During digestion, your body ultimately breaks down and converts the various sugars from your food into a substance called glucose. Glucose is the primary energy source your cells depend on to carry out millions of functions throughout every system in your body.
That said, not all of the sugars you consume in your day-to-day are equal — at a really high level, there’s good sugar, and there’s bad sugar in your diet. The “good” kind is what occurs naturally in whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains. The “bad” kind is what you’ll find in excess in sweets, desserts, soft drinks, and candy.
You probably already know which one you should be limiting. On the other hand, life might get a little dull if you never partook in the occasional guilty pleasure and satisfied your sweet tooth.
Eating a slice of cake on your birthday or sipping on sugary sweet eggnog during the holidays can bring a unique type of enjoyment to life, not to mention the emotional value that cooking together or eating together may contribute to some people’s lives.
What we’re saying is that there’s nothing wrong with craving something extra sweet. The problem is when these periodic cravings become frequent and uncontrollable.
It’s estimated that roughly 75 percent of Americans have some form of sugar addiction. Sugar will never be viewed on the same level as narcotics or alcohol, but sugar addictions shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Detrimental effects on your health can come from eating too much sugar for too long. The key to controlling your sugar intake is to understand why you’re having such strong cravings in the first place — for many, it can come from nutritional deficiencies, especially in vitamins.
What Are Common Causes of Sugar Cravings?
Unfortunately, there is no singular root cause for sugar cravings. There are several potential reasons why someone can experience intense cravings for sugar.
Some of these causes are psychological, others are physical, and some are fairly easy to identify while you may want to recruit the help of a healthcare provider for others.
Perhaps the most applicable answer to American adults is that you’ve accidentally conditioned yourself to crave excess sugar.
The brain uses more glucose-derived energy than any organ in your body. As a result, it’s thrilled whenever you eat sugar, releasing a surplus of dopamine as a reward. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that provides you with feelings of pleasure; it’s what tells you “hey, that thing you just did, we like that.”
With this in mind, you can imagine how easy it is to condition yourself to overeat sugar when literal pleasure is a potential reward.
Anyone that has been in college can tell you that stress eating is a very real thing. There are many reasons why the “Freshman 15” is so common, and stress is one of the leading causes.
One type of conditioning that may have taken root is stress eating. When you're stressed, two hormones are released that reinforce this tendency: cortisol and ghrelin.
Cortisol can make you crave sweet flavors, while ghrelin stimulates your appetite. These two factors can result in brutal sugar cravings and binge eating that your brain learns to identify as a coping mechanism for stress.
The average American consumes about 77 grams of sugar every day. That’s more than two times the maximum threshold for men and three times the maximum for women. You can build up a sugar tolerance just like you build up a tolerance to caffeine or alcohol.
Drinking a cup of coffee or a bottle of beer after work won’t have the same effect if you do it every day. Sugar is no different; you might simply crave sugar because you haven’t reached your normal daily amount yet, even if that amount is way over what your body actually physically needs to function.
In some cases, intense sugar cravings are simply bad genetic luck. Fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21) is a protein secreted by the liver that helps regulate carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
A genetic variation of this protein can contribute to a feedback loop where sugar consumption doesn’t reduce sugar appetite. The liver tells the brain that you need to eat more, but doesn’t register the fact that you already have, and continues to send the message that you need a fuel source, now.
The original intention of artificial sweeteners was to create a substitute for sugar that provided a sweet flavor without the calories. The problem is that the sweeteners ended up being a little too sweet.
Artificial sweeteners are typically several hundred times sweeter than sugar. While they don’t have the calories of sugar, they can severely alter your sense of taste and contribute to intense cravings for sweet flavors. Then, when all you have available is table sugar to sweeten your iced tea, you may end up adding egregious amounts just to match the same level of sweetness you’re used to, only now it’ll be on the opposite end of calorie-free.
One of the seemingly infinite roles that water plays in your body is helping you to metabolize glycogen into glucose properly.
Without enough water, your liver will struggle to meet the energy demands of your body. The brain will start to send out intense cravings for sugar as it desperately needs an energy boost to keep functioning properly, when in fact, it actually needs water.
If you’re not drinking enough water and experience mild dehydration regularly, you may find that you crave sweets and snacks even just after eating — it may be worth trying to drink some water to see if your body is misinterpreting signals for water as signals for hunger.
Sleep and appetite have a very strong connection and can heavily impact one another. A lack of sleep is potentially to blame for your sugar cravings due to the release and suppression of two hormones.
The hormone released is ghrelin, which is what we noted earlier as being responsible for increasing your appetite.
The hormone that gets suppressed is known as leptin. This hormone has the opposite effect of ghrelin and works to reduce the intensity of your appetite.
With this, your appetite will take off like a hot air balloon that’s tossed all its sandbags overboard.
On top of that, regularly experiencing poor sleep can contribute to increased insulin resistance and decreased insulin sensitivity (meaning your body can’t transport glucose into cells as efficiently as it should be), and there are many cases of epidemiological research that shows a general correlation between poor sleep and a higher risk of obesity.
Can a Nutrient Deficiency Cause Sugar Cravings?
There’s another possible explanation for your sugar cravings if none of the abovementioned circumstances apply to you. You might be experiencing a nutrient deficiency.
The CDC estimates that somewhere between a tenth and a third of Americans have some form of a nutritional deficiency.
Your body and brain require a steady supply of essential nutrients to function properly. Failing to provide your body with essential vitamins and minerals can put you at a high risk of developing a deficiency.
The exact symptoms of a nutrient deficiency will almost entirely depend on the nutrient you’re lacking. For example, a vitamin D deficiency might cause bones to weaken and fracture more easily. On the other hand, a vitamin A deficiency can affect your vision and potentially result in blindness in severe cases.
Here is a list of the different nutrient deficiencies that have been linked to sugar cravings:
Zinc is a nutrient that plays key roles in the immune system, metabolism, and wound healing. Zinc is considered a trace mineral as the body only needs a small amount of it (8 to 11 milligrams a day).
The problem is that the body cannot store zinc. You’ll need to get your daily zinc requirement every day, or you risk inching toward a deficiency.
The reason why zinc deficiency might be the root cause of your problem has to do with its role in metabolism. Not having enough zinc in your body can limit its ability to burn fat efficiently as a fuel source. The body and brain can experience a lapse in energy and crave a barrage of sugar-filled carbs to restore energy levels to normal.
Magnesium is a nutrient that plays various roles in your body, such as muscle support, nerve function, and energy production. One of the worst things about magnesium deficiency is that it typically comes without symptoms.
While that might sound preferable, it makes it extremely difficult to detect. To avoid a deficiency, women need between 310 and 320 milligrams of magnesium daily, while men need between 400 and 420.
A magnesium deficiency can increase stress and affect sleep quality. As mentioned earlier, these factors alone are common contributors to intense sugar cravings, so magnesium deficiency-induced sugar cravings are more indirect but still very impactful.
Vitamin B1, or thiamin, is a water-soluble vitamin necessary for cell growth, development, and overall function. Because thiamin is water soluble, your body cannot store it like it does fat-soluble nutrients.
You’ll need to get your daily recommended thiamin value (1.1 to 1.2 milligrams) each day to avoid a deficiency. One of the key functions of thiamin is that it helps break glucose down into adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Technically, ATP is the true energy source for cells, not glucose, but your cells will always turn to your glucose stores first to make ATP, which is why glucose is so important.
Without enough thiamin in your body to convert glucose, your cells won’t have enough energy to function properly. Your brain will likely push you to eat more sugar even though you already have enough glucose in store.
Chromium is an essential trace mineral that plays an important role in regulating blood sugar levels. Chromium deficiencies are more common than you might think, based on how little chromium you need each day.
The recommended value of chromium for women is between 20 and 25 micrograms daily; for men, it’s between 30 and 35 micrograms. The main function of chromium is to regulate the blood sugar levels in your body. It accomplishes this task by increasing insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance.
An insufficient supply of chromium can cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate dramatically. You may experience the symptoms of a blood sugar spike followed swiftly by a blood sugar crash. With that, your brain signals that you need to consume more sugar.
Curbing Cravings by Preventing Deficiencies
Sugar cravings can be extremely difficult to control and are bound to negatively affect your overall health in the long run. The best way to manage them is to figure out why you’re having them and deal with the root issues.
There are several reasons why you might frequently desire a sweet treat, with one possibility being that you might be experiencing a nutrient deficiency.
Maintaining a well-balanced diet is the most effective way to ensure that you meet your nutritional needs. Fish, fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains make delicious and nutritious meals that can help you meet your daily requirements of essential vitamins and minerals.
You’ll still have options even if you can’t meet your dietary requirements through your food. Using various supplements can help you to reach your minimum daily thresholds, too. Just be sure to avoid the gummy versions, as they’re usually loaded with sugar.
Chromium | Health Professional Fact Sheet
Protein | The Nutrition Source | Harvard School of Public Health
Pros and Cons of Taking a Magnesium Supplement | Mayo Clinic
Zinc | The Nutrition Source | Harvard School of Public Health
Vitamin A Deficiency: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment & Prevention | Cleveland Clinic
Vitamin D Deficiency | MedlinePlus
CDC’s Second Nutrition Report:A Comprehensive Biochemical Assessment of the Nutrition Status of the U.S. Population | CDC
Leptin: What It Is, Function & Levels | Cleveland Clinic
The Availability of Water Associated With Glycogen During Dehydration: a Reservoir or Raindrop? | PMC
Artificial Sweeteners: Sugar-Free, but at What Cost? | Harvard Health
Ghrelin: Much More Than a Hunger Hormone | PMC
Stress, Cortisol, and Other Appetite-Related Hormones: Prospective Prediction of 6-Month Changes in Food Cravings and Weight | PMC
FGF21 Is a Sugar-Induced Hormone Associated with Sweet Intake and Preference in Humans | ScienceDirect
How Much Sugar is Too Much? | American Heart Association
Why Sugar Makes Us Feel So Good : The Salt | NPR
Relationship Between Added Sugars Consumption and Chronic Disease Risk Factors: Current Understanding | PMC
Sugar Addiction | Addiction Center
Why Is Sleep Important to Weight Loss? | Sleep Foundation
Sleep | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health