I often get asked the question why do I have sugar cravings and how do I get rid of it? As with most things there is no one answer for everybody. In this article I’m going to explain 1) the possible reasons for a sugar craving, 2) why is too much sugar is damaging the body 3) What is sugar and 4) How to kick the added sugar habit.
1) Possible reasons for a sugar craving.
- Bliss point – our food is actually perfectly manufactured to hit the ‘bliss point’. Howard Moskowitz referred to this as the secret balance between sugar, fat and salt. The heavenly combination that keeps you coming back for more.
- Your brain wants more – the bliss point produces a pleasurable experience which stimulates the production of dopamine adding to the experience and making you want more. Highly sugary products have been found to produce a more powerful reaction than that of cocaine.
- Emotional eating – our brains can link the pleasurable experience of eating sugary products and encourage us to consume them when we are feeling low or we want to treat ourselves. A strange concept really, because sugar creates havoc in our body and is more torturous than beneficial. Emotional eating has recently been associated with irrational beliefs and ultimately a high incidence of food addiction.
- Blood sugar imbalance – Eating high levels of sugar laden food will cause an initial high and then a crash. The body’s preferred source of fuel is glucose and we instinctively recognise this as fuel. So when we are low in energy it is very easy to reach for carbohydrate rich food. However, this only repeats the highs and lows cycle. Our blood can only manage a small amount of sugar at a time, that which is equivalent to less than a teaspoon. Here’s where the clever bit comes in. A hormone called insulin monitors our blood glucose levels and when the levels get to much it signals the body to remove it form the blood and store it. Over the years, consistently high blood sugar levels can prevent insulin working properly, hence the phrase insulin resistant. So, where blood glucose levels fluctuate there is an increased risk of you reaching for a sugary product to address the low levels in a crash.
- Hormonal imbalances – Insulin is a hormone, but as I’ve covered that I’ll move onto leptin. Leptin is a hormone which is responsible for telling you when you are full. Just like insulin, a poor diet can lead to leptin resistance, which simply means you never feel full and continue to eat. Leptin is now considered to be the primary driver for obesity and insulin resistance. In addition to leptin and insulin, poor sleep has a substantial effect on our food choices. Sleep deprivation is associated with additional hunger, reduced feeling of fullness and increased consumption of carbohydrates. Poor sleep also impairs how the body processes sugar.
- Bacterial overgrowth – when our gut bacteria becomes unbalanced, unhelpful bacteria can colonise and take over. This very bacteria feeds on sugar and therefore signals us to consume more.
2) Why is too much sugar damaging to the body?
Guidelines for added sugar intake in the UK are;
30 grams or 7.5 teaspoons for adults,
children 7 – 10 , 6 teaspoons
Children under 4-6, 5 teaspoons a day.
Excessive sugar is seen as contributing to hyperglycaemia, raised blood pressure, elevated triglyceride levels, low HDL-cholesterol levels, and obesity, together these conditions are known as metabolic syndrome (Mets) or syndrome X. For many, insulin resistance has been seen as the primary cause of Mets, more recently, researchers are exploring the role if leptin resistance as a driver for insulin resistance.
Metabolic syndrome is linked with Cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). These are all carefully linked to inflammation, cancer, toxic fat and oxidative stress. The relationship is complex and carbohydrate intake may also be associated with Alzheimer’s, candida, female hormonal balances, autoimmune conditions, mood, behaviour, polycystic ovaries, and many many more including premature aging.
3) What is sugar?
Before I look at ways to replace sugar it is important to understand what sugar looks like in our food.
Sugar is a carbohydrate. There are many types of different sugars. Glucose is a single type of sugar which has been around forever and is the body’s preferred source of fuel. Not surprisingly it is found in most things we eat including fruit and vegetables. Then we have lactose, sucrose, galactose and maltose which are made up of any two types of these sugars. In the case of maltose, two lots of glucose are found in barley to make up maltose. Fructose is also a single type of sugar which was much rarer in earlier times. This means our body’s haven’t developed sufficiently to manage the amount of fructose we consume today. Stevia is an example of a plant based sugar. Then we have our alternative sugars such as high fructose corn syrup, agave, maple syrup, coconut syrup, palm sugar and others. All these consist of the basic sugars first described. So, as an alternative they are actually no better.
In terms of sugar sweetness, here’s the order from the least sweet, lactose, maltose, glucose, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose and finally stevia.
There is a group of artificial sweeteners called sugar alcohols, which aren’t either sugar or alcohol. These are not completely absorbed by the body and therefore lower in calorific value. Side effects related to the gut have been noted by some. Examples are xylitol, glycerol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, erythritol.
It is really important to note all carbohydrates break down into sugar. So, bread, pasta, fruit and vegetables, oats, rice etc all are broken down by our body into sugar. However, there are some clever tricks we can use for ensure carbohydrates are better tolerated by our bodies.
Cutting out added sugar is a must and is the best place to start.
4) How to kick the added sugar habit.
- If it’s processed then it’s likely to have added sugar in it. By processed I mean made in a factory.
- Dried fruits are high in sugar but also high in fibre, use with caution
- Learn to read labels. Look at the carbohydrate section and then find sugars. Whatever the number says divide it by 4 and it will give you the number of teaspoons of sugar in it. Make sure you check the sugar against the quantity and don’t get fooled. This is a quick and easy method.
- Be aware of your own habits and when you are likely to reach for high carbohydrate foods. Start a food diary to observe your habits.
- Remember sugar is contained in drinks as well as food. This includes alcohol and flavoured milks.
- Artificial sweeteners are linked to all kinds of unpleasant side effects, best to avoid.
- Be very cautious of low sugar options as they are likely to loaded with extra fat and salt.
15 Practical Top tips For Avoiding Added Sugar
- Ensure every meal includes protein and good fats this will keep you feeling full for longer.
- Add plenty of fibre to your diet
- Keep well hydrated – hunger is often confused by the body for thirst
- Berries are low in sugar and can provide that sweet fix if you need it
- Classic vegetable sticks
- Nuts and seeds provide good snacks
- Avocado, humous, cold home cooked meats, oily fish, eggs, roasted chickpeas, tamari roasted sunflower and pumpkin seeds are good snacks
- Allow yourself a sugar treat at specific times, maybe Friday or Saturday night.
- Root vegetables have plenty of sugar in and may stave off a sugar fix
- Runner beans when in season are surprisingly sweet when ate raw
- Keep busy to avoid unnecessary snacking
- Add in some exercise it really helps the body process sugar better
- If you have had physical symptoms from a diet high in sugar write a list of the benefits to a low sugar diet – healthier clearer skin, more energy, improved concentration and focus, better sleep, headaches, mood swings the list goes on.
- After analysing your food diary, work out if there are any obvious stressors or triggers fuelling your sugar habit. Then plan to beat it. So, for example if you notice that with a mid-morning cup of tea you have a biscuit, prepare not to and have something else or if your sugar habit is linked to emotional eating/stress, work on the route cause of those, but also plan to have an alternative at hand.
- Do not remove all carbohydrate from your diet. Work towards a low carb diet not a no carb diet. Focus on added sugars initially before reducing but not excluding complex carbs.
Bonus tip : Don’t over eat – so very important.
Rao P, Rodriguez RL, Shoemaker SP. Addressing the sugar, salt, and fat issue the science of food way. NPJ Sci Food. 2018 Jul 16;2:12. doi: 10.1038/s41538-018-0020-x. PMID: 31304262; PMCID: PMC6550161.
Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS One. 2007 Aug 1;2(8):e698. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0000698. PMID: 17668074; PMCID: PMC1931610.
Nolan LJ, Jenkins SM. Food Addiction Is Associated with Irrational Beliefs via Trait Anxiety and Emotional Eating. Nutrients. 2019 Jul 25;11(8):1711. doi: 10.3390/nu11081711. PMID: 31349564; PMCID: PMC6724001.
Izquierdo AG, Crujeiras AB, Casanueva FF, Carreira MC. Leptin, Obesity, and Leptin Resistance: Where Are We 25 Years Later? Nutrients. 2019 Nov 8;11(11):2704. doi: 10.3390/nu11112704. PMID: 31717265; PMCID: PMC6893721.
Greer SM, Goldstein AN, Walker MP. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun. 2013;4:2259. doi: 10.1038/ncomms3259. PMID: 23922121; PMCID: PMC3763921.
Martins R.C., Andersen M.L., Tufik S.. The reciprocal interaction between sleep and type 2 diabetes mellitus: facts and perspectives. Braz J Med Biol Res [Internet]. 2008 Mar [cited 2020 Aug 21] ; 41( 3 ): 180-187. Available from: http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0100-879X2008000300001&lng=en. Epub Nov 26, 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0100-879X2006005000194.
Mao, Y., Tian, S., Qin, Y., & Han, J. (2019). A new sensory sweetness definition and sweetness conversion method of five natural sugars, based on the Weber-Fechner Law. Food Chemistry, 281, 78–84. doi:10.1016/j.foodchem.2018.12.04
Damon Gameau. 2015. That Sugar Book. MacMillan. Sydney. Australia. ISBN 978447299714
Nicolle and Bailey. The Functional Nutrition Cookbook. Addressing biochemical imbalances through diet.2013. Singing Dragon London. ISBN 978178592991