As anyone who has ever eaten an entire ice cream tub in one sitting, it's very easy to overdo it on the sweet stuff. Sugar is incredibly addicting1, and there are certain hormonal, emotional, and physiological reasons we may crave it so much. Here's a look at some of the factors that cause you to crave sugar and what to do to stop them.
The reasons your body craves sugar.
The average American adult consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugars a day according to the USDA Agricultural Research Service. However, the recommended amount per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is less than 10% of your overall diet, equivalent to about 12 teaspoons a day. Here are some reasons you might be feeling the need to reach for something sweet:
"During times of fatigue or exhaustion, the first thing we crave is sugar," says Maya Feller, R.D., a Brooklyn-based registered dietitian nutritionist and author of the upcoming book, Eating From Our Roots. "That's because sugar is rapidly metabolized and is the body's preferred source of energy."
Research shows2 that eating sugar is a physiologically adaptive behavior that provides the energy needed to stay awake. The problem with this? Sugar's initial energy boost is short-lived, making you seek out more. These well-balanced meals and snacks are much better for sustained energy.
"Past research has found that when primates were under stress, they sought out carbohydrates3—primarily in the form of fruit," says Steven Gundry, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon and author of Unlocking the Keto Code. "We think it's because these compounds produce the feel-good hormone serotonin."
Humans under stress react the same way—by reaching for something sweet to feel relief (albeit short). The problem with this is that eating sugar too frequently can create a habit, which stress then ingrains as a behavior.
Carbs come in many forms, and if you're feeling stressed, the best way to balance yourself out may be by consuming complex carbs. That's because they take longer to digest and will keep blood sugar levels stable. If you've got to have something sweet, stick to dark chocolate with 70% to 85% cocoa to prevent a blood sugar spike.
Your gut isn't getting what it needs.
Gundry says one of the theories around what makes humans hungry is the Gut Flora-Centric Theory of Hunger. "This is a theory that says our hunger is controlled by how much our gut bacteria is being fed the foods they need," he says.
"If gut bacteria are getting the right kind of fuel, it sends messages to the brain that it's happy4, and we don't have to go looking for additional food." When gut bacteria aren't getting the right nutrition, however, the brain sends out an SOS signal, saying it needs energy fast. The quick fix is often sugar.
Prebiotic-rich foods include nuts, bananas, oats, and apples. "MCT oil also feeds gut bacteria," Gundry adds. "It's a fat that's absorbed directly from the gut into the blood and liver. From there it's converted into ketones that provide fuel for the brain."
You're consuming too many artificial sweeteners.
"Artificial sweeteners have messed with our system when it comes to detecting sugar," says Gundry. "That's because we don't have sugar receptors in our tongue; we have sweet receptors. Before, sweet receptors tasted something sweet, which was sugar, and alerted the brain and pancreas that sugar was on the way. The pancreas would then produce insulin in preparation."
Artificial sweeteners do not follow the same natural process. First, insulin must pull sugar out of the bloodstream, which can increase the risk of hypoglycemia. "The brain never gets its sugar, and it tells the body to go out and get some more for it," says Gundry. "This can cause someone to eat or drink more artificial sweeteners, creating a craving and habit5, such as becoming addicted to Diet Coke."
The healthiest foods to satisfy sugar cravings.
The next time you're craving sugar, reach for these foods that deliver the complex carbs, prebiotics, etc., your body actually needs:
- Whole grains
- Healthy fats like a half an avocado
- Purple potatoes
- Dark chocolate
- Chia seeds (try making chia pudding)
- Dark leafy greens like kale and spinach
- Fatty fish like salmon
When to see a doctor.
"Sugar cravings are for the most part harmless and a natural occurrence," says Feller. "However, when sugar cravings are combined with dizziness, weakness, or fatigue, it may be a sign of a more serious blood sugar imbalance that needs to be addressed with your physician."
If you're experiencing blurred vision, an increased need to urinate (especially at night), fatigue, and increased thirst with sugar cravings, these could be early warning signs of high blood sugar, and if left untreated could lead to diabetes.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I stop sugar cravings?
Spoiler alert: Your body needs sugar! You just want to make sure you're getting the right kind of sugar. Eat nutrient-dense, whole foods, along with prebiotics to fuel your gut and retrain your brain on what kind of sugar it's looking for.
Do you crave sugar when your iron is low?
Potentially. Feller says when we restrict our diet or have a nutrient imbalance, sugar cravings can be a sign of that internal struggle. Plus, low iron levels make you feel less energized, which in turn can make you crave sugar for some extra pep.
Why do I crave sweets as I get older?
“It’s not so much age, it’s more that the older a person gets the more sedentary they may be,” says Gundry. "This makes them become metabolically inflexible, increasing blood sugar levels, glucose, and resistance to insulin." All of this confuses and depletes the brain, which can result in sugar cravings.
Does hypoglycemia make you crave sugar?
"Hypoglycemia literally means 'low blood sugar,' and it may cause an increased desire for sugar," says Feller. "The brain and body prefer to use glucose (sugar) as their main energy source, so when these energy sources are depleted, the brain sends a signal to eat something that will raise blood sugar levels." That signal can result in craving sugar, yet sugar levels can be restored with one of the healthier options listed above.
Craving sugar is what your body was designed to do. Many of the nutrient-dense foods we should be eating daily have naturally occurring sugars already in them. If you consistently eat these foods, regulate stress, and practice good sleep hygiene, your cravings should subside and you'll be sneaking into the cookie jar much less often.
Colleen Travers is a freelance writer and editor who specializes in health, nutrition, diet, fitness, and wellness trends for various publications and brands. Her work has appeared in Reader's Digest, SHAPE, Fit Pregnancy, Food Network, and more. She lives on Long Island with her two kids, two rescue pets, and husband.