Have you ever craved something sweet and a bit decadent such as a doughnut or cookie? If you’re like most people, male or female, you probably have! The likelihood of experiencing a strong sugar craving may depend on your gender. Research shows women are more likely than men to have a strong hankering for something sweet.
According to a study published in Appetite, 97% of women and 68% of men who took part in a survey admitted to food cravings. Cravings are usually for specific foods and they typically aren’t the healthiest of foods. Few people crave broccoli or spinach! It’s more likely to be a “forbidden” food, like a brownie or bowl of ice cream.
The types of foods people crave vary and there are significant gender differences in what’s considered crave-worthy. For example, a study published in Physiology and Behavior found that women are more likely to crave snack-type items, like cookies, brownies, chocolate, and potato chips while men find more substantial foods, like pizza and steak tantalizing. In general, men crave foods that are less sugary and a bit healthier than the fare women crave.
You might wonder why women crave sugary fare more than men and which ones they crave most? Of all the sugary foods, chocolate is the top food women crave – but why? Some people say that cravings stem from nutritional deficiencies and you crave what you’re deficient in. But, who suffers from a deficiency of sugar or chocolate?
You could argue that women crave sugar because they’re tired and need a quick energy burst. Yet, there’s no substantial evidence that the majority of cravings are due to a nutritional or energy shortfall. One exception is people who are deficient in iron sometimes chew on ice. But, all in all, we can’t blame cravings on nutritional shortcomings.
Why Women Crave Sugary Foods More than Men
How CAN you explain sugar cravings? It may have more to do with stress and the impact it has on appetite hormones. Leptin and ghrelin are the primary hormones involved in regulating appetite. Leptin dials back hunger unless a person is leptin resistant, and ghrelin increases the desire to eat. One factor that increases ghrelin production, based on rodent studies, is stress, but the same seems to hold true for humans too. One study found that women who reported greater levels of stress, as measured by a specific stress scale, had higher levels of ghrelin and lower levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin. The women who were more stressed, in the study, also tended to consume diets higher in carbs, fat, sugar, sodium, and calories.
If women experience more stress from trying to juggle the responsibilities of a family and work, this can lead to higher levels of ghrelin and drive the desire to munch on sugary foods. Researchers have also proposed that fluctuations in the female sex hormones, progesterone and estrogen, during the menstrual cycle, may trigger cravings. Yet, this isn’t the full explanation since not only women experience cravings. In support of this though is the fact that some women experience cravings for chocolate just before their menstrual period, at a time when estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest level.
But, there’s yet another theory as to why women crave sweet stuff more than men. According to Dr. Kenneth Onyango, women have lower levels of neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that helps regulate mood and appetite, and eating more of certain foods boosts serotonin’s activity. Plus, eating sugary foods may also stimulate the release of endorphins, chemicals that produce a sense of calm and well-being. More recent studies using imaging studies suggest that women have fewer binding sites for serotonin in the brain relative to men. This finding may also explain why women are more prone to anxiety and depression and why women struggle more with emotional eating. Eating sugary foods is a way to get a serotonin boost.
Overcoming Sugar Cravings
Knowing why you have sugar cravings does little to stop them. But, one of the most important steps both sexes can take is to stop fueling them. This means gradually reducing the number of processed carbs and sugar you eat. Begin with the obvious culprits – soft drinks, cookies, candy, pastries, etc., all while keeping in mind that processed carbs of all types cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugar that can worsen sugar cravings. The goal is to eventually curb the intake of these foods too.
It’s not that carbs are the enemy – it’s rapidly absorbed carbs that cause a large uptick and blood sugar and insulin that you want to avoid. Sugar is linked with weight gain and obesity, but it is also a culprit with regard to other health problems, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Plus, consuming these carbs fuels energy crashes that leave you feeling tired and zap your desire to be productive.
When you cut back on carbs, you have to replace them with something. The best way to stabilize your blood sugar and curb sugar cravings is to choose fiber-rich, whole food carb sources, like those in fruits and vegetables. Add more protein to your diet to satiate your appetite.
We also mentioned that sugar cravings are fueled, in some people, by stress. We’re conditioned to reach for comfort foods when confronted with stressful circumstances. This may symbolically represent a retreat to a time during childhood when you felt protected. Ideally, we’d like to detach sugar and processed carbs from their emotional attachments. One way to do this is to now turn to these foods when you feel stressed out but to have alternate ways to deal with stressful circumstances. For example, take up yoga, meditation, deep breathing or some other activity that helps diffuse stress. If you don’t have an alternate way to ease stress and chaos, you’ll continue to reach for sugary foods.
The Bottom Line
It takes time and patience to make peace with sugar cravings – but it’s worth it! Now, you know why they’re so common and how to reduce their impact on your health and wellbeing.
Tufts Now. “The Craving Brain”
Psychoneuroendocrinology 48:178–188 · October 2014
Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2007 Apr;66(4):530-7.
The Observer. “Why women crave for sugar more than men”
Physiology & Behavior 79 (2003) 739- 747.
Science Daily. “Sex Differences In The Brain’s Serotonin System”