Sugar Cravings: 5 Reasons They Happen and How to Stop Them

By Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN

Sugar cravings are the worst.

It’s like a little army of meanies grab hold of you and torture you until you feed them jellybeans, right?

Give into this craving too often and you might be setting yourself up for a slew of negative health outcomes. All that extra sugar can lead to higher caloric intake and weight gain and contribute to chronic inflammation.

In a randomized controlled trial of 29 healthy young men, sugar-sweetened beverage consumption increased inflammatory blood markers in just three weeks. On the flipside, data from a national U.S. cohort study found that reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption correlated with a reduction of inflammatory and chronic disease biomarkers. It’s not surprising that excess sugar consumption is linked to an increased risk of conditions such as heart disease, cancer, Type 2 diabetes and obesity

Yet, sugar cravings can still be so hard to resist. 

In this video, my good friend Natalie Jill and I talk about sugar cravings, especially the kind that seem to attack as soon as you’ve finished eating a meal.

Sugar cravings affect everyone—myself and Natalie Jill included. Clients ask both of us about this quite often, so we thought we’d explain why they happen and what you can do to fight them. 

The key to dealing with sugar cravings is to start with understanding why you’re getting them in the first place.

To some extent, we’re hardwired to want sugar. Our bodies use glucose as a primary fuel source, so our brains have evolved to like sweet foods. Consuming sugar activates the mesolimbic dopamine system, which is the brain’s reward system. Dopamine, the feel-good chemical messenger, is then released and reinforces our desire for sugar. When we frequently consume sugary foods, our brains adapt to require more sugar to reap the same rewarding feeling. In other words, the more sugar you consume, the more you want it and the more you need to get the same sugar “buzz.” 

Ok, we’re designed to enjoy sweets, but why do we sometimes really crave sugar? This craving can be due to a variety of reasons including diet, lifestyle and environmental cues. 

For more on why you’re craving sugar, scroll down to read up on the four most common causes and what to do when that sweet tooth strikes.

5 Reasons You Have Sugar Cravings

1. Sugar Craving Cause: You didn’t eat enough, or you ate the wrong things

sugar cravings

(Image: Shutterstock)

When you don’t eat enough calories (or satiating calories from the right sources), your body starts looking for fast fuel as a way to catch up. So what happens? You crave sugar! Sugar gives you quick energy, even though it’s not necessarily quality energy.

How to Stop the Craving

One way to get around this little conundrum is to just choose something sweet with artificial sweetener in it, right? Wrong! So, so wrong. Artificial sweeteners might momentarily satisfy that sweet craving, but they trick your body into thinking it’s getting fuel when it’s not. Your body soon goes looking for more calories in the form of … you guessed it … sugar, and you’re right back where you started. Instead, try eating balanced meals with adequate protein, healthy fat and high fiber carbs throughout the day to curb those cravings.

2. Sugar Craving Cause: You’re not eating a balanced breakfast

(Image: Shutterstock)

Recent studies have revealed that skipping breakfast can lead to sugar cravings throughout the day, contributing to weight gain and overeating. Eating a balanced breakfast with protein, carbs, healthy fats, and fiber will boost dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine levels are crucial in controlling impulses related to cravings for sweets and excessive food consumption. Dopamine acts as a signal to inform our body when our appetite is satisfied, regulating our food intake. As less people eat breakfast, there has been an increase in obesity rates, prompting researchers to explore the potential link between skipping breakfast and weight gain. 

How To Stop The Craving

Consuming a complete breakfast, especially one rich in protein, can help stabilize blood sugar levels and diminish cravings for sugary foods later in the day. 

3. Sugar Craving Cause: You picked up a bad habit

sugar cravings

(Image: Shutterstock)

Some people smack their gum without even realizing it. Some people have picked their fingernails their entire lives. And, sigh, some people eat a chocolate bar every day at 3 p.m., because, well, they eat a chocolate bar every day at 3 p.m. Yep, bad habits.
When something becomes a habit, especially when it comes to food, you have to ask yourself: Am I aware I’m doing it? Do I really want to be doing it? Am I truly craving what I’m eating? 

When you’re really hungry and you haven’t eaten enough throughout the day, breaking a 3 p.m. vending machine run is going to be tough. But if you start to eat more consistently throughout the day and get in enough (and the right types) of calories, then your defenses are up and it’s easier to change that habit.

How to Stop the Craving

One thing I often suggest to help break this afternoon or after-dinner sweet habit (in addition to making sure adequate calories and macronutrients are being consumed) is to replace the sweet indulgence with a sweet herbal tea. This works particularly well for my afternoon chocoholics. The afternoon ritual can be the dominant factor here. The tea allows for the ritual to be continued, but the sweet treat habit to be broken. Naturally sweet teas, such as apple spice or vanilla almond, that have no calories and nothing artificial added are good options.

4. Sugar Craving Cause: You ate too much starch and not enough fat and/or protein

sugar cravings

(Image: Shutterstock)

When you eat a heavy, starchy meal, like a giant bowl of grandma’s spaghetti, you’re pretty much setting yourself up for a guaranteed gelato craving. All that pasta with no fiber or protein (and depending upon the sauce, perhaps not enough fat, either) is like a big bowl of sugar that will lead to a blood sugar spike and crash, leaving you yearning for more sugar! Those calories in that bowl of spaghetti are absorbed fast and don’t keep you feeling full or satisfied.

How to Stop the Craving

What’s a pasta lover to do? First, practice proper portion control. Next, add a little olive oil for some healthy fat, and a portion of lean protein. You need a little protein for satiety and to help prevent blood sugar spikes and drops that leave you craving sugar not long after you’re done eating. I also suggest flip-flopping your bowl of pasta. Instead of a bowl of pasta with a few veggies sprinkled in, choose a big bowl of veggies and top that off with a little pasta.

5. Sugar Craving Cause: You chowed down on salty foods

sugar cravings

(Image: Shutterstock)

When you dine out or eat highly processed, packaged foods, your probably consuming more sodium than you realize. This usually remains true even when you’re eating something healthy, such as grilled salmon and sautéed or steamed spinach, from your fave “healthy” restaurant. Here’s the kicker: Oftentimes, the saltier your food, the bigger your sweet craving.

How to Stop the Craving

The first step here is to be aware that this may happen to you. Just being aware may reduce the craving. Then, the more you actually skip the chips or fries, the less you’ll want the donuts or cookies after. When you eat more naturally salty foods, such as cheese or olives, versus highly processed foods, your sweet cravings will lessen. Then, you’ll tend to go for naturally sweet snacks, such as herbal tea or fruit, when that craving comes on. See? Choosing healthier, whole foods leads to choosing more healthy whole foods, no matter what the craving.

(Featured Image: Shutterstock)

About Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN
Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, is a renowned celebrity nutritionist, healthy cooking expert, and wellness thought-leader. She is the founder and CEO of Nutritious Life and The Nutritious Life Studio, an online certification that provides unparalleled, forward-thinking education to individuals of various backgrounds looking to establish successful careers in the health and wellness industry.

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