If you're someone who experiences sugar cravings you'll know how hard it is to give up the sweet stuff. But you're not alone.
A poll by sugar-free ice cream brand Wheyhey found almost half of us (49 percent ) in the UK are addicted to sweet foods. Of the 2,000 interviewed, more than three-quarters have tried to quit sugar (opens in new tab) but only 3 percent have managed to kick sugary treats.
The NHS recommends 30g of added sugar a day, which should account for no more than 5 percent of the calories we consume. However, according to one NHS report (opens in new tab), the average Brit eats 700g of sugar a week, or 100g a day. We asked clinical nutritionist Suzie Sawyer (opens in new tab) and nutritional expert Rob Hobson (opens in new tab) what causes this addiction and how to put an end to our sugar cravings.
Why do I crave sugar?
Sugar carvings are essentially down to blood sugar balance, or imbalance. If we eat too many sugary, refined foods or have an abundance of stimulants such as caffeine or alcohol, glucose levels in the blood spike. This causes a spike in insulin response to move the glucose out of the bloodstream. And this results in a much lower dip in blood sugar than a normal response. Hence – at the bottom of the curve – more cravings will be felt as well as energy dips. This tricks the brain into believing it needs more, hence those sugar cravings. This is what happens when you eat too much sugar (opens in new tab).
'Regions in the brain responsible for pleasure and reward can also play a role in the foods that we crave,' adds Rob Hobson. 'To some degree, we are hard-wired to seek out foods that stimulate feel-good centres in the brain,' he says. 'Mostly those high in sugar and fat.'
Causes of sugar cravings
As well as blood sugar, hormones can play a part in why we crave sugary foods. 'While it’s not quite clear why some teenage girls crave carbohydrate foods (such as those high in sugar) during certain times during their menstrual cycle (opens in new tab) it may be due to a drop in the happy hormone serotonin,' says Rob. 'Carbohydrates help with the uptake of an amino acid into the brain which is used to make serotonin,' he explains.
'Microbiome imbalance (opens in new tab) can also impact on sugar cravings, as many of the opportunistic (potentially bad) bacteria in our gut feed on sugar, which enables them to multiply, resulting in dysbiosis (imbalance) in our gut microbiome,' says Adrienne Benjamin (opens in new tab), nutritionist for ProVen Probiotics. 'This can lead to a positive feedback loop where the more sugar we eat, the more of these bacteria are present in our gut and the more we crave sugar to feed them,' she says.
Then there is tiredness and fatigue (opens in new tab), which can cause us to seek energy-boosting foods that will provide us with a quick fix. 'Lack of sleep (opens in new tab) can affect our internal body clock, which affects the hormones that regulate appetite (ghrelin and leptin). This makes it more difficult to resist cravings,' says Adrienne.
'Feeling tired also dampens your mood, leaving you less motivated to eat well,' adds Rob. 'This could have you reaching for comfort foods (opens in new tab). However, this effect only lasts for a short while. And it can leave you feeling worse once the initial rush wears off,' he warns.
Our mental health may spark sugar cravings, too. 'Cravings are often linked to our emotions. In times of stress or low mood we're more prone to seek out foods that offer comfort,' says Rob.' This might be because we associate these foods with happy memories and nostalgia. Plus, the stress hormone cortisol can increase appetite and your motivation to eat,' he explains.
Further culprits for your sugar cravings include 'not eating enough calories, habit – such as that chocolate bar every day or eating as soon as you arrive home after work – and seeking reward,' says Adrienne. 'Also, eating imbalanced meals that include too much carbohydrate compared with protein and/or fat. And eating too many salty processed foods triggers sugar cravings as a rebound response to high salt levels,' she adds. So, if you want to reduce sugar cravings, reducing the salt in your diet (opens in new tab) is also key.
How do you stop sugar cravings?
'The key to reducing sugar cravings is understanding what's triggering them and to focus on balancing blood sugar to manage physical cravings,' says Adrienne. 'Eat fruit with fat or protein to reduce the impact on blood sugar, plus whole nutrient-dense foods to replace processed and sugar-laden food.' Nutrient-dense foods include fruit, veg, wholegrains, eggs and oily fish such as salmon and sardines.
Another effective way to stop sugar cravings is 'to eat plenty of protein at each meal,' advises Suzie. 'Eat eggs, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, fish, beans or high-protein grains such as quinoa. When we eat protein, it stimulates the opposing hormone to insulin (glucagon) thereby balancing blood sugar response and reducing cravings,' she explains. 'Whenever you feel sugar cravings coming on, reach for a protein snack such as some nuts or seeds. Or an oatcake with hummus, cottage cheese or nut butter, or some natural yoghurt,' recommends Suzie. 'It’s amazing how quickly urges dissipate and tastebuds adapt.'
If chocolate is your weakness a little bit of what you fancy can actually ease your sugar cravings. But it must be the right sort. 'Eating small portions of "healthier" dark chocolate (opens in new tab) (70% cocoa or higher) can help if you're craving chocolate, as this contains both magnesium and antioxidants,' says Adrienne.
'Another thing you may want to consider is taking chromium,' suggests Rob. 'This mineral helps to regulate blood sugar levels. Some people find that it helps them get a better grip on sugar cravings,' he says. Try Healthspan Chromium (£14.95 for 360 tablets (opens in new tab)).
One more supplement worth trying is a probiotic. 'A probiotic can help balance your gut and support digestion and absorption of nutrients from food,' says Adrienne. Try ProVen Probiotics Four Pillars of Nutrition (£21.95 for a 30-day supply (opens in new tab)).
Now you know what may be causing your sugar cravings, find out how to quit sugar (opens in new tab) easily and painlessly, take a look at some of these healthy sugar substitutes (opens in new tab) that will get you consuming less refined sugar, or follow our sugar-free diet plan (opens in new tab).
Debra Waters is an experienced online editor and lifestyle writer with a focus on health, wellbeing, beauty, food and parenting. She currently writes for Goodto and Woman&Home, and print publications Woman, Woman’s Own and Woman’s Weekly. Previously, Debra was digital food editor at delicious magazine and MSN. She’s written for M&S Food, Great British Chefs, loveFOOD, What to Expect, Everyday Health and Time Out, and has had articles published in The Telegraph and The Big Issue.
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