Are your cravings for sugar and sweets driving you crazy? You’re not alone. Most people (including myself!) crave sugar at some point in their day. In fact, it’s THE chief complaint with most of my clients.
Why do we crave sugar?
Because I’m an integrative dietitian (aka nutrition detective) I’m interested in the root cause for why we crave sugar and how we can turn down the volume a bit.
So here goes, three reasons you might be craving sugar and how to fix them:
1. You’re Not Eating the Right Carbs
Balanced meals are key to feeling full and satisfied — and to stop sugar cravings. And by balanced, I mean they contain protein, carbs and fat. Most of us have the protein and fat part down, but the carb part is tripping you up. What types of carbs are making it onto your plate? Are they high in fiber? That is really the trick. The TYPE of carbs you’re eating is really important here. You want to stick mainly to whole grains, beans and legumes, cruciferous veggies, and fruit like berries and apples. I’m a huge fan of these types of carbs because they’re jam-packed with nutrients and fiber.
When we eat carbs, especially processed carbs that are low in fiber, our blood sugar rises and our body releases insulin. Insulin’s job is to bring our blood sugar back to normal. When we eat a meal or snack containing little or no fiber and no protein or fat (think crackers or gummy bears), our blood sugar shoots up quickly and we have a pretty hefty insulin response. The result of this is a carb crash soon thereafter, which leaves you tired and hungry…and craving another quick burst of energy…and the cycle continues.
When we eat a high fiber snack that includes a source of protein and/or fat, it turns that blood sugar spike into a slow-and-steady rise. This slower rise and fall in our blood sugar prevents the carb-crash and ultimately reduces your sugar cravings.
How to Fix it
- Be judicious when choosing carbs. Think about it — one cup of cooked white rice has about 1/2 a gram of fiber while one cup of cooked farro has 6 grams of fiber. Brown rice isn’t much better, it only has about 3 1/2 grams. Next time you’re making a stir fry or Buddha bowl, double your fiber intake by swapping your rice with farro! Not only does it have more fiber, it’s more filling so you’ll eat less. It’s also totally tasty. If you need a gluten-free alternative, try quinoa.
- Always pair yours carbs with protein and/or fat. Sounds simple, right? But most people don’t do this intuitively! For example, when you’re eating your morning oatmeal, include a protein or fat with it. This is easy to do by stirring in a spoonful of nut butter or tossing some nuts/seeds on top. You could also stir in some protein powder. This one is pretty much tasteless and works perfectly for this.
- Snack Smart. You should also incorporate protein and/or fat with your snacks. When having fruit for a snack, try adding a handful of almonds or a hard-boiled egg. You could also go with half an avocado with sea salt sprinkled on top – this snack provides both fiber and fat for staying power! Remember: produce and protein snacks are the most filling.
2. You Get Busy And Stop Listening to Your Body
Yup, I get it – we all do this one. Life gets busy and sometimes we don’t have time to even think about stopping for food until we’re already starving! I always tell my clients – never let yourself get too hungry.
Our bodies have their own internal signals that tell us when we’re hungry, and sometimes we get so busy we either don’t recognize them or we just ignore them altogether. It’s important to slow down enough to honor those signals throughout the day, especially if you want to kick your sugar cravings.
Why is listening to your hunger important? Because you know what happens when you’re starving. You eat convenience food that’s easiest to get your hands on (think vending machine, fast food or that bag of chips in the pantry). From my experience, these food choices rarely include cruciferous veggies. To add insult to injury, you tend to overeat when you’re overly hungry, as well.
How to Fix it
- Don’t skip meals. Start your day off with a balanced breakfast (cliche, but true) and be sure to take the time for lunch. Recent research shows that adding avocado to your meals significantly decreases hunger later in the day (so yes, avocado toast is a great choice for breakfast). I promise, when you’re full and satisfied, the donuts (or bagels) your coworker brought in will be much less attractive!
- Keep snacks handy. Don’t try to power through the afternoon. THIS NEVER WORKS. When you get that familiar craving for sugar mid-afternoon, it’s because your hungry! Planned snacks (especially in the afternoon) that keep you one step ahead of your hunger are key to beating sugar cravings. Here’s how to get this done.
3. You’re Not Prioritizing Sleep
I’m sure you’re familiar with that cranky exhaustion you feel after a bad night’s sleep – we all are. But did you know that you’re more likely to crave sugar when you’ve gotten a poor night of sleep? Aside from those annoying sugar cravings, missing out on a minimum of 7 hours of sleep consistently can lead to a boatload of serious health issues (obesity and diabetes, for example). A lack of sleep also impairs your concentration and your judgment – around food and everything else.
How to Fix it
- Prioritize sleep. Simple as that. Shoot for at least 7-8 hours each night.
- Be consistent. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every single night is the best way to ensure a good night’s sleep.
- Avoid caffeine late in the day and stay away from alcohol at night. Both of these substances can impact your sleep.
- Get your phone out of the bedroom. Your bedroom is for sleeping – not for working or playing on your phone. Keeping your bedroom gadget free is a great way to ensure you won’t get distracted and lose an hour of sleep to Instagram!
- Keep your room dark and cool. Minimizing light exposure and keeping your room cool are great ways to optimize your sleep environment.
This is not an exhaustive list. There are also emotional reasons why we crave sugary sweets. But addressing what we can via nutrition and lifestyle is a great place to start.
It’s also important to remember that while we want to optimize our diets as much as possible, we also want to enjoy food! Having a healthy relationship with all foods (including sugar) is extremely important for our health. In fact, over-restricting sugar or shaming yourself after your favorite dessert might actually lead to more sugar cravings.
I encourage you to create a Sugar Strategy if you struggle with managing your sweets. Here’s how you do it.