Sugar cravings have many causes, and when it comes down to it, willpower usually doesn’t win. But you can overcome sugar cravings and avoid falling victim to a sugar binge once you determine what’s causing your cravings.
Let’s look at the ways sugar wrongs us
- suppresses your immune system
- Excess sugar consumption is linked to cancer and tumor growth (source)
- promotes weight gain and obesity
- disrupts the mineral balance (causing stress in the body)
- contributes to depression, anxiety and mood swings
- promotes gut dysbiosis and fungal overgrowth (candida) in the gut
- contributes to insulin resistance and diabetes
- can cause hormonal imbalances
- increases risk for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- disrupt the body’s pH balance
- can cause hypoglycemia
- will reduce good HDL cholesterol and increase bad LDL cholesterol
- prohibits weight loss
Some people are more sugar sensitive than others, and part of that depends on your genetics. Regardless, you can bio-hack your diet by manipulating certain macronutrients, like protein and fat, to balance your blood glucose levels and ward off cravings.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you start your morning with coffee and a pastry. You probably feel pretty good because that sugar is plugging up feel-good receptors in your brain, and maybe you get a little high as your blood glucose levels spike. But a few hours later, you crash when your blood glucose plummets again, and then you’re hungry, jittery, anxious, moody, irritable. You eat lunch, probably too much because you’re starving and you miscalculated your hunger needs, and then you may feel tired as all your energy is diverted into digestion. You may crave sugar in the afternoon, because your body knows it gives you a quick energy boost. Does that rollercoaster sound familiar?
Instead, try a breakfast rich in protein and fat and low in carbohydrate grains and starches, like 2 eggs scrambled with avocado, a protein smoothie, or chicken sausage and greens. Clean burning, steady energy and happy mood! Click here for my breakfast suggestions.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
Sugar cravings are more than just a mental struggle: There is typically a physiological reason you crave sugar, and once you’re on the rollercoaster, it’s hard to overcome. Sugar cravings are more powerful than willpower. The most common causes of intense sugar cravings include the following:
- You’re not getting the amounts of protein or fat your body needs. We all have different macronutrient needs. Some of us need more protein; some need more carbs. In particular, sugar sensitive people (those who struggle with hypoglycemia and sugar cravings) do best on a lower carb, high protein or higher fat (but not both) diet. Genetic testing can tell you your ideal macronutrient needs, or if you struggle with sugar, try cutting out refined carbs (white flour), bread, pasta, pastries (basically gluten-containing foods) and up your protein and vegetable intake. Read more about this here.
- You may have low dopamine and serotonin levels. Sugar raises your feel-good brain chemicals, and if you’re not producing adequate amounts, you’ll seek outside substances, like alcohol, drugs, or sugar, to give you that boost your body should be providing for you, but can’t. Read more about that here.
- You have candida overgrowth or dysbiosis. Sugar is candida’s fuel source, and it’s a driver of intense sugar cravings.
- You have nutrient deficiencies, like magnesium (drives chocolate cravings especially), zinc, or trace minerals, such as chromium.
- You’re eating too many carbs. Even healthy carbs, like whole grains, can drive cravings in sugar sensitive folks. These types of physiologies do best on a higher protein lower carb diet.
- You’re drinking alcohol, which lowers blood sugar and drives cravings.
- You’re not eating enough food. This is very common among the women with whom I work. They are desperate to lose weight and overly restricting food. Sugar is a quick and calorie dense energy hit, so your body drives sugar cravings in an attempt to get you to meet your daily energy/calorie needs.
- You’re not getting enough sleep, which affects hormones that cause cravings and weight gain.
- You have high cortisol or stress levels, which increases appetite and carb cravings.
Sugar & Insulin Resistance
Your brain and body need glucose to survive. When your body perceives that blood sugar is getting too low, it sends you a signal that it needs fuel. You get hungry, or maybe you crave sugar because your body knows it’s a calorie dense and efficient way to give you a fast boost. When you eat sugar, white flour (breaks down quickly to glucose), alcohol, sodas, candy, cookies, pastries, etc, your body uses a hormone called insulin to transport the glucose to your cells for usage. When you eat too much sugar, your pancreas releases a whole lotta insulin to usher all that glucose into your cells, and blood glucose levels drop again (because the glucose has entered your cells), and your blood sugar levels drop too low, so you crave sugar again to bring the levels back up.
The problem with this cycle is that eventually, your cells stop responding properly to insulin. They already have enough glucose, so they lock the door and don’t allow insulin to escort glucose into the cell. Your pancreas is overworked as it continues to churn out insulin in response to all that sugar you’re eating, but now you have become insulin resistant because your cells don’t want all that excess sugar. This causes your blood sugar levels to rise, setting you up for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Tips to Smash Sugar Cravings
Note that you don’t have to and may not need to completely avoid sweet foods. Sweet is one of the 5 basic tastes, and some people find that completely avoiding sweet foods intensifies the cravings.Others, however, find sweet foods triggering.
Treat yourself to sugar free treats made with monk fruit or stevia, like this cashew cake batter pudding. Or even a piece of fruit with nut butter. Some people avoid binge behavior by just satisfying cravings for sweets with some dark chocolate or something sweet. This is not true for everyone, however: Some people may experience serious binge reactions if they eat sweet foods.
Here are some tips to keep blood sugar stable and cravings in check:
- Start your day with protein and good fat: Avoid refined foods such as cereals, bagels, croissants, or pastries. These foods contain refined sugars or break down quickly into sugar, causing an initial blood glucose spike followed by a crash. When your blood glucose drops too low and you crave sugar, what you actually need is protein. Read more here about why grain-based breakfasts are not ideal for sugar sensitive folks. For breakfast, have an egg-veggie scramble, a protein smoothie, or organic chicken sausages sauteed with spinach and topped with avocado. Click here for my best easy breakfast recs.
- Although intermittent fasting is all the rage, it may lead to binge behavior until your blood sugar levels are more stable (and your metabolism can be fixed!).
- Eat every 4 hours to maintain stable blood sugar. Fill up on healthy foods periodically so you’re never ravenous and hypoglycemic. And while you’re at it: avoid refined sugars (the white granulated stuff). The more you eat sugar, the more you’ll crave it. Here’s how to avoid hypoglycemia.
- Save desserts for special occasions, not every day. One thing you can and should eat every day is good ole dark chocolate. It has myriad health benefits. This one is my absolute fave and doesn’t contain soy or other fillers. When baking, use unrefined sweeteners such as molasses, honey, or grade B maple syrup. I also love using xylitol, which doesn’t feed intestinal bad bacteria or spike blood sugar.
- Focus on protein at breakfast and lunch especially. Protein gives you energy and satiety and helps keep blood sugar balanced.
- Before parties, eat a protein-based snack like organic turkey slices wrapped around avocado, hard boiled eggs, or apple with almond butter. Don’t show up ravenous!
- Go easy on or eliminate the booze. Alcohol is metabolized as sugar and can lead to hypoglycemia, making you hungry, likely to overeat, and prone to making poor choices when you do eat. Drink water between cocktails and try to cap it at 2 drinks. Or, have a mocktail such as sparkling water with lime.
If you overdid it: The day after a sugar binge, start off with 8 ounces hot water and the juice of 1/2 a lemon to detoxify, and drink green vegetable juices if you have access (celery, parsley, green apple, cucumber, ginger makes a nice blend) to alkalize the body; sugar is very acidic. Then stick to protein & veggies & plenty of good fats, like avocado, throughout the day to reset yourself.
If you’ve got it really bad, here is supplemental support
- 500 mg – 1000mg of glutamine really helps some people. Break open the capsules and empty under your tongue, then swallow with water. This does not work for everyone.
- certain minerals like chromium help arrest sugar cravings–you can often find them in blood sugar balance blends with other herbs or nutrients to help stop sugar cravings. Examples are gymnema, alpha lipoic acid, and even cinnamon. Body Ecology Ancient Minerals is awesome.
- Try this crave arrest to help balance brain chemicals that can cause cravings.
- Have a cup of green tea. It may sound preposterous, but we sometimes mistake hunger or craving cues for thirst, and the minerals in green tea give you a boost. Minerals in general also help stop sugar cravings. Drink lots of green juices–very high in minerals!
- Have a protein snack using suggestions above. As I mentioned, when blood sugar is low, you actually need protein, not sugar.
Stick to dark chocolate —it has health benefits–or truffles over hard candy, and bring treats that don’t contain refined sugars to parties. It’s ok to treat yourself every once in a while, and I often recommend sugar busting snacks in the afternoon, like coconut butter or coconut oil melted with almond butter and a bit of honey– that can satisfy a craving. Remember that indulging in too much sugar every day will only make sugar cravings worse, so save the treats for parties and special occasions.
In the meantime, here is my favorite awesome refined sugar free indulgent fudge recipe that will wow your friends.
Vegan Fudge (No Added Sugar)
- Food processor
- 1 - 1.5 cup blanched almond flour
- 1/2 cup coconut oil, melted
- 1 cup raw carob or cacao powder
- 1-2 tsp vanilla
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 1/3 cup raisins or dried turkish apricots, soaked (this is about 4-5 apricots, chopped)
- 4-5 tbsp water, from apricot/raisin soak
- Place raisins or chopped apricots in small bowl and cover with boiling water, about 2 inches above raisins/apricots.
- Soak 5-10 minutes. Do not drain.
- Spoon out of bowl and reserve water and fruit separately.
- Add almond flour, carob, coconut oil, vanilla, cinnamon, fruit to food processor; blend well.
- Add 4-5 tbsp of water from fruit soak and blend again. Add more for desired consistency; mixture should be thick like cookie dough.
- Transfer to 7x7 glass pan.
- Refrigerate until coconut oil sets the batter like fudge.
- Cut into small squares. Keep refrigerated; lasts for weeks and freezes well.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.