, only to be plunged back into the heat of summer again.
Even if sugar isn’t an overtly sweet treat at hand, it is added to just about every food item in the store from cereals to breads and snacks.
Humans LOVE sugar, sadly, more than brussels sprouts.
Sugar has its grip on so many people and it really isn’t doing much for us besides instant gratification.
Research has barely touched the surface of the intricate dance of food cravings, appetite control, food-pleasure response, mood, and environment interactions with our genes.
What is clear is that sugar is extremely difficult to avoid in modern culture, but learning to understand your own internal driving forces may be the key to keeping sugar at bay in your life.
The goal of this blog is to explore 5 of these forces, and how you can reset your sugar-pleasure thresholds.
1. Understand Your Evolution
We crave sugar because from an evolutionary standpoint, it helped prevent starvation in times of food scarcity.
Humans gladly eat up every last morsel of sweet food to get through droughts, winters and shortages. In one human’s lifespan, there would be many of these hardships in the past.
This was even true up until the most recent century (and still today it continues in many parts of the world). Even when getting some sugar in the past, it was mostly just honey, as cane sugar was rare.
Since the early 1900’s, people have almost tripled their sugar consumption, and the levels of intake go unabated today. The average intake of sugar calories per day is 300. That is the equivalent of almost 1/3 cup of sugar per day (1). Evolution telling us to eat up.
We eat sugar because our brains still thinks a famine is around the corner. We were most definitely not designed to have energy drinks, soda, cookies, candies, sugar-infused packaged foods at every turn.
Even so-called health foods sneak in a lot of added sugars. And yet here we are, faced with fighting our hard-wired desire to survive when it doesn’t really apply in a world of plenty.
Some experts argue sugar is the biggest driving force of obesity, chronic diseases and healthcare dollars (2).
Is the food industry preying on our instincts and internal wiring? Enter the 1980’s: high-fructose corn syrup hits the scene and sugar becomes more saturated in our foods than ever.
Knowing that our evolutionary wiring is designed to make us want sugar may not change the action, but education is half of behavior change.
Packaged, processed foods is sabotaging our diet.
Evolution forces us to use sheer will power when faced with sugar everywhere, and a “just say no” mentality at most turns, and occasionally (not daily) indulging in small amounts of sugar when it really counts.
Stick with me; there are more tools than just white knuckle hunger and will-power that will get you through the sea of sugar.
2. Change Your Gut Bacteria
Do residents in our gut cause sugar cravings? Some bacteria that live in our gut may drive our appetite for sweet foods and increase overeating tendencies (3).
Say what? They aren’t even part of our bodies, these little bacteria. And yet they send powerful signals and transmit messages to our brain about what we should and shouldn’t eat.
Who is in charge of who one might wonder. Some unlucky folks have high amounts of bacteria that tell them to crave and eat a lot of sugar.
Luckily, many fermented foods and probiotic strains seem to help people lose weight, including Lactobacillus Gasseri (4).
Additionally, fiber from a diverse diet of vegetables and plant sources plays a big role in the proliferation of healthy gut bacteria: these foods seem to reduce cravings by helping the “healthy” bacteria in our gut thrive and also provides feelings of fullness (5).
Sugar itself causes harmful bacteria to thrive regardless of your own gut ecology (6).
It is possible that if you are able to give up sugar (and processed foods) for at least 3 weeks, these bacteria start to get outnumbered by the more beneficial types that keep you lean.
Why 3 weeks? It often it takes 3 weeks to develop new diet habits. Try the no-sugar challenge for 3 weeks; don’t crash diet, just eat whole foods, and in moments of sweet cravings, choose fruit or even honey to break the habit.
Honey won’t overtake your diet as it is so much less convenient than added sugars.It also has its own health rewards for the gut.
3. Fix Your Diet Imbalance and Nutrient Deficiencies
Sometimes sugar begets more sugar. It depletes key nutrients that drive energy.
You run low on energy, and then crave more sugar to compensate for the lack of energy that sugar initially caused by making you deficient (7).
Think of it like alcohol; it robs the body of nutrients like some of the B vitamins, certain minerals as well.
Sugar causes disruption of the gut by increasing inflammation, makes more insulin that causes further fatigue ultimately. Here is a table that sums of the majority of devastating effects of added sugars related to nutrient depletion in the body.
How added sugars promote obesity through energy/nutrient depletion
Adapted from DiNicolantonio JJ et al.
- Displaces nutritionally superior foods.
- Decreases appetite for more nutritious food.
- Depletes nutrients within the body
- Provides zero nutrition.
- The consumption of added sugars has been shown to cause insulin resistance.
- This will result in decreased use of glucose for energy (decreased uptake into cells)
- Impairs ability to burn fat
- Energy requirements are also increased due to elevated insulin levels.
- They can induce a state of ‘internal starvation’
- Decreases nutrient absorption due to intestinal irritation/damage.
- Increases nutrient losses caused by reduced absorption, leading to diarrhea
- Damages the cellular components that help burn calories.
- Produces unnatural drug-like cravings leading to a vicious cycle of continued consumption and further nutrient depletion.
High quality supplementation of vitamins, minerals and botanicals may help offset some of the issues listed above caused by long-term sugar consumption.
This can include natural B-vitamins, minerals like chromium, magnesium, zinc, and others. But to really begin to change the damaging patterns that sugar cause, a diet that is committed to eliminating or drastically reducing simple sugars and processed carbohydrates is needed to change the trajectory of poor health.
Give this a try: eliminate all added sugars for 3 weeks. Commit to this time period, and you may be surprised how little you miss sugar after that.
4. Harness Your Stress
Stress is both driven by too much sugar; and stress itself amplifies sugar-eating. The stress hormone cortisol in turn causes blood glucose to rise.
This rise in cortisol causes an increase in insulin, drops testosterone, both of which can result in weight gain and fatigue, which circles back to craving more sugar.
Total sugar intake is related to cortisol and the amount of visceral fat, the most dangerous kind of fat in the body.
It is best to help beat stress by going against the craving and eating healthy fats, proteins nutrient-rich foods like greens and whole foods.
Hint: none of these foods come in a pre-made package.
Reset the stress; look at what you will and won’t tolerate as daily problems because stress doesn’t necessarily go away.
It might help to remember that another word for stress is fear. It is not healthy to constantly feel fear.
Balance circadian rhythms, chat with good friends, think positive thoughts and visualize happy images to get through the worst of it.
5. Control Your Dopamine
You probably heard of sugar being described like a drug, and by driving up dopamine levels, it has similar, but more mild effects on the brain than both legal and illegal drugs.
Dopamine is very rewarding because it makes us feel good, and gives a feeling of pleasure, so we turn to sugar again and again for the same effects.
Dopamine also is known as the motivation neurotransmitter as it makes us feel focused and alert. Sugar also also appears to affect opioid receptor binding.
As with any drug-like effect, however, the dopamine has diminishing returns with sugar; it stops working, just as in drug addiction.
Poor diet, certain medications, and thyroid disorders contribute to plummeting dopamine levels, and thereby makes us want more sugar.
It would seem like the building blocks of dopamine, including an amino acid called L-tyrosine might help curb cravings.
Although it very well might do this, we don’t have research to back up this claim. L-tyrosine does seem to help mitigate stressful responses (12).
However, it does make sense to provide the body with tyrosine-rich foods; these happen to be protein-rich foods like cheese, chicken, fish, eggs, meats, legumes, and some grains. That is, unless you get migraines triggered by tyrosine. We are complicated creatures.
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame or NutraSweet should be avoided as well because they seem to disrupt the ability of the brain to make dopamine (13)and possibly other neurotransmitters.
Probiotics, however, may increase brain dopamine (14). Oh, the complex web our gut bacteria weaves.
Putting It All Together
Awareness of our internal driving forces to eat sugar serves to empower change.
Sometimes one step at a time may help slowly gain back a balance in the diet and allow for managing cravings.
Supplements, whole foods, fermented vegetables, and probiotics may be the building blocks to achieve this balance.
1. CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2005–2010
(4) Parnell JA, Reimer RA. Prebiotic fibres dose-dependently increase satiety hormones and alter Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes in lean and obese JCR:LA-cp rats. The British journal of nutrition. 2012;107(4):10.1017/S0007114511003163. doi:10.1017/S0007114511003163
5. Kadooka Y1,Effect of Lactobacillus gasseri SBT2055 in fermented milk on abdominal adiposity in adults in a randomised controlled trial.Br J Nutr. 2013 Nov 14;110(9):1696-703. doi: 10.1017/S0007114513001037. Epub 2013 Apr 25.
8. Iranmanesh A, Lawson D, Dunn B, Veldhuis JD. Glucose ingestion selectively amplifies ACTH and cortisol secretory-burst mass and enhances their joint synchrony in healthy men. J Clin Endocrinol Metab.96:2882-8.
9. Gyllenhammer LE, Weigensberg MJ, Spruijt-Metz D, Allayee H, Goran MI, Davis JN. Modifying Influence of Dietary Sugar in the Relationship Between Cortisol and Visceral Adipose Tissue in Minority Youth. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md). 2014;22(2):474-481. doi:10.1002/oby.20594.
10. Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews. 2008;32(1):20-39. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019.
13. P Humphries1,2, E Pretorius1 and H Naudé1Direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brainEuropean Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2008) 62, 451–462; doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1602866; published online 8 August 2007
Heidi Moretti, MS, RD is The Healthy RD. A registered dietitian for 20 years, has a passion for functional nutrition and natural medicine. Has researched supplements and plants as medicine throughout her career. Loves helping people gain function and vitality by tackling the root causes of illness.