Where do sugar cravings come from? What can you do to stop indulging?
Published Sep 16, 2023 • By Polina Kochetkova
Who doesn’t like a sugary breakfast or a pick-me-up pastry in the middle of the day? Our deep attachment to sugar has been the subject of research for decades.
But why do we love sugar so much? How to get over sugar addiction? And what are the consequences of having a sweet tooth?
Discover in this article!
How much sugar should I eat?
The average American adult consumes between 22 and 30 teaspoons of added sugar per day, according to the American Heart Association. Women and children should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of sugar per day, whereas men ought to consume 9 teaspoons (36 grams). Although 9 teaspoons of sugar may seem excessive, a typical can of soda contains the same amount.
However, some of us feel as though we must eat more sugar than recommended. In fact, studies have shown that sugar reduces the availability of endorphins and dopamine receptors in our brains. Simply put, sugar stimulates our brain's reward and pleasure centers, which is why we can get "sugar cravings".
Low protein intake is one of the main factors contributing to sugar cravings. When you don't eat enough protein and fat, your blood sugar can rise and fall at an unnatural rate, as these elements slow the release of sugar into your system. As a result, to try to balance the blood sugar roller coaster, your body seeks rapid energy from sugar.
You may crave sugar when eating a high-carbohydrate diet for the same reason. This effect is most noticeable in a carbohydrate-rich diet if it is unbalanced between simple and whole grains. On the other hand, diets rich in wholegrain cereals, brown bread and legumes, but low in simple sugars don't lead to sugar cravings, thanks to their high fiber content and low glycemic index. Indeed, simple carbs quickly enter the system, causing blood sugar and insulin levels to rise. Simple carbohydrates alone won't fill you up or satisfy you; without fiber, protein, and fats in your diet, you'll quickly find yourself craving more.
A more emotional reason why you might be craving sugar is stress. When under immense stress, your body starts producing cortisol – the stress hormone. When cortisol levels are elevated, it affects how much insulin and glucose are present in your blood. While various people experience hunger and cravings in different ways, stress frequently increases both. Cortisol levels are high, especially during periods of extreme stress, which results in the well-known feeling of "overdrive". In overdrive, your body will quickly deplete its energy reserves and look for quick ways to restock them – sugar.
Habit is one more reason you may crave sugar. If you are used to eat popcorn while watching a movie or a show, you are more likely to eat it whenever turning on the TV, even if you are not physically hungry. Replacing a negative habit, like emotional consumption, with a more positive one can help to deal with such struggles.
What does sugar do to our health?
Even though sugar might be welcomed by our taste buds, an overload of it does not bring much good into the body. This component can affect many areas of our well-being. Some of the long-term health issues that may be brought on by excessive sugar consumption include:
Weight gain and obesity
It's critical to avoid labeling sugars as the enemy to be eliminated at all costs. Many unprocessed foods contain sugars as a naturally occurring, essential component. Most significantly, monosaccharide glucose serves as the brain's main source of energy. Yet, data shows, that in the US, we consume more than 300% of the daily recommended amount of added sugar.
Data on sugar consumption and obesity over the past 50 years suggest that sugar consumption is a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic in the US.
One of the major contributors to weight gain is fizzy drinks, which contain enormous amounts of added sugars (for example, a can of regular cola contains seven teaspoons of sugar - 35g).
Compared to glucose, which makes up the majority of the sugar in starchy meals, fructose syrup in ultra-processed food consumption makes you feel hungrier and hungrier for food. However, the fructose present in fruit is different and should not be avoided (for most healthy people) as the fruit food matrix is very rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc. The best way to consume fructose is as part of a meal/snack that also contains protein and fat to ensure satiety.
Furthermore, studies on animals suggest that consuming too much fructose may result in leptin resistance, a vital hormone that controls hunger and signals your body to stop eating.
High-sugar diets have been associated with an increased risk of several illnesses, including heart disease, which is the leading cause of mortality worldwide.
Dr. Hu – a nutrition and diabetes researcher - and his colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discovered a potential connection between a high-sugar diet and a higher risk of dying from heart disease in research published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine. During the 15-year study, those who consumed 17% to 21% of their calories as added sugar had a 38% higher chance of passing away from cardiovascular disease than those who consumed 8% of those calories.
Consuming excessive amounts of added sugar can promote chronic inflammation and increase blood pressure, both of which are major risk factors for heart disease.
Excessive sugar consumption, especially from sugar-sweetened beverages, has also been related to atherosclerosis, a disorder characterized by fatty, artery-clogging plaques, which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Type 2 diabetes
Despite the fact sugar does not directly cause type 2 diabetes, being overweight increases the risk. When people consume more calories than their body requires, they will gain weight; sweet foods and beverages are high in calories.
So, an individual can see if consuming too much sugar causes them to gain weight, they increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, type 2 diabetes is complex, and it's unlikely that sugar is the main factor contributing to its onset.
Consuming sugar-sweetened beverages, such as canned soft drinks, is connected to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, although this is not always related to how they affect body weight.
According to Harvard University, a daily intake of 1 to 2 cans of sugary beverages or more increases the risk of type 2 diabetes by 26% compared to infrequent drinkers.
There are many factors that can contribute to developing acne: Clogged pores, increased oil production, poorly sanitized items touching the skin, hormonal issues, and more. Sugary diets and ultra-processed foods are also on the list of potential triggers for acne sufferers, due to their higher glycemic index.
A spike in blood sugar and insulin levels brought on by eating sugary meals may increase androgen secretion, oil production, and inflammation, all of which contribute to the development of acne.
How to beat sugar cravings?
As mentioned previously, sugar dependency can feel like an addiction, with withdrawal symptoms and very strong cravings. Nevertheless, there are multiple ways you can fight them:
- Focus on whole foods: Choose complete, unprocessed meals that are high in fiber, protein, and good fats. These may lessen cravings and assist in stabilizing blood sugar levels.
- Maintain Hydration: Water consumption throughout the day might help reduce erroneous hunger cues that are frequently misunderstood for craving.
- Balanced Meals: To avoid energy drops and associated sugar cravings, consume regular, balanced meals.
- Mindful Consumption: Practice mindful eating by taking your time with each bite and observing your body's signals of hunger and fullness.
- Make a plan: Keep wholesome snacks on hand to avoid giving in to sugary temptations when you're hungry.
While overcoming sugar cravings can be difficult, knowing their underlying causes and the potential negative health repercussions of consuming too much sugar gives us the power to make wise decisions. You can reclaim control over your cravings and start on a path to better health and well-being by adopting a balanced, whole-foods-based approach to nutrition and practicing mindful eating techniques.
In the long term, your attempts to control your sugar cravings will surely pay off because modest steps can result in big changes.
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What is the impact of eating too much sugar?, Medical News Today
Does diet really matter when it comes to adult acne?, Harvard.edu
Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake, NIH.gov
Associations Between Added Sugar Intake and Risk of Four Different Cardiovascular Diseases in a Swedish Population-Based Prospective Cohort Study, Frontiersin.org
The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States – a Review, NIH.gov
8 practical ways to help stop sugar cravings, BUPA.com.au