What causes you to crave sugar?
Sugar cravings affect us all from time to time, that irresistible temptation to tuck into something sweet, whether it’s a bar of milk chocolate, a slice of cake or even a can of Coca-Cola. What causes these intense cravings, though? Well, when it comes to sugar, there are plenty of different culprits to blame! That’s part of what makes the problem so difficult to tackle but, since knowing is half the battle, here I’m going to briefly cover a few of the most common causes.
- Habit: We humans are creatures of habit – most of us have our routines and preferred ways of doing things, and our eating habits are no exception. Generally, most of us prefer to take our meals at roughly the same time each day and even set aside time whilst working to indulge in a little snack. If you’re habitually visiting the vending machine every day or munching on a biscuit at 11am each morning then your brain and body will start to anticipate this kind of behaviour, stimulating a craving when you do not satisfy this pattern
- Emotional eating: Stress is a major factor behind sugar cravings; this is in part because, over the years, we’ve programmed our brains to perceive sugar as a ‘reward’. The very act of eating sugar becomes a form of comfort and can trigger the release of happy hormones, such as endorphins, which may give your mood a temporary boost. When you’re feeling down or under pressure, it’s natural to seek out this kind of high, plus you have to consider how stress affects your hormones too! Very often, when we experience stress, our blood glucose levels can rise but, once they inevitably crash, we’ll experience cravings too!
- Fatigue: Do you find yourself assaulted by cravings after an intense session at the gym or when you’re feeling especially exhausted? This type of response is actually quite normal– sugar, after all, is a primary source of energy for your body which explains why our earliest ancestors were devoted scavengers, hunting for berries. The problem is that most of us aren’t reaching for natural sources of sugar, like fruit, but rather heavily processed forms that contain far, far too much sugar like cake or chocolate
- Dehydration: It’s not unheard for feelings of thirst to manifest as hunger pangs but, when it comes to sugar in particular, dehydration can stimulate cravings. This is because your body needs an adequate supply of fluid to help metabolise glycogen (stored sugar) and, if this isn’t happening, your body will start to trigger sugar cravings to give itself a quick energy boost
- Poor sleep: Sleep is absolutely crucial for so many areas of your health so any form of deprivation is going to have repercussions. In the case of your appetite, a lack of sleep can upset the hormones that regulate your feelings of hunger and satiety, ghrelin and leptin. Our Sleep Advisor Marianna covers this topic in her blog, ‘Is your lack of sleep making you overeat?’ but, simply put, sleep deprivation increases your levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and can make you less responsive to leptin so you will experience cravings
- Dieting: You’ve been trying your best to eat healthily and have recently embarked on a new diet regime – so why are your cravings suddenly going out of control? Well, if you’re sticking to an intense diet, it’s possible that you could be skipping meals or not eating the right foods at the right time. Consequently, your blood glucose levels are going to take a nosedive, which will naturally trigger sugar cravings. In fact, fluctuating blood glucose levels are one of the main overriding causes of sugar cravings so this is really something that you want to be on top of, as I mention in my blog, ‘What do food cravings mean?’. The other issue with dieting is that it can leave you vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies. In particular, low levels of calcium, magnesium and zinc can sometimes contribute to sugar cravings. Zinc especially is useful as it helps to support your production of insulin.
How do you stop sugar cravings?
1. Balance your blood glucose levels
As I mentioned earlier, keeping your blood glucose levels nicely balanced is crucial if you want to avoid those dreaded sugar cravings. This naturally means that you will need to examine what you are eating and try to eliminate a few of the obvious culprits (cakes, chocolate, sugary cuppas and ice cream!) but, more importantly, you need to think about when you’re eating.
Consistency is everything, so focus on having regular meals every 3-5 hours and think about what you’re putting on your plate. Protein, for example, can be very useful if you’re trying to avoid cravings; according to one study published the Obesity journal, a test group of overweight men were able to significantly reduce their cravings by getting a quarter of their calorific intake from protein.1 There’s also some evidence to suggest that fibre – soluble fibre in particular – could help to manage your blood glucose levels as it slows down the absorption of sugar.
When cravings do strike, though, what’s the best thing to do then? Well, below I’ve included a few simple swaps that should help to keep your blood glucose levels nice and even, whilst also satisfying your sweet tooth.
|| 70% cacao chocolate
||Dark chocolate might not be as good for you as some manufacturers make out, but good, high quality, unsweetened dark chocolate should contain plenty of antioxidants and stress-busting minerals like magnesium!
|| Nuts and Seeds
||Walnuts and pumpkin seeds might not sound particularly appealing next to crisps but it all depends on how you serve them. One of my favourite treats is to toast my pumpkin seeds with a splash of soy sauce. That way I have a snack that tastes great but is also rich in zinc, iron and B vitamins.
||If you love ice cream but aren’t so enamoured with its high sugar content, you could try making your own ‘Nice cream’. Usually all you need is some dairy-free milk and fruit so it’s super simple and affordable – just check out this quick recipe for Tropical Nice Cream if you need any more inspiration.
||There’s nothing wrong with cake if it’s an occasional treat but, if it’s making a daily appearance, you might want to consider swapping to a healthier alternative, like homemade energy balls. Incorporating fibre-rich dried fruit, nuts and natural sweeteners like cinnamon or cacao, these are easy to make and taste amazing!
||This is one of the easiest swaps on this list! If you’re munching on refined white bread, white pasta or white rice then it’s easy to switch to wholegrain alternatives. These won’t have been stripped of their original nutritional content so they should contain plenty of fibre and B vitamins!
2. Drink plenty of water
If you’re experiencing intense cravings, it’s extremely important that you try to drink plenty of fluids. Not only does this ensure that you can metabolise glycogen, increasing your energy levels, it also means that you can maintain a good balance of electrolytes. These include the trace minerals (magnesium, calcium, zinc and vitamin D) which help to support your nervous system and muscle function.
You should be aiming to drink 8-10 glasses of water a day – this is plain water, not carbonated water or caffeinated drinks. If you’ve been exercising, you might be tempted to also try a few different sports drinks but these are often loaded with artificial sweeteners which, as I’ve just discussed, aren’t exactly a miracle cure for sugar cravings. Instead, you could try a more natural alternative like our own Balance Mineral Drink. Excellent for fighting fatigue and chockfull of important nutrients, this can help to keep you hydrated whilst also curbing sugar cravings due to its excellent content of essential minerals and vitamins.
3. Reduce your stress levels
Stress can be disastrous when it comes to encouraging sugar cravings so this is naturally an issue you will want to address. When it comes to difficult emotions like stress and anxiety, we usually recommend tackling them at the root cause, if you can. Of course, this might not always be possible, in which case you may need to think about how to manage your symptoms.
Keeping active, eating the right foods and practicing mindful exercises such as meditation can be great tools to help you here, which is why I highly encourage you to pop over to A.Vogel Talks Stress where our Stress Advisor Marianna delves a bit deeper into these issues. You could also try our gentle anxiety remedy AvenaCalm, which is rich in B vitamins to help support your nervous system.
4. Get into a good sleep routine
Since sleep can have an impact on the hormones that regulate your appetite, it really makes sense that you’ll want to get yourself into a good sleep hygiene routine. This could mean examining the environment that you’re sleeping in; is it cluttered or are you keeping your work laptop next to your bed? If so, you might want to do a bit of reorganising so your room is a calm and relaxed setting. Make sure you’re not eating heavy meals or snacks right before you go to bed too – the last thing you need is to be kept awake because your digestive system is busy trying to break down your food.
Finally, and I cannot stress this enough, please try to avoid bringing your devices to bed with you! Smartphones, tablets and laptops – all of these emit blue lightwaves that can inhibit your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Instead, try to focus your attention on other activities in the lead up to bedtime – why not have a relaxing bath? Spend some time on the sofa with a good book? Practice some meditation? These restful activities should help to keep you nice and calm, making it that little bit easier for you to drift off.
5. Keep active
Sitting down and remaining sedentary certainly isn’t going to do you any favours when sugar cravings strike. Rather than trying to distract yourself, you’ll be more inclined to mull them over and, eventually, give into them. Keeping active, on the other hand, keeps your mind occupied, plus a little bit of exercise can also help to regulate your blood glucose levels. If you’re working your muscles and giving your body a good stretch, then you’ll naturally be using up more glucose which can help to lower high blood glucose levels.
Of course, you’ll naturally be a bit peckish afterwards but at least you’ll have earned a bite to eat. There’s plenty of great foods you can indulge in after a workout and, best of all, not all of them are full of processed sugars. Our Get Active Advisor Louise’s blog, ‘Top 5 foods to help you recover from a workout’ might be worth reading here!