Do you have a sweet tooth? There are lots of physiological reasons that we might crave sugar. When patients come in asking about curbing their sugar cravings, my first goal is to understand why they might be experiencing cravings in the first place. Then we can take a targeted approach to make those sugar cravings stop for good.
Reason #1: Low energy levels
When we’re tired, our bodies seek out ways of boosting energy. The fastest way to make energy (ATP) is by using sugars in the blood stream (glucose), and the fastest way to get them there is by eating simple sugars. This is why at 3pm, when we’re running low on energy, we often crave a sweet treat.
Solution #1: Understand why you’re tired, and fix it.
This often means improving your sleep quality and or sleep quantity. It also means researching other common underlying causes of fatigue, like dehydration (so simple, but so true!), nutrient deficiencies, or having an under-active thyroid.
Reason #2: Emotional eating and boredom
When we eat sugar, our brain releases a hormone called dopamine, which is our reward hormone. Dopamine makes us feel good! However, research shows that over time this response becomes worn-down, so that we need more and more sugar to get the same dopamine “feel good” response.
Sometimes we’ve also learned to eat sugar out of habit or boredom. We don’t even notice it’s happening until the bag or bar is empty, and we’re not even enjoying the deliciousness of the treat.
Many of us have also learned to use sugar as a coping mechanism for stress. Treats may have been used to reward us as children (or bribe us…), or are associated with happy memories, like getting ice cream after winning your soccer game. For myself, once I finished my dinner I was always allowed to eat two cookies. This isn’t bad parenting at all – but to this day, I don’t feel as if dinner is complete without that hit of sweetness at the end.
Solution #2: Mindfulness
The key lies in recognizing these patterns so that they no longer have a hold over us. In the example of my own life, I can cognitively say to myself “I know I have eaten enough food, I know that I’m full, and I don’t need a cookie to finish off a meal”. For the person who eats for comfort, it might be recognizing that and then engaging in positive self-talk, or finding another activity to release dopamine like going for a walk or hugging your partner/child/pet. For the person who reaches for sugar out of habit or boredom, use a small bowl and eat one bite at a time, trying to savour each bite, and see how you feel.
Reason #3: Candida (yeast) overgrowth
Candida is a yeast that occurs as part of our gut flora. Like all molds, if given too much fuel it can over-grow, and yeast feasts on sugar. As a result, an overgrowth of yeast can actually make us crave sugar, because it wants to keep growing. Candida overgrowth can cause bloating, low energy, brain fog, and lots more. Read about it in this article for the full lesson on Candida.
Solution #3: Kill off the excess Candida and replace it with healthy bacteria.
This should always be done under the care of an experienced healthcare practitioner, as many “online guides” can be either ineffective or dangerous and detrimental to our digestive system.
Reason #4: Blood sugar crashes
When we eat simple carbohydrates (foods that are easily broken down into sugars), our bodies digest them quickly and then dump a large amount of glucose (sugar) into the system all at once for fuel. This causes a spike in blood sugar, and a big release of insulin to help metabolize the circulating sugars. When the dust settles, we get a blood sugar crash and our bodies crave sugar again to boost these low blood sugar levels. The higher the high, the lower the low, and the stronger the cravings.
Solution #4: Balance blood sugar
My mantra for keeping blood sugar stable is: fat, fibre, and protein with every meal and every snack. These three macronutrients are harder for the body to break down, so they slow down what’s called our “gastric emptying time”. All this means that instead of a quick spike and subsequent crash, it’s a slow-release of fuel into the blood stream, with a lower insulin release. This prevents the crash from happening, and we avoid the subsequent sugar craving all together. Added bonus: These nutrients also keep us fuller for longer, which doesn’t hurt the sugar cravings, either.
Reason #5: Eating artificial sweeteners
Research shows that people who use artificial sweeteners actually end up eating more sugar during their day than people who don’t. Artificial sweeteners pack a lot of sweetness per tastebud; even a small amount tastes very sweet. As a result, they send a very strong message to the brain, and to the rest of our digestive tract that says. “We’re about to be hit with a BOAT LOAD of sugar, so get ready!” … and then our stomach doesn’t receive the corresponding expected amount of fuel (whomp whomp). As a result, a signal is sent to the brain to tell us to crave more sugar.
Solution #5: If you’re going to eat something sweet, just do it.
Focus on sugars with a lower glycemic index, like maple syrup, honey, sugars found in fruit (dates and bananas are often in recipes as sweeteners) and raw organic coconut sugar. These are the “healthiest” sources of sugar, but still count as sugar, so please continue to practice mindfulness around eating them.
If you go by the “knowledge is power” rule, and you know you can have stevia in your coffee and not give into the corresponding sugar cravings later in the day, then go ahead. Please continue to avoid all other types of artificial sweeteners for reasons I will write about another time.
Other quick tips for curbing sugar cravings:
- Brush your teeth right after dinner
- Plan, plan, plan! Have readily available snacks that are full of fat + fibre + protein (nuts and seeds, dried chickpeas, nut butter with celery or an apple, greek yogurt with pumpkin seeds or hemp hearts, or my amazing protein bars.
- If you haven’t the mastered self control (like me + cookies), then don’t bring it into the house.
- Treats should be a treat! Save it for once a week – date night, dinner at a friend’s, holidays, etc.
- Be confident with saying no at work. Ask for peoples’ support in your health choices if they chide you, and realize they’re projecting their own sugar-relationship onto you if they’re not being supportive (circle back to Reason #2).
- When you do eat sugar, ENJOY IT! No guilt, no rushing, just savour the deliciousness and enjoy the hit of dopamine :).
Book an appointment with Dr. Hilary Chambers, ND to develop healthy sugar-free habits and address the underlying causes of your sugar addiction.
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