Why We Crave Sugar: A Sweet and Sinister Tale
Do you ever crave sweets? Have an afternoon slump? Grab some sweet or salty snack to tide you over until dinner? I sure used to. Would you like to know how to stop sugar cravings?
Lots of people struggle with sugar cravings ranging from frequently to occasionally, and severe to moderate and just don’t know how to stop them. There are various factors which contribute to them, and our body’s chemistry plays an important part in whether or not we experience sugar cravings. And when we do, just how powerful – and dangerous they can be.
In an informative article entitled, “The Negative Impact of Sugar on the Brain,” Joel Fuhrman, MD notes:
“In the brain, excess sugar impairs both our cognitive skills and our self-control (having a little sugar stimulates a craving for more). Sugar has drug-like effects in the reward center of the brain. Scientists have proposed that sweet foods—along with salty and fatty foods—can produce addiction-like effects in the human brain, driving loss of self-control, overeating, and subsequent weight gain.”
- 1 Why We Crave Sugar: A Sweet and Sinister Tale
- 2 Getting These 6 Things Together Changes Everything: How to Curb Sugar Cravings
- 2.1 Cravings are Different Than Being Hungry
- 2.2 “The Power and Wonder of Water”
- 2.3 Optimal Nutrition
- 2.4 From High Carb to Low Carb
- 2.5 Exercise, Endorphins, and Energy
- 2.6 Get Better Quality Zzzzzzs
- 2.7 Everyday People, Every Body
- 2.8 Apple Cider Vinegar and a Twist That May Surprise You
- 3 The Importance of Balance: Because Sugar Addiction is Real and Epidemic
- 4 Read Ingredient Lists and Nutrition Facts
- 5 The Heart of the Matter
Getting These 6 Things Together Changes Everything: How to Curb Sugar Cravings
We are going to discuss why sugar cravings happen and how you can stop them. There are 6 simple and effective habits that you can develop. These practices will completely change your relationship with food, give you increased energy, change your body composition, and enable you to love the body you live in. We will show you just why balancing these 6 things are vitally important.
Cravings are Different Than Being Hungry
First, it is important to note that a sugar craving is different from actually being hungry. And sometimes when we are craving something or think we’re hungry, we may be thirsty instead. I find that most people do not drink enough water and that thirst can be confused with hunger. So being adequately hydrated is crucial for many reasons.
“The Power and Wonder of Water”
In my latest book, Wetland and Coastal Gifts of Grace: Herons, Egrets and More I have an essay entitled, “The Power and Wonder of Water.” The essay is primarily about how both our planet and our bodies are largely comprised of water, that water has many essential and beneficial aspects, and that water and shorebirds are a beautiful blessing.
So what could my book with this essay, colorful bird photographs, and inspirational quotes possibly have to do with sugar cravings? Please allow me to share a quote from the essay:
“We can go without food for fairly long periods and survive. Some estimates are three to four weeks. However, we cannot survive for more than three to four days without water.”
It may seem obvious that good, clean water is absolutely essential to life, and that we literally cannot survive without it. But there’s much more to it than that. Beyond needing clean water for survival, we simply cannot thrive without enough of it. Various health experts say we need 6-8 glasses of water a day to be adequately hydrated. If you’re like most people, you probably aren’t getting enough.
It’s Your Body, Baby: A Look at Some Numbers
A healthy amount of water for us to carry should be between 45 to 60% of our body weight. Personally, I keep my body metric for water around 55%. There are several good weight scales for home use which measure percentages of body fat, muscle mass, water, bone density, and BMI. For those who track caloric intake, these scales also give the calorie count needed to maintain current weight.
When we are poorly hydrated we can experience sugar and food cravings, headaches, dizziness, and increased toxicity. A good rule of thumb is that you want to be drinking enough water that you don’t get to the point of actually feeling thirsty during the day. If you feel thirsty, your body is most likely already at a deficit.
So, not allowing yourself to get thirsty is a powerful way to lessen cravings and the tendency to snack.
Another way is to not let yourself get hungry. As mentioned above, cravings are not the same as being hungry. If you are getting enough clean protein and healthy fats at each meal, your body will not feel deprived and you’re likely to have better energy. Eating healthy proteins helps balance your blood sugar, so you won’t experience the spikes and dives which set sugar cravings in motion.
In addition, we simply can’t get all of the vitamins, minerals and essential micro-nutrients from our diet, even if we eat well. The American Medical Association recommends that we take a daily vitamin and mineral supplement. However, many of these are not bioavailable, so be sure that you choose a good whole food based product.
It’s also important to recognize the difference between our body’s need for water or food, and our brain’s desire for a treat or reward.
When we are getting enough water and optimal nutrition, we can tell the difference between when our body is needing fuel for energy (we are hungry) or is craving a treat. We have a stabbing empty sensation in the pit of our stomach. This is quite different than the mental urge of our brain calling for something which will release a jolt of dopamine. Satisfying our sugar cravings acts as a kind of reward which stimulates dopamine and makes us feel euphoric.
From High Carb to Low Carb
Ultimately, making the switch from a high carb diet to a low carb diet is the master key. A high carb diet is one that includes grains (bread, pasta, rice, crackers, etc.), starchy vegetables (potatoes, winter squash, carrots, corn, beans), most fruit, and sugary foods and beverages. Many processed foods are also included in this category because sugar is added during processing.
A high carb diet repeatedly triggers sugar cravings and keeps them going. When you follow a diet high in carbohydrates, your blood sugar spikes. This, in turn, causes your body to release too much insulin, which causes your blood sugar to crash. Your blood sugar is now low, you need a boost and your cravings start all over again.
In addition to feeling unpleasant, your body’s natural reaction sets in motion a repeat craving for sugar or some other carbohydrates. Your body is trying to normalize by once again raising your blood sugar level, which has tanked after the sugar high wears off. With a lowered carb intake, you won’t experience these peaks and plunges.
Exercise, Endorphins, and Energy
A healthier alternative to being fueled by carbs and being in that endless cycle of spikes and lows is exercise. When you elevate your heart rate to an aerobic state, you release endorphins, the feel-good chemicals within our brains that are highly pleasurable and satisfying. Endorphins are a powerful way to stop sugar cravings and increase your energy.
Endorphins stimulate the pleasure center of your brain and improve your mood. They also facilitate sound, restful sleep.
Get Better Quality Zzzzzzs
We live in a time when a significant percentage of our population is sleep-deprived. Interestingly there is a causal relationship between lack of sleep, lack of optimal nutrition, and sugar cravings. When we are lacking in enough restful sleep, hormones which regulate appetite are suppressed. Your circadian rhythm gets out of sync. What this means is that our body can get confused about whether or not we are actually hungry or are in need of energy due to fatigue. We long for a quick boost, so we crave sugar and other carbohydrates for instant energy. So it becomes essential that you stop the cycle of giving in to sugar cravings and get your blood and brain chemistry back in balance.
Everyday People, Every Body
Your Recipe for Success
But What About Being Acidic?
As it turns out, the bitter truth is that sugar is not good for us, and too much sugar is very bad for us. There is now more than enough irrefutable evidence to be compelling. The alarming increase in obesity, heart and liver disease, diabetes, ADHD, dementia, and depression are merely the most obvious. Consider this statement from the University of California, San Francisco in an article entitled, “How Much Is Too Much? The growing concern over too much added sugar in our diets:”
“Research also shows that, for some people, eating sugar produces characteristics of craving and withdrawal, along with chemical changes in the brain’s reward center, the limbic region.
Using brain-scanning technology, scientists at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse were among the first to show that sugar causes changes in peoples’ brains similar to those in people addicted to drugs such as cocaine and alcohol. These changes are linked to a heightened craving for more sugar. This important evidence has set off a flood of research on the potentially addictive properties of sugar.“
Implications for Disease Risk
And if this weren’t enough to cause concern, what about the dramatic increase in cancers, and the following statement also from SugarScience, UCSF?
“…High intakes of sugars and refined carbohydrates have been linked to increased risk of some cancers, as well as to higher rates of recurrence and lower rates of survival after cancer therapy.“
This brings to mind a favorite adage of mine, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Given what we know, it just makes sense to be proactive about our health and consumption of sugar. Once we realize that sugar is so pervasive, we can be more vigilant about reading food labels and making more informed choices.
Added Sugars Versus Naturally Occurring Sugars: What’s the Difference?
Many processed foods have sugar added to them for texture and flavor. This added sugar comes in several forms, from the granular table sugar we have in our cupboards to the highly concentrated (55%) High Fructose Corn Syrup. Added sugar contributes significant calories but little nutrient value to most peoples diets. Products that we may consider healthy, such as yogurt and energy bars or foods that we don’t think of as sweet, like ketchup and salad dressings, may contain enormous amounts of sugar. Added sugars are thought to contribute so much to weight gain, obesity, and disease that the FDA has recently revised the nutrition facts labels to highlight them to increase public awareness. We can agree that added sugars make up a great deal of most peoples intake, offer little value and carry an increased risk for lifestyle health concerns and inflammation.
However, regardless of whether the sugar is naturally occurring or added during processing, it is crucial that we limit our intake if we want to curb sugar cravings (and for other health reasons). While it is true that many naturally sweet foods have other nutrients that are important – specifically fiber and protein, vitamins and minerals – they still trigger sugar cravings. And highly processed juices offer little in nutrition even though they are completely natural. Even unrefined sugars such as honey and turbinado are metabolized the same way as most added sugar. So if we are going to consume sweet foods, it is better to eat something that has more nutrition than less. BUT (and it’s a big but), consuming sugar and other carbohydrates, natural or not, will have the effects on the brain described above and set us up for cravings.
Read Ingredient Lists and Nutrition Facts
Many nutritionists and health educators now recognize that the best advice they can give is to move to a low carbohydrate, low sugar diet. If you want to avoid sugar in your diet, you will need to become an expert at label reading.
What’s In A Name?
Finally, it is important to realize that many ingredients which don’t sound like sugar actually are. So, as you are reading labels, remember that sugar comes in various forms and by many names. Also, take note of how many times some form of sugar appears, since ingredients are listed on food labels in order by volume.
Thankfully, the team at SugarScience the unsweetened truth, has compiled a list to help us recognize the 61 names for sugar currently in use:
- Agave nectar
- Barbados sugar
- Barley malt
- Barley malt syrup
- Beet sugar
- Brown sugar
- Buttered syrup
- Cane juice
- Cane juice crystals
- Cane sugar
- Carob syrup
- Castor sugar
- Coconut palm sugar
- Coconut sugar
- Confectioner’s sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Date sugar
- Dehydrated cane juice
- Demerara sugar
- Evaporated cane juice
- Free-flowing brown sugars
- Fruit juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Glucose solids
- Golden sugar
- Golden syrup
- Grape sugar
- HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup)
- Icing sugar
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Palm sugar
- Powdered sugar
- Raw sugar
- Refiner’s syrup
- Rice syrup
- Sorghum syrup
- Sugar (granulated)
- Sweet sorghum
- Turbinado sugar
- Yellow sugar
The Heart of the Matter
One of the tremendous values of new information is that it often inspires us to make different decisions, healthier choices and commit to new habits. Sometimes this may mean gradual changes, other times they may be more dramatic. It can also depend on whether the new information comes in the form of research, study, or perhaps a frightening diagnosis.
Our hope is that you are inspired and motivated to enhance your health, no matter where you are on your journey. It doesn’t matter if you are young, old or in between; if you’ve been a junk food junkie for years, or are a passionate weekend warrior, professional athlete, recovering smoker, drinker or druggie; or a new Mom wanting our pre-baby-bump body back.
The beauty is that the human body is regenerative, surprisingly forgiving and resilient, and almost always responds to healthier changes in diet and lifestyle. We simply start wherever we are, and make one change at a time toward balance and our healthier lifestyle goals.
Awareness, Balance and New Habits: Deciding To Go Keto
I had no idea how much sugar and how many carbs I was eating on a daily basis until I started to look at it and read food labels. Since I was such a major carb consumer (lots of bread, pasta, pizza, potatoes, tortillas…) along with having a fierce sweet tooth, I decided to try a ketogenic diet. You can learn more about that, and get an overview of Keto here.
It is the first “diet” I have ever been on in my life. I have always just eaten whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted it. Weight has never been an issue with me, and I take no prescription medications. Despite my family history and being predisposed to several major illnesses, I am a very active Baby Boomer in excellent health. However, after retiring, I noticed I was getting a little soft around the middle and my metabolism was slowing down. And holy guacamole – my sugar intake, once I began to track it, was shocking.
With this new awareness, I didn’t want to tempt fate any longer and knew I needed a healthier, more balanced lifestyle. Especially given that the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women (about the amount of sugar in 1-12 oz soda).
What It Meant to Go Keto
Going keto meant changing from an extremely high carb and refined sugar diet to a very, very low carb diet. It has been and continues to be, a remarkable blessing and a brilliant decision – for me. My energy level, mental acuity, how I feel in my body, and stamina are all improved. I don’t have the afternoon slump or cravings I used to have. I’m a lean and serene machine!
Simply put, a ketogenic diet is comprised of high-fat combined with sufficient protein, and very low in carbohydrates. This combination puts us into ketosis, which causes the body to burn fat rather than carbohydrates. And it is highly effective, not only for weight loss but for overall health – especially heart health.
Keto may not be for you at this point in your life, but the evidence supporting the health benefits of a ketogenic diet continues to mount. Many health practitioners now recognize the value and tremendous health benefits of reducing carbohydrate consumption, whether or not you go full on keto.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to take stock of your current health status and decide where you’d like to go from here. There is always room for improvement, based on our level of awareness, desire, and commitment.