The Science Behind Why You Crave Sugar: 4 Reasons We Seek Sweets
Have you ever felt like sugar cravings can happen at any time? It may be the common 3pm mid-afternoon slump at work; following a challenging workout; or when you’re casually watching your favorite TV show. Whenever and wherever it is, you’ve probably wondered why you’re craving sugar.
While these sugar cravings may feel random, there is science that supports the reasons why you get them. Sugar cravings could be due to a nutritional deficiency, an excess of a certain food, or simply a habit that needs changing. For many, these cravings are often the result of cause-and-effect relationships in which you may eat sugar as a response to something else.
To help you understand the science behind sugar cravings and how to reduce them, check out these four reasons why you could be reaching for the sweets and how to incorporate more clean eating meal plans to support a healthy lifestyle.
Types of Sugars
To understand why you crave sugar, it’s helpful to understand the different types of sugar that you are consuming. There are many types of sugars (commonly ending in -ose) that cause different types of chemical reactions in your body and have different molecular makeups.
Certain sugars are commonly used for flavoring purposes, such as table sugar, honey, or corn syrup. While these ingredients taste good, eating foods with high amounts of added sugar may contribute to why you crave sugar.
The following three types of sugar are commonly found in everyday foods.
Glucose is a monosaccharide and is the most common type of sugar found in your blood. It is derived from the food you eat and offers an important energy source. Your body’s small intestine, liver, and pancreas work together to properly process and store glucose to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Dips in blood glucose levels may be part of what triggers the body to seek energy, and perhaps one reason why you crave sugar.
Glucose rates high on the glycemic index, which means it can cause dramatic spikes in blood sugar.
Like glucose, fructose is also a monosaccharide and is found in many fruits and some vegetables. It is common to find fructose in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which is used as a sweetener in many processed foods.
Fructose rates much lower on the glycemic index than glucose, which may prevent dramatic blood sugar fluctuations. However, it has a reduced impact on the release of leptin, a satiety hormone that signals feelings of fullness, so eating meals high in fructose may lead to overeating.
When you initially hear “sugar” you may think of the refined, white sugar found in many baked goods and processed foods like syrups and candy. This type of sugar is known as sucrose, a disaccharide made from the combination of fructose and glucose that is commercially processed from sugarcane. Your body has to break down sucrose before it can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
Why Do I Crave Sugar?
Regardless of which type of sugar you consume, you may notice that you have dramatic sugar cravings. To help you dispel the mystery behind what sugar cravings mean, here are four reasons you may be experiencing the need for sweets.
1. Too many processed carbs, not enough protein and healthy fat
Sugar cravings tend to be more common when our blood sugar rises and drops too quickly. Consuming high amounts of processed carbs and sugary drinks in your diet, paired with a lack of protein and healthy fat may be part of why you crave sugar. For example, a bowl of sweet cereal in the morning may fill you up temporarily, but your body will digest these refined carbs more quickly than it would digest a breakfast of carbs plus protein and fat, such as eggs on toast.
When your body is only fueled by refined carbohydrates, this leads to a sudden spike in blood sugar, then a rapid drop, which may cause you to crave a quick sugar fix to regulate it.
If you notice yourself craving sugar an hour or two after you eat a meal, this may be a sign that you need to increase the amount of protein and healthy fat on your plate.
2. Sugar substitutes
If you’re craving soda, your first instinct might be to reach for a diet beverage as a healthy substitute. However, this may be a reason you’re craving sugar.
According to Harvard Health, artificial sweeteners can change our relationship to the taste of food, making us more likely to choose artificial sugars in place of natural sugars, like those found in fruit. If you get used to sugar substitutes, you may inadvertently start reaching for other sweet foods with high caloric value, not realizing how many calories you’re consuming.
The good news is, not all sugar substitutes are created equal. Check out our guide to the best artificial sweeteners to learn more about how different types of sweeteners affect your body.
When thinking about the meaning behind sugar cravings, you may long for carbs or sugar simply because you have built the habit into your lifestyle. If you always have a dessert after dinner, your body may continue to crave sugar at that same time.
To break this habit, you may need to retrain your brain. Try these tips to help wean yourself off of sugar:
- Eat smaller portions of foods that contain sugar.
- Limit desert to certain nights each week until your cravings lessen.
- Substitute sweets that contain refined sugar with foods that contain more natural sugar, like a piece of fruit or an ounce of dark chocolate.
4. Emotional eating
Sometimes, cravings aren’t caused by a deficiency in your diet, but by an excess of stress in your life. When you turn to food for comfort, this association creates cognitive patterns that encourage eating in response to stress. In turn, this may be why you crave sugar during difficult times.
To help control stress eating, try these tips:
- Recognize when you tend to eat emotionally: At a certain time of the day? After an event? When you're alone, or perhaps when you're with friends?
- Swap out your go-to comfort food item for a healthier alternative.
- Establish new habits when you feel stressed like taking a walk, calling a friend, or doing something creative.
How to Control Sugar Cravings
Controlling sugar cravings will vary depending on the individual, what their habits are, what they eat, and health conditions. If you’re considering a diet change in response to why you crave sugar, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first.
Here are a few tips for reducing sugar cravings to feel your best:
1. Be concious of your hunger, and eat when you feel hungry. Allowing yourself to get to an extreme level of hunger may trigger your body to crave carbs and sugars to get a quick energy boost.
2. Prioritize getting enough sleep. Sleep is helpful in controlling your appetite because your body isn’t fighting to get more energy if it feels rested.
3. Drink water. Adequate hydration can naturally help you feel more energized, and it helps your body work at its best.
4. Check labels. Sugars often hides in processed foods under other names that end in “-ose.” Try to check the nutrition facts label before purchasing processed foods to avoid consuming unwanted sugars.
6. Eat meals that are rich in protein and healthy fats. Protein and fat both help to make you feel satiated, and when combined with complex carbohydrates, this trio of macronutrients will help you stay full for longer.
What do your sugar cravings mean? It’s not a one size fits all answer, but taking time to notice your eating habits, emotions, and common cravings may hold the answer. Trying a few of our tips for reducing sugar cravings, along with consuming a balanced diet, is a great starting point to reduce the amount of added sugar in your diet.
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