Sugar. How can something that tastes so good be so bad for you? Could you imagine what life would be like if something as nutrient-dense as broccoli tasted like sugar? Pretty much everyone would be sporting washboard abs.
Unfortunately, that’s not the world that we live in. In this world, eating too much sugar can lead to a lot worse than being ab-less.
So what are you supposed to do when you crave something sweet? A lot of people’s first instinct is to seek out the nearest candy bar and wolf it down. But part of being an adult is going against your first instinct and thinking about what’s actually good for you.
But that doesn't mean you can’t have any sugar at all.
Natural sugars can actually be good for you in moderation. You just can’t satisfy your cravings with things like candy — try opting for healthy snacks instead. Nothing says healthy foods can’t also be sweet treats.
Before we get into the most nutritious ways to silence that sweet tooth, let’s learn a little about why you crave sweets. Making just a few lifestyle changes can help keep sugar cravings at bay.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
Sugar cravings sound simple enough. You just want something a little sweet to scratch a very particular itch. While the craving might be the symptom, there are many potential causes. Figuring out what’s triggering your sugar cravings can go a long way in reducing their frequency and intensity.
These are a few examples of the most common causes:
You probably already know that the brain loves sugar. The reason is that glucose is its primary source of energy. Glucose is a type of sugar that the body produces by breaking down carbohydrates. You skip the middleman and give the brain an alternative fix for sugar when you ingest pure sugar.
The brain will be very pleased by your decision. As a reward and thank you, it will flood your body with a hormone called dopamine. The so-called “feel good” hormone lives up to its name as it activates the reward centers in your brain.
If your brain craves sugar, it will gladly trade dopamine for some. Frequently making this deal will only encourage your brain to bribe you more often in the future.
Not Enough Sleep
It can’t be overstated how important sleep is for your brain. During this time, memories are created, neurons can repair themselves, and the brain gets a chance to relax for a while. When you’re not getting enough sleep, the brain will first try to use melatonin to make you feel sleepy. If that doesn’t work, it will start demanding sugar to boost it to stay active.
These sugar cravings are only the beginning when you’re sleep deprived. The balance of your hunger hormones (ghrelin and leptin) will also be disrupted. A lack of sleep may increase ghrelin (the hormone that creates hunger cravings) and decrease leptin (the hormone that tells you you’re full). As a result, you’ll start craving foods high in sugar, salt, starch, and fat, with almost no amount being enough to satisfy your hunger.
Making sure you’re getting enough sleep at night could do wonders to quell this specific type of sugar cravings. The brain will have plenty of time to rest and won’t be desperate for multiple kicks of energy throughout the day. It’s recommended you get at least seven hours of sleep each night to avoid encountering sleep deprivation and the ensuing sugar cravings.
You already know that stress is bad for you, and you can now add it to the list of reasons you could be experiencing intense sugar cravings.
You see, whenever you experience stressful situations, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is one of the main components of your fight or flight response, so it can make your heart pump faster, help you focus, and make your thoughts race.
It can also increase the amount of glucose used by your brain. If you’re feeling prolonged stress, it won’t be long before your glucose levels are low, and the brain craves more. Cortisol can also deplete the leptin hormone (the one that tells you when you’re full), which can make stress-induced sugar cravings virtually endless.
Managing your stress levels is definitely a lot easier said than done. However, it’s important to your overall health, especially for keeping away sugar cravings. One healthy method for stress management is getting more physical exercise. It can help lower your stress levels and get you in better shape simultaneously.
Too Much Salt
A diet that’s high in salt is a recipe for dehydration. The excess salt can cause the kidneys to get disrupted, and the body will start to pull water from your cells to compensate. During this time, you may experience something similar to traditional hunger pains or sugar cravings.
In reality, you may only need to drink some water to rehydrate. Our brains are capable of tremendous feats, but it can occasionally struggle with basic signaling. What feels like hunger or sugar cravings can often be quenched with a tall glass of cool water.
As mentioned above, the brain isn’t the best communicator 100% of the time. It’s very easy to mix up what you think your brain is saying versus what it’s actually saying.
For example, you’ve almost certainly experienced an intense craving for chocolate before. The sensation comes on suddenly, and only the sweet taste of chocolate will cure it. In some cases, what you might actually be craving is magnesium.
Magnesium is a mineral that functions similarly to an electrolyte. Its primary purposes include helping your muscles and nerves function properly. Chocolate is absolutely loaded with magnesium. When the brain starts noticing that you’re running low on magnesium, it will try to tell you by sending signals. These signals can be misinterpreted as an intense desire for tons of chocolate.
Next time you feel these urges, try a handful or two of mixed nuts, as most nuts also contain a high concentration of magnesium. You might be able to satisfy your “chocolate” cravings while avoiding all the extra sugar that comes with the standard chocolatey treat.
A well-balanced diet consists of carbohydrates, fat, and protein. You need a little bit of all of them in your diet to ensure you’re getting the right nutrients. However, you can’t just eat anything that has those words listed on the label. There’s a big difference between “good” and “bad” fats. For sugar cravings, it’s the carbohydrates that are often the culprit.
Earlier, we briefly touched on how glucose is made from carbohydrates. You’ll need quite a few of them to keep your brain and body sufficiently fueled throughout the day. The thing is that not all carbohydrates are created equal. Refined carbohydrates can be especially bad for you. They’ve essentially been stripped of their nutritional value.
When you eat foods that have refined carbs (baked goods, processed foods, etc.), the body quickly digests them. The lack of nutrients makes it a simple process to break them down. As a result, you’ll probably experience an intense jolt of energy as your blood sugar spikes.
The feeling won’t last very long after the digestion has finished, and your blood sugar can drop dramatically. The crash can leave your brain desperate to relive the previous energy spikes it just experienced.
Avoiding refined carbs in your diet can help keep your blood sugar levels more stable. The brain won’t experience skyrocketing or plummeting blood sugar, and you should be able to get a more steady flow of energy through the day. Without these wild swings, the brain can have much better control over sugar cravings.
It’s become common for people to substitute sugar with artificial sweeteners. The idea is that these sweeteners have fewer to no calories while still providing the same sweet taste. The problem is that they might be too good at their job. While there are usually no calories involved with artificial sweeteners, the amount of sweetness is off the charts. Literally.
Aspartame is a common artificial sweetener used in place of sucrose (a combination of fructose and glucose found in various foods). Aspartame has zero calories which, in theory, makes it the ideal substitute for weight loss purposes.
The thing is that aspartame is about 200 times sweeter than sucrose. If you think your brain likes sugar, then it’s absolutely going to love aspartame!
If you’re one of the people who have switched to artificial sweeteners, the cravings you feel might be withdrawals. Regular foods (like the ones we’ll get into soon) won’t be enough to scratch that itch in your brain the same way aspartame can.
You’ll likely have to slowly wean off your artificial sweeteners to get rid of these cravings once and for all. Your brain will probably not like the decision, so be prepared for heavy resistance.
5 Nutritious Snacks That Can Fight Off Sugar Cravings
Once you’ve identified the source of your sugar cravings, it can be a lot easier to quench them with healthy sweet snacks. It could be as simple as slight dehydration or as complex as an aspartame addiction.
If you’re unsure what’s causing your sugar cravings, don’t worry — we’ve got you covered. You’d be surprised at how many nutritious foods can also extinguish sugar cravings.
Here are five examples of naturally sweet snacks worth a try:
These tiny fresh fruits punch well above their weight by providing a ton of nutrients and fiber. They’re a perfect weapon for fighting off sugar cravings.
A cup of blueberries (148 grams) has about 15 grams of total sugar. That should be more than enough to service even the most intense cravings. It may also be enough for you to experience the variety of health benefits provided by blueberries. When it comes to superfoods, very few healthy alternatives are on the same level as blueberries.
As a bonus, you can pop blueberries into the freezer to either enjoy chilled, or even as a frozen sweet treat.
Avocados are very close to matching the same nutritional value as blueberries. The main difference is that avocados are loaded with healthy fats. The unsaturated fats abundant in avocados (roughly 19 grams per avocado) can support healthy insulin sensitivity and blood glucose regulation.
In other words, your blood sugar levels should remain more stable, which should help to calm those intense cravings for ice cream, popsicles, and maple syrup that seem to come out of nowhere. Avocados are versatile, and you can add them to practically any dish with ease.
Few things taste as good as the first spoonful from a fresh jar of peanut butter. We talked earlier about magnesium deficiencies causing sugar cravings. Well, peanut butter has you covered there because it’s loaded with magnesium.
It also features a variety of vitamins, minerals, and unsaturated fats that provide benefits similar to avocados. You don’t want to go crazy with the peanut butter (it does pack quite a caloric punch), but a spoonful or two should help to satisfy sugar cravings.
Nut butters, such as almond butter or cashew butter, can also be excellent alternatives and provide some fatty acids and calcium.
Surely, you weren’t expecting to see chocolate appear on this list, were you? Surprise: dark chocolate actually has something to offer nutrition-wise, and it’s packed with several antioxidant-acting nutrients.
It’s important to note that dark chocolate is a very specific form of chocolate. It’s the one that’s mostly void of sugar and saturated fat. In its original form, cacao is bitter and only gets its sweetened taste by being loaded with added sugar. Stick to a few pieces of dark chocolate (the darker, the better), and you can tame some of those sugar cravings.
It goes without saying, but eating a whole chocolate bar or bag of chocolate chips (even of the dark variety) isn’t what we’re talking about here. A few squares of an artisanal dark chocolate bar of 60% cacao or higher is closer to the point here.
Protein can go a long way toward making you feel full for a long time. Fiber gives this feeling faster, but protein extends it for a long time. Being satiated is an easy way to fend off sugar cravings before they even get started.
The body will have plenty to do by putting the protein in your belly to work so that it won't even have time to think about sugar. You can get protein from many places, but plain Greek yogurt is one of the best when it comes to snacking foods. One cup will give you about 18 grams of protein and a sweet taste that manages your sweet tooth without indulging it.
Additionally, you can mix healthy toppings into your yogurt to give the snack some texture and flavor. Dried fruit, frozen bananas, cashews, chia seeds, chickpeas, and whole grain or gluten-freegranola are popular choices.
Master Your Cravings With the Right Nutrients
Sugar cravings can make a long day feel like a long week. The key to defeating these cravings is to figure out why they started. The above list should help shine some light on why you’re sugar cravings were born and how you can address them.
If you can’t figure it out, we hope this list of five sweetly snackable health foods can help!
Looking for more articles to guide your health and wellness journey? Explore MOSH’s other articles here!
Extra protein is a decent dietary choice, but don’t overdo it | Harvard Health
Is dark chocolate really good for you? | BBC Future
Magnesium | Health Professional Fact Sheet
Daily avocado consumption: A tasteful way to lower blood glucose | Nutrition
I Was Powerless Over Diet Coke | The New York Times
Everything You Need to Know About Aspartame | Food Insight
Refined carbohydrates, phenotypic plasticity and the obesity epidemic | NCBI Bookshelf
Magnesium-Rich Food Information | Cleveland Clinic
Interpreting the body's food cravings | Chicago Tribune
You Asked: What happens to your body when you eat too much salt? | Vital Record
Chronic stress puts your health at risk | Mayo Clinic
How Much Sleep Do I Need? | CDC
Can Overeating Cause Sleep Disturbances? | Sleep Foundation
Dopamine: What It Is, Function & Symptoms | Cleveland Clinic