We all like sugar. It’s perfectly natural. Cravings for sweets are perfectly natural, right?
Well, while it’s true that sugar cravings are natural, there are some people who crave sweet food too much.
I was one of those people. Back in high school I remember fantasizing about when I would be able to sneak off and buy candies and eat them in secret.
My craving for sweets was negatively impacting my life, and I imposed other dietary restrictions on myself. I even developed anemia one time because of my restricted diet.
And through my recovery journey I’ve heard many other stories of people whose lives are upended by their unstoppable cravings for sweets.
Of course, everyone gets a sugar craving from time to time. But what I want to focus on here is when you have an unstoppable craving.
This includes sugar cravings that occur immediately after eating, and cravings for sweets that you just can’t get out of your mind.
So why do we get this powerful, insatiable kind of craving for sweets?
Reason 1 – Negative Sugar Cycle
One of the main reasons we may get these powerful, unstoppable cravings for sweets is because of something called a ‘negative sugar cycle’.
A negative sugar cycle is where:
- Your body runs dangerously low on energy
- Low energy triggers your body to crave a quick, easily digestible food to convert into energy
- You eat sugar and your cravings may go down – but only for an hour, maybe two hours at best
- Your body quick burns through the energy it converted and is now running dangerously low on energy
- Repeat cycle
Let’s use an extreme example to demonstrate this negative sugar cycle:
You have candy for breakfast. The candy begins to rapidly digest in your stomach. 20 minutes later your body has converted this candy into usable energy.
Now you start working. Just by breathing and thinking, your body starts to burn through your energy supply from the candy.
Around 60-75 minutes later the energy is all gone. You may start feeling foggy headed. Fatigued.
So, you begin craving again for sweets because you need more energy in your body.
In the diagram below, you can see that sugary foods give quick energy that doesn’t last long, while other foods which we’ll talk more about later give energy that lasts longer.
Your body needs energy.
When you inevitably run out of energy because you use energy to breathe and think, you’ll need more quick energy.
This is what’s known as the ‘negative sugar cycle’.
Key point: Sweets and sugary foods are good for quick energy. But this energy doesn’t last long.
Please note: following a diet may also lead to this same pattern, even though a diet will have you eat more foods than just sugar.
See, a diet can also make people feel restricted. A diet can also make people not eat enough food in general, which would again cause low energy and cravings.
Even worse, people following a diet will often be obsessed with weight loss.
So when they give into sweet food, they may feel guilty and feel the need to restrict their hunger and calories even more in the future to lose weight.
But restriction just makes a person experience more hunger and cravings!
Please know that we can break the negative sugar cycle, but we need to understand one more key concept first …
Reason 2 – Sugar Craving Habit Loop
Habits: let’s start off by talking about brushing your teeth.
Tell me something, do you remember brushing your teeth? Or did you brush your teeth automatically?
I’m betting that you’re like me. You brushed your teeth automatically without even thinking.
I’m also betting that your sugar cravings are similar. I know my cravings for sweets were similar too:
- Somehow I’d have little candies unwrapped in my mouth before I could even realize what I was doing
- I’d often pair my foods with sugar drinks or a sweet treat
- Somehow I’d always go through the front door main door at work, where my work put out bagels and donuts, instead of using the side door
- While shopping, whether at a grocery store or somewhere else, I would always get a dark chocolate bar (if available) while standing in the checkout line
These kinds of habits may seem unbreakable, but you can break them if you break them into smaller pieces.
To do this, there are three keys to a habit that you must know:
Cue, Routine and Reward
Cues are the first key.
You know the famous dog salivation study?
Where dogs would be to salivate at the sound of a bell?
In this science experiment, a bell would be rung every time food was served.
The bell was the “cue” which triggered the routine of “eating”. The reward obviously was a full belly.
And we humans operate similarly.
You already have various cues throughout your day that get repeated each and everyday, for example:
- Alarm and brushing teeth
- Driving by the same restaurants and stores on your way to workWalking by the same bunch of donuts first thing in the morning at the office
Oftentimes sugar habits develop over time and end up being a routine:
- It starts off with a sweet coffee drink on the way to work
- Then a small, sugary croissant before lunch
- Another sugary drink, maybe a candy in the afternoon
- Grazing on processed foods like oreos throughout the day
- Sugary ice cream after dinner
Eventually these routines happen every day and you come to depend on them.
Indeed, I’ve had many conversations with clients who want to reduce their cravings but, at the same time, feel afraid that without these routines they might have too much stress in their life to handle.
Part of the problem is that these sugar routines and habits can reduce stress in the short-term, and that’s why people can’t stop their craving no matter how hard they try.
Here’s the key thing: every time you eat sugar, you also get a reward. That’s the final part of the understanding habits.
Sugar gives you a reward. A reward for sugar could be any of the following:
- A burst of energy
- Variety of new flavors and different types of taste (if you are bored at work, these new sensations can help with boredom)
- Distraction if you are stressed (sugar takes your mind off work while you unwrap the candy bar)
- Calm (there’s something blissful about chocolate, I think we can all admit)
So what happens is that your brain gets these rewards each and every day at pretty much the same time …
Then your brain comes to expect these rewards. And if the rewards aren’t there, then your brain craves sugar because it’s really craving those rewards.
Reason 3 – Too Much Stress And Not Enough Sleep
I’m sure you’ve read other articles online linking stress and sleep together with food cravings.
Hopefully this article builds on your previous knowledge by showing:
The rewards from eating sugar when you have too much stress and not enough sleep become increased, and can become nearly impossible to resist.
When you lack sleep and are feeling stressed:
- Your brain doesn’t have the energy to delay gratification
- Your brain needs more frequent breaks
- You are more susceptible to stress with less sleep
- Your decision making ability goes down, which means meal planning goes down, in turn making you are more likely to be eating sugar and falling into the ‘negative sugar cycle’
The key thing here is seeing how sugar can give you some benefits – including good taste, a sense of calmness, energy, excitement, etc – and you become especially vulnerable to these benefits when you are lacking sleep and are stressed out.
This Is Why You Crave Sweets All Of A Sudden!
Lack of sleep and stress work together to create a unique phenomenon I call ‘disconnection’.
- Stress and anxiety disconnect you from your stomach. Stress is perceived as threatening so you stop paying attention to your hunger signals which are less threatening
- Sleep deprivation disconnects you from your mind and body. We all know that we don’t function as well when we lack sleep
Now, add in the negative sugar cycle along with stress and lack of sleep:
- You are low on energy, calories and blood sugar
- But you are too stressed out to notice your hunger levels
- You are too sleep deprived to notice you need energy and more meals
- Then all of a sudden you have gone too long without energy, your blood sugar levels are low, and suddenly have this powerful craving for sweets for quick energy
The key thing is seeing how sleep, stress and a past history of eating sugar foods can lead to sudden food cravings.
That’s what sugar cravings are, and nothing else!
Is craving sweets a sign of diabetes? No!
Craving sweets is primarily combination of:
- Lacking a variety of foods, eating too many carbs and sweets
- Having strong habits developed over time
- Getting rewarded emotionally for eating sugar
- Being at risk for the emotional rewards of sugar if you lack sleep or are too stressed
I hope this is clear.
Craving sweets is not a sign of diabetes or anything else other than the 4 reasons listed above.
While diabetes is related to your blood sugar levels, sugar cravings are not a sign of diabetes. For more information on the relationship between diabetes and sugar read here.
Now let’s briefly explore how to start going about the process to end these powerful cravings for sweet foods.
To return to a normal level of food cravings, let’s start by talking about …
What Should I Eat When I Crave Sugar?
If you are craving sugary sweets, what I suggest you do is try having something sugary but slightly more fulfilling first:
- Chocolate protein bar
If you instead have candy or another soda, you’ll just end up in the same spot where you are now.
And we all know that avoiding sugar entirely probably isn’t the long-term solution either. You’ll just end up thinking about and craving sugar until you give in and go eat some.
But by having something sugary with a little more “substance” first, you give your tongue that craving for sweets that it desires.
You also give your body the other type of fuel that lasts longer.
Longer-term, the key is to make sure you find a variety of foods high in fiber and high in protein like:
- Legumes, nuts, beans
- Whole grain carbs
- Healthy fats, olive oil
These are foods that have energy that burns slowly, instead of rapidly like sugar.
Eat good meals on a regular basis with these, including a healthy snack.
Before we wrap up, let me mention vitamin deficiencies, since some people think this can be behind their cravings. There’s a lot written elsewhere about vitamin deficiencies, so the key point I want to make is:
There is no single, specific vitamin deficiency that causes sugar cravings.
Rather, it’s a deficiency in whole foods that burn slowly.
I hope this makes sense.
If you are having sugar cravings, the best way to fight them is to:
- Indulge your sweet tooth with a healthier, sugary treat
- Eat a variety of healthy foods before you get to the point of high craving
- Take plenty of time for sleep
- Take time throughout the day to find stress relief
With that being said, please do consider working with an eating counselor because these patterns can be very tough to uproot by yourself!