There are many reasons why people crave sugar.
Some of these reasons are small, like the chemicals in your brain that get released after a piece of birthday cake.
Other reasons behind sugar cravings are bigger. You can think of these bigger reasons as ranging from habits (slightly ‘larger’ than chemicals so to speak) to even relationships (even bigger!).
At the far end of the ‘big’ reason spectrum we have culture.
This post will explore exactly why you crave sugar, starting with the smaller reasons and then moving to the larger, more complex issues.
And please remember, all these reasons are interdependent. Interdependence is a word I learned from Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese monk who taught mindfulness to The Beatles.
Thich Naht Hanh once said while holding up a teacup, the teacup is interdependent on the ocean to provide ceramic for the cup and the water for his tea.
The teacup couldn’t exist without the world.
In the same sense, there are interdependent reasons why you crave sugar too. Let’s explore this ‘interdependence’ concept more in the following reasons behind sugar cravings!
1 – Chemicals
It’s no secret sugar chemicals can impact your brain and contribute to addictive behaviors.
The chemical causing so many eating problems is a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine signals to your brain when you get something good, like sugar or sexual release.
Mental health professionals believe that this chemical reaction is what causes the craving for more. Dopamine explains why people often find themselves consuming too much, of even healthy foods!
Because when dopamine gets released, it triggers an addictive response in your body.
Here are some foods that release dopamine (and raise your blood sugar levels) when you eat them:
- Potatoes (especially French fries)
- Processed meats with added salt (think fast food)
The list goes on, but you get the idea. The more dopamine that gets released in your brain when consuming something high in sugar or fat, then the stronger the cravings will be for foods containing those ingredients.
And it’s not just food too! Dopamine is key to ALL types of addictive behaviors like gambling, TV and alcohol.
This is why people get cravings and feel like they’re addicted to unhealthy foods or other behaviors!
But remember, all chemical impacts, including those from dopamine, take place in a context. Let’s see how the dopamine chemical fits into habits.
2 – Habits
There are a few building blocks behind cravings and habits which you should know about.
- First there is a cue, like your clock hits noon and you think ‘time for lunch!’
- Then there is a routine, like going to the lunchroom for a donut or other processed foods your workplace conveniently provides.
- Finally there is a reward, when your brain releases the chemical dopamine to make you feel good!
Habits include the dopamine chemical release. But habits are more than just a dopamine release.
Habits also contribute to sugar cravings by adding in cues and routines. Cues are the trigger to do something like eating sugar, and the routine is actually eating sugar!
In this case, the dopamine release from sugar is dependent upon the cue and routine portion of habits to ‘get’ the sugar.
Cue, routine, and dopamine are interdependent upon one another.
But where do you get exposed to cues and routines, two of the primary building blocks of habits?
To answer this question about craving sugar we need to explore both past and present!
3 – Parents (Past)
There is a HUGE correlation between your parents and whether you develop sugar cravings which end up ruining your life.
I can’t tell you how many clients who have told me some variation of this story about the origin of their sugar craving:
A parent models eating sugary foods with their child, say by coming home after a stressful work day and eating ice cream. You as a kid saw your parents eat ice cream or other processed foods when stressed and so you internalized this behavior. Your parents may have given you ice cream to help keep you calm when you were a kid, too!
On accident, the child picks up these vibes and begins to crave sugar to feel better even though they may not be upset or stressed at all or when they may only be slightly upset, for example for losing a videogame.
I mean, some frustration is just part of human nature!
But then this child gets the wrong message! Soon you are eating ice cream and other sweet foods after failing a test instead of learning from your mistakes and getting smarter!
Do you see how your parents behavior could teach you that emotional pain or stress (cue) triggers a routine for ice cream (routine)?
And do you see how this basic pattern of reducing pain by using sugar could be a MAJOR reason you crave sugar today?
See, sugar cravings that interfere with your life don’t just appear out of nowhere one day!
They are interdependent upon past actions. As a kid, you innocently ate sugar to feel better because you saw your parents wolf down sugary foods (or zone out in front of the TV) in response to stress.
But a skeptic might say, ‘Well, Hakuna Matata! The past is the past and doesn’t exist any longer. The only thing that matters is the present.’
4 – Culture (Present)
We’ve talked a lot about parents as the root cause of sugar addiction for many people in our society, but that’s not where the conversation on sugar craving ends.
The way we interact with others from birth to adulthood impacts everything down the line including cravings for sugar.
This goes back to how Western culture has ignored family ties while promoting individuality.
At the same time, the West likes to make things super convenient.
This is why you have sugary treats available at every gas station! These days you can order DoorDash and someone will deliver you some processed food within minutes!
Here are a two key ways Western culture impacts sugar cravings:
- Personal responsibility (it’s your responsibility to avoid the sugar)
Convenience (Part 1 of Culture)
Just think back to the sugar-at-work example I mentioned earlier.
You go to work (let’s say this is before covid) and there are all these donuts laying all over the place!
You must realize that other cultures (except those Brits over yonder!) don’t have donuts laying all over the place!
But we Americans at least, we like to make things convenient even at the detriment of our health!
Just consider about this following statement:
There is not a day that goes by where you cannot find some processed food within arms reach.
Let’s explore this next.
Nonetheless, your sugar cravings and our cultural attitude towards sugar are inter-related as well.
Individual Responsibility (Part 2 of Culture)
There’s another part of culture that says it’s your responsibility if you eat the donut or slab or dark chocolate, right? It’s never society or culture’s fault for why we crave sugar!
The Western mind has a backwards notion of willpower.
Traditionally speaking, Western culture views willpower as an infinite resource as long as you are willing to ‘pay the price’.
No pain, no gain, right?
Just work harder! If you get tired, well, suck it up and work even harder!
And yes there are benefits to this approach for productivity, but for health this notion of responsibility does great harm!
Look, the society we live in today is one that’s toxic to our mental and physical health. It’s impossible not to get exposure to various forms of marketing, personalized ads, commercials, etc., for food which is full of sugar!
So as we go through our daily life, on one hand we SEE millions of societal advertising messages that our next bliss is the next sugary bite.
And guess what! Humans believe what they see! If you ‘see’ an advertisement of someone smiling and eating a chocolate candy bar, on some level you will ‘believe’ candy makes you happy!
Even if you consciously realize this chocolate bar is just an advertisement, subconsciously your brain is still thinking chocolate equals happiness!
And just think about the children!
Children have no defense against colorful cartoon characters on sugary cereal boxes.
In fact, when you think about it from the perspective of how much control you actually have over your own life:
Does sugar control your mind or do you control yourself?
It’s an interesting debate to be sure.
I am NOT suggesting sugar MAKES you dependent. Yet, what I am suggesting is that the idea of TOTAL individual responsibility for health is deeply flawed.
We humans are interdependent on our surroundings and our environment.
Yet at the same time we don’t always act in our best interests. Just think about global warming. We humans are running against nature, being pests that consume all the resources and ruin natural balance.
There is just something flawed to human nature!
And guess what, speaking of flaws, let’s talk more about human nature.
5 – Human Nature
Human nature is a complex topic, so I want to make two points very clear so you know what I’m talking about in terms of ‘human nature’:
- First, humans naturally crave sugar.
- Second, humans are also flawed because we are driven towards happiness even if that happiness is short-lived!
First let’s talk about how humans naturally crave sugar.
Natural Sugar Cravings For Blood Sugar
You may even feel as though I am blaming sugar for all of society’s problems. But that’s not the case at all – it doesn’t have to be this way and historically speaking, there never has been a time like this before (think cavemen).
Let me clear about one thing – your blood NEEDs sugar!
And if you rewind the clock a few thousand years to the caveman days, back in those days, sugar was a scarce resource. You couldn’t get sugar from a vending machine or at the grocery store. It was something that had to be gathered and was much more rare.
So back then when cavemen found some form of sweetener they would gorge themselves because it wasn’t going to come around again any time soon. They needed as much energy for blood sugar (in this case carbohydrates) as possible just to survive!
And so now, thousands of years later – even though there’s plenty of food available out there – we still have these tendencies, even though on average our blood sugar levels are plenty high!
Humans Crave Happiness
One of the most beautiful things about human design is happiness.
For whatever reason, we gravitate towards happiness.
Now most of the time, choosing to be happy is a good decision.
But sometimes, happiness can also have a downside.
Happiness is like sugar – it’s something that our body craves.
And so we find ourselves constantly chasing after more and more to keep the feeling going.
It becomes an addiction of sorts because when you’re happy your brain releases these chemicals like dopamine which make us feel good.
But then with time, this will start to fade away until there are no endorphins left in your system!
So now you are craving sugar and you need another fix (another dose of sugar) of happiness to get back up where you were before!
This doesn’t just apply to emotional or mental health either; this is why people who smoke cigarettes often reach for some artificial sweeteners as well.
What Does It Mean When You Crave Sugar
Sugar cravings are a real thing.
But they’re not just an issue that can be tackled with willpower or by “just saying no.”
In fact, sugar addiction is much more complicated and complex than most people realize.
We hope you found this post helpful in seeing the complexities of sugar cravings from different perspectives.
For those craving help on their way out of addiction, we suggest reading our blog about treatment for food addicts. It may provide you with some valuable insight!
Don’t forget to leave a comment down below if this helped you understand how sugars affect human behavior or if you have more questions. 🙂