You know that feeling after finishing up an entire meal, where you instantly crave a slice of chocolate cake? Or when you eat some junk food and notice that your body is craving more of it still?
Sugar cravings are way more common than you may realize, especially with all of the added sugar that is put in the food we buy. In fact, a report from Frontiers in Psychiatry looked into the different ways that our large consumption of sugar as a society has potentially changed the way the brain sends signals to the body.
Because of an increase in sugar consumption, the brain now sends signals to the body to “eat as much as you can,” otherwise known as a “survival mode.” This may be one way to explain the common occurrence of craving sugar after consuming “unhealthy foods.”
Cleveland Clinic says there are three main reasons that people crave sugar: you’re not eating enough, you’re eating a lot of processed foods with added sugar and salt, or your body is trying to communicate something else to you.
With some of these explanations in mind, we talked with two registered dietitians on our medical expert boar, Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD author of The Sports Nutrition Playbookand Lauren Manaker, MS, RDNauthor of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility, to get their advice on how to curb sugar cravings when they arise. Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, don’t miss The #1 Best Juice to Drink Every Day, Says Science.
If you’re trying to avoid sugar cravings throughout your day, breakfast is one of the most important places to start. (Related: The #1 Best Breakfast to Curb Sugar Cravings Throughout the Day.)
“There is an old phrase that says, ‘Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper,’ or basically eat breakfast like you are rich. Why? Because Those who start the day with a complete breakfast of high-fiber carbohydrates (like oats, 100% whole grain bread, and fruit) and high-quality protein (lean meat, eggs, dairy foods) start the day with stable blood sugar. Typically people that eat more in the morning crave less at night and do a better job controlling their portion sizes. So, start the day with an egg and veggie omelet with whole-grain toast and fruit, or make a bowl of oatmeal and top it with Greek yogurt, berries, and nuts,” says Goodson.
Choosing the right snack is another crucial step in trying to crush sugar cravings. When we have that mid-morning or late-afternoon hunger, reaching for a filling option instead of something high in sugar will actually be more effective.
“Fiber and protein slow down digestion, helping you get full faster and stay full longer. Thus, when they are paired together, they help stabilize blood sugar and energy levels, leaving you feeling satisfied. At snack time, consider string cheese and fruit, yogurt and berries, beef jerky and a granola bar, or even a slice of high-fiber peanut butter toast. This nutrient combination will help you ward off sugar cravings,” says Goodson.
READ MORE: 50 Healthy Snack Ideas to Keep You Slim
People often think that by skipping out on a snack or meal they’re being “healthier,” but this will almost always just lead to more intense cravings.
“When people get too hungry, they typically don’t look for broccoli. Instead, they look for something sweet to raise their blood sugar back up to normal. A blood sugar drop is a real thing; it can make you feel fatigued, have a headache, and even experience dizziness, shakiness, and nauseousness. Eating more often and balancing that meal or snack with carbs and protein can prevent you from blood sugar drops and ultimately help you avoid those sugar cravings,” said Goodson.
If you’re craving sugar, your body may benefit from consuming some natural sweetness instead of a snack packed with tons of added sugar.
“Prunes are a naturally sweet fruit that is jam-packed with important nutrients that support bone health. And data published in Nutrition Bulletin has shown that people who snacked on prunes took in fewer calories at later meals and reported being less hungry compared to those who ate non-prune snacks,” says Manaker.
Eating sugar may give you that sense of “instant gratification,” but what if there were other ways to get the same feeling?
“Sugar can increase serotonin levels in the brain. Since serotonin is our ‘feel-good hormone,’ people think they are craving sugar when they are simply craving that serotonin boost. In fact, lower levels of serotonin in the brain have been linked to Sugar cravings in animal models. But sugar isn’t the only way to support a healthy serotonin level. Exercise and exposure to sunlight can elicit happy feelings too, and it may possibly help cut your sugar craving for good,” says Manaker.
People often put so much focus on eating healthy and exercising regularly, but getting good-quality sleep is just as important, if not more important, for your overall health.
“Feeling tired and not allowing your body to get the necessary 7-8 hours of sleep every day can result in a shift in your natural hormonal balance, possibly resulting in your body craving sugar and other ‘quick carbs.’ Because of this, it’s important to prioritize sleep if you want to combat your sugar cravings,” says Manaker.
Sometimes when you’re craving sugar, your body is actually trying to communicate to you that it’s missing a vitamin or nutrient.
“One side effect of having magnesium deficiency is experiencing sugar cravings. To avoid this, make sure you are eating avocados, nuts, and other magnesium-containing foods consistently to help combat a low level. If needed, supplementation can also be considered,” says Manaker.