Experiencing regular sugar cravings is more common than you might think and is probably one of the main reasons why people are not able to stick to a healthy diet.
Let’s see what the symptoms of sugar addiction are, what causes cravings, how to stop a craving when it happens, and how to prevent them.
Causes of sugar cravings
Sugar is known as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine; that’s why it is thought to be potentially addictive.
According to a 2008 study, there is evidence supporting that rats can become sugar addicts. The literature suggests that this might translate to some human conditions.
Nowadays, becoming a sugar addict in Western countries is much easier, and more out of control than we think. In fact, even if we are careful in not using too much sugar in our drinks and food, consuming ultra-processed foods might be the cause of our addiction.
Many of the packaged foods that we buy hide certain quantities of sugar. It can be in the bread, yogurts, juices, sauces and many more. Even the so-called “sugar-free” are the most likely to contain some kind of sugar.
Also, according to another study, there is evidence that ultra-processed foods that share characteristics with drugs of abuse, appear to be particularly associated with “food addiction”.
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, probably the worst of them, and is also the most addictive. Eating carbs stimulate the release of serotonin, the “feel-good” brain chemical. The desire of getting that euphoric feeling might be one of the causes of sugar cravings.
The taste of sugar also releases endorphins that calm and relax us. Who wouldn’t want cravings for that?
We tend to use foods, especially sweet ones, to reward ourselves. With this habit it’s easy to find new reasons to be rewarded, thus getting more of the sweet food. It’s a closed circle.
In a study about “Brain serotonin, carbohydrate-craving, obesity and depression”, it has been explained that “many patients learn to overeat carbohydrates (particularly snack foods, like potato chips or pastries, which are rich in carbohydrates and fats) to make themselves feel better.”
Finally, one more cause for sugar cravings can be emotional triggers such as boredom, sadness, poor self-esteem, etc. Unfortunately, when we feel any of these emotions, we look for comfort food and never for a healthy one.
Sugar addiction symptoms
The evidence in the literature shows important parallels in both animals and humans between drugs of abuse and sugar, from the standpoint of behavior and brain neurochemistry.
Sugar addiction can appear in different forms and can vary in each person.
Understanding the sugar addiction symptoms and recognizing them in our body, is important to take better care of our health and our diet.
- Symptoms from withdrawal
If we have an addiction to sugar, it’s easy to determine it by trying not to eat any of it for just one day without making a big effort.
If we need a lot of willpower to avoid eating sweets, our body is addicted to sugar.
This withdrawal can cause different reactions in different people; however, the first days are the most difficult and the symptoms are most severe.
These symptoms can last from a few days to two weeks. The more time we spend without sugar, the less intense the cravings will be.
Some of the symptoms can be low mood, lack of enjoyment, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, problems associated with sleep, difficulty concentrating, headache, nausea, and fatigue.
- You crave sweets when you are stressed
Mental and emotional stress are known to trigger sugar cravings, so if you feel the need to have something sweet every time you feel stressed, know that this is a symptom that you have an addiction to sugar.
- You use sugary foods as a reward
And you always find good excuses to reward yourself.
A common example is going to the gym and then giving ourselves permission to have something sweet because we have done the hard work.
- You crave comfort food at dinner
Closing the day with a big dinner, rich with carbohydrate foods that are assimilated in your body as sugar, is a sign that you are using food to relax after a long day.
- You crave sweet beverages
These can be sodas, teas, or even juices. We think that juices are healthy, but most of the ones that come in a bottle are loaded with extra sugar. Always read the ingredient list!
Even a homemade juice or smoothie, made exclusively with fruits, is loaded with sugar, even if it’s natural sugar from the fruit.
- You make excuses for your sugar habit
You might use sentences such as “I buy it only once a week”, “It’s organic and it’s made with maple syrup or honey”, “It doesn’t have any sugar. It’s healthy”.
Those are all excuses that we use to feel guilt-free when buying and consuming certain types of food.
- You have tried to eliminate sugar, but failed
You might have tried to eliminate sugar from your diet completely and drastically, but that didn’t last long. For some people, getting rid of a habit or addiction in just one day might work, but not for most of us.
- You binge on sugar when you are alone
Like other addictions, eating big amounts of sugary foods when alone is also a sign of addiction; it’s probably used to substitute for lack of something else, like company or love.
How to prevent sugar addiction and cravings
One way to stop sugar addiction and cravings for good is by taking action to prevent those cravings. Here are some suggestions on how we can make that possible:
1. Don’t keep any junk food at home
Knowing that you might have cravings when you are at home, keeping certain foods within reach will intensify those cravings!
Instead, always keep healthy food available and remember that there are lots of healthy foods that are also delicious… AKA fruits!
The feeling of a post-workout, when you are proud of finding time to take care of yourself and your health, is one of the best antidotes for cravings.
You just need to think that you really don’t want to undo all of that effort just to cancel the results with an unhealthy snack, right?
Also, make sure to choose your post-workout snack in advance. As this study suggests, there are bigger chances that you’ll choose a healthy one.
3. Stay hydrated
It’s very easy to confuse hunger with thirst. So, a beginning preventive step is to stay hydrated and make sure that you are drinking enough water during the day.
Also, whenever you have a craving, try to drink some water or tea first.
4. Go cold turkey
Eliminating sugar at once from your diet might be the solution if you are one of those people who likes to do it all or nothing. The first 1 to 3 days might be tough, but once you have expelled every trace of sugar from your body, life will be easier.
5. Don’t get too hungry
Connect with your body and understand when it first sends signals of hunger. That’s when you should have some healthy food to prevent sugar cravings.
6. Get enough sleep
Sleeping well, and enough, is important for generally better health; sleep deprivation is also associated with a desire for high-calorie foods.
It has been shown that women, in particular, maintain weight when getting enough sleep, but they tend to gain weight if they get insufficient sleep.
7. Avoid artificial sweeteners, if the case applies
Observational data have suggested that artificial sweeteners might create craving mechanisms.
If you consume them, try to understand the reaction of your body and experiment with it.
You can stop consuming them and see if your cravings lessen.
8. Get rid of stress
Stress is an important factor in the development of addictions, and it has also been shown that chronic stress has a direct effect on food cravings.
Women, in particular, tend to consume a higher number of calories during stressful days.
Avoiding any type of stress is not only beneficial for our health in general, but it will also lessen our food cravings.
9. Learn how to recognize your enemy
There is an incredibly high amount of different types of sugar, natural and unnatural. We don’t need to know all of them by heart, but whenever there is an ingredient that you don’t recognize in its natural form, there is a big chance that’s either a type of sugar or a preservative. You can always ask Google for an answer 😉
Also, keep in mind that the food industry likes to add different types of sugar into the same food so that they are not obligated to add the word “sugar” as a first, second or third in the ingredients list.
Btw, you might already know that the claim “sugar-free” almost never means that it’s free of every type of sugar, right?
10. Avoid places and activities that will give you cravings
A research from 2013 has revealed that sugar can be more rewarding than drugs and that’s why, for some people, it can be difficult to control the consumption of sugary foods when continuously exposed to them.
Taking a pastry class or walking into a McDonald’s, there’s a high possibility of having food cravings.
Free food at supermarkets, at work, or at a party, can cause food cravings just by seeing the food; since it’s free, we feel entitled to have it.
11. Don’t go to the supermarket hungry
You might have already experienced that buying groceries while being hungry is a very bad idea.
Even if you go prepared with a grocery list, you will most probably end up buying some junk food.
12. Get organized
Organize your kitchen, your meals, and snacks, so that you always have healthy foods available, and within reach, whenever you have a craving.
13. Have foods that you like
Having specific foods because we have learned that they are healthy, might cause cravings for sugar if we actually don’t like its taste.
It’s important to enjoy the foods we ingest so that we feel satisfied; then we won’t have cravings for sweets just after finishing our meal.
How to stop cravings
Cravings are created by our brain when we need a reward, not when our body is asking for food.
Cravings per se are not a bad thing; the problem comes when we indulge too much, eating big quantities of sugary food, instead of just having a taste or a little portion.
What can we do if our prevention of sugar cravings doesn’t work and we have a sudden sugar crave?
1. If you start to feel hungry, eat a nutritious and filling meal.
Hunger can be confused with cravings, and that might be dangerous because combining the two is a drive that not many people are able to overcome.
So, when you have a craving, take notice as to whether you are actually hungry and if you are, have a filling healthy meal first, then you can have something to stop your craving only after the meal if you are still hungry…
Having a fridge stocked with pre-made meals and snacks that you love helps when hunger is combined with cravings. That’s when meal planning can be very helpful.
2. Do something to distract yourself
Sometimes we get cravings because we are bored, and we want a distraction or something that would make us feel better.
To counteract the “bored craving”, the best thing we could do is stop doing whatever we are doing and start something that we like to do. Once we get involved in an activity that we like, we’ll easily forget about our craving.
3. Drink a glass of water
As we have already said before, hunger can be confused with thirst. So, whenever you are having a craving, drink a glass of water or a cup of tea first.
4. Eat a little of what you are craving mindfully
Having a craving is ok if we are able to control the quantity of what we are going to eat; the best way to do that is by eating it mindfully.
Take the time to really savor what you are eating. Eat it slowly, letting your mouth enjoy all of the flavors. Always remember that a second serving/bite/portion never tastes as good as the first one, so is it worth the overeating?
5. Eat a fruit
Ok, fruit also contains sugar, but at least it’s healthier than some ultra-processed sugary food. Just remember to eat a portion of it and not to overdose.
If your craving is really big, think of an upgraded fruit; such as this easy and healthy banana snack.
6. Talk to your accountability craving partner
Find a friend or family member who you can reach out to whenever you are having a big craving and you need help to overcome it.
Talk about what you think that craving is associated with. Did something specific happen? How are you feeling right now?
Expressing your emotions, letting go of bad feelings and receiving words of encouragement, might help you to stop a craving.
7. Remind yourself of your goals
Create a list of all of the reasons why you want to eat healthy and always carry it with you on a piece of paper or on your phone.
You can also use an image that represents your goal.
Every time you are having a sugar craving, read the list, or look at the image, and remember your goals.
Sugar addiction detox
I, personally, don’t believe that our body needs detox, but I do understand that when there is a sugar addiction, it needs to be treated as such, then we need a detox to clean our body and get back to a status of controlling our sugar intake.
To get rid of an addiction, we need to change our habits and find substitutes.
1. Choose healthy alternatives
If you are used to having dessert after every meal, and you think that’s something that you need to have, at least look for some healthy alternatives.
Same goes for those moments when you like to have something sweet, maybe together with your coffee or maybe as a snack.
Some of the easiest substitutions are dark chocolate (75% and above), fruits (fresh or dried) and nuts. Don’t forget to read the ingredient list, making sure that anything you buy is made only with natural ingredients, and it doesn’t have any type of sugar added to it.
2. Clean your environment
Get rid of all of the addictive food that you might have at home, even the ones that you keep for your guests. You really don’t want to have any temptation close by.
Avoid, for a few days, meeting friends and family you usually have unhealthy food with. At least, until you are in charge of your decisions again.
3. Cut back on alcohol and recreational drugs
Having a few too many drinks/drugs might affect your willpower by lowering your inhibition.
Also, depending on the drink you are having like a cocktail might have been done with the addition of sugary beverages.
4. Learn to understand your real needs
Sugar cravings can come from our brain or from our body. If they come from our body, it means that we have a need for that substance that our body is addicted to.
Most of the time, however, sugar cravings come from our brain because there is something that is not right.
Keeping this in mind is the base for a real detox.
58% of women in a study with 101 women have experienced food cravings. Food cravings play an important role in weight gain, binge eating, and food addiction.
Being aware of your patterns, cravings, and triggers, it helps to lessen them, which will help make it easier to lose weight and eat healthy.
If you think that sugar addiction is a problem in your life, try some of these suggestions, but always remember to be kind to yourself.
If you feel that you need extra help to stop craving sugar and you’d like to work with someone with experience, don’t hesitate to have a look at my offer for private sessions and get in contact with me with any questions you might have.
As always, I appreciate you stopping by my blog, and if you think this post might help someone you know to make even a small step to a healthier lifestyle, please don’t hesitate to share it away!
Happy Healthy Living!
A big hug,
Claudia Canu is a former junk and sugar addict transformed into a Health Motivator with a master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics. She has created this website not only to share her “Journey to her Healthy Forties” but also to help other busy women with basic knowledge about nutrition and who don’t love cooking, to live a healthier life and achieve big goals.