Have you ever had a craving for a sugary food or beverage that you just couldn’t shake? In your mind were visions of brownies or cookies that sent you scurrying to the kitchen to explore the fridge and cabinets. Despite those cravings, you didn’t feel hungry in a physiological sense but compelled to eat something sweet.
If you reached for that snack or fried food, you may have felt guilty afterward and reassured yourself that you wouldn’t yield so easily to the sweet stuff in the future. But food cravings aren’t exclusively about willpower. The composition of what you eat plays a role in whether you have sugar cravings. You can reduce those cravings by eliminating certain types of foods from your diet.
Refined Carbohydrates and Foods
When you eat foods made with refined flour, like white bread, pasta, pastry, and desserts, and even breakfast cereal, your pancreas release a hormone called insulin. Insulin encourages your body to absorb sugar into cells and store it as fat when you’re not eating. However, the surge in insulin after a meal of refined carbohydrates also leads to a rapid rise and drop in blood sugar. It’s a vicious cycle, since the more refined carbohydrates you eat, the more you get sugar cravings and the more you eat.
What’s the solution? Replace refined carbohydrates with fiber-rich carbs and protein. In the morning, trade that bowl of boxed cereal for less processed steel-cut oats or eat an egg-white omelet with fresh vegetables. A protein breakfast replaces that feeling of being hungry, so you can get on with your day without reaching for something sweet. Structure your meals like this consistently, and you’ll gradually lose those sugar cravings, although it can take several weeks.
Sweet beverages are among the worst foods for triggering sugar cravings. Like refined carbohydrates, they cause blood sugar spikes because they contain no fiber to moderate the rise in blood glucose, even less than refined carbohydrates. Even fruit juice without added sugar can cause blood sugar spikes from the natural sugar in fruit that isn’t balanced by fiber. It’s better to enjoy a whole piece of fruit instead. Switch those sugary beverages for water and unsweetened tea, and watch those sugar cravings diminish. The more you stay away from sugar, the less you crave it.
Coffee may suppress your appetite short-term, but if you drink too much, it can raise cortisol, a type of stress hormone. One role of cortisol is to help you mobilize energy stores when you’re in a dangerous or stressful situation. So, cortisol releases more glucose into your bloodstream, and your insulin level goes up, and along come those cravings. Plus, too many people get fancy coffee drinks at Starbucks loaded with sugar, making the situation worse. It’s even worse if you buy a coffee cake or a brownie to go with that coffee.
Coffee usually has more caffeine than tea, but black, green, and white tea all have some caffeine, and some people are more sensitive to caffeine-induced cravings than others. Try switching caffeinated teas and coffee for herbal tea.
Artificial sweeteners, or sugar substitutes, are a group of substances that give food and drinks a sweet taste but contain negligible calories. Companies introducing artificial sweeteners play up their safety profile and suggest they can help people lose weight because they provide few or no calories. But this is not always the case.
Some studies have found that people who drink artificially sweetened beverages have an increased risk of obesity over time. An NIH study in 2010 found an association between drinking diet soda daily and an increase in waist circumference of 66% compared to those who don’t drink diet soda daily. Other studies have found associations between consuming artificially sweetened products and type 2 diabetes risk factors.
When you consume artificial sweeteners, you get the taste of sweet without the associated calories and energy boost. Since your body expects calories to follow, artificial sweeteners don’t reduce sugar cravings, they may trigger them. There isn’t a “free ride” when it comes to sugar. You can’t trick your body!
Drinking alcohol can cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugar that trigger sugar cravings. Plus, drinking alcohol boosts the release of dopamine, a reward chemical in the brain. When you stop drinking alcohol, you lose that dopamine stimulation and want to recreate it.
There’s evidence that sugar also activates the dopamine reward system, so you may crave sugar to deal with the withdrawal of alcohol. Studies show alcohol and sugar affect similar nerve pathways in the brain.
The Bottom Line
When you have cravings for sugary foods, it is important to think about why you are craving the sugar. Try to only eat sugary food in moderation. The more you exclude the above types of food from your diet, the less you’ll crave the taste of sweet things. Changing dietary habits isn’t always easy, but if you do it slowly, it’ll be far less painful. One step at a time!
- Fowler SP, Williams K, Hazuda HP. Diet soda intake is associated with long-term increases in waist circumference in a biethnic cohort of older adults: the San Antonio Longitudinal Study of Aging. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2015;63(4):708-715. doi:10.1111/jgs.13376.
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