If you struggle with sugar addiction or experience intense sweet cravings at different times of the day (or month) you are in good company. After over 25 years of practice, I would put sugar-related issues on my very short list of what keeps people from living their best lives. Whether it’s the vicious cycle of feeling defeated over and over again when one feels like they have little control over their cravings, and/or the numerous health challenges (including immune response, energy, and mood) that sugar contributes to, I have witnessed many people sharing their frustration and feelings of hopelessness time and time again. Fortunately, I have witnesses the victories when my patients applied some of the strategies that I’ll share in this post. The absolute freedom and vitality that comes from overcoming an unhealthy relationship with sugar has allowed many patients who were stuck in unhealthy cycles, often for decades, to experience renewed health, vigor, and peace of mind.
First, let’s understand some reasons why sugar can seem to have such an overpowering influence.
According to the USDA, the average American consumes 66 pounds of sugar per year1.
That’s a heck of a lot—about 19 teaspoons per day—and speaks volumes to our country’s current obesity and diabetes epidemics.
While those are alarming statistics, the actual experience of eating so much sugar also often includes guilt, shame, and powerlessness. But no need to feel bad over that piece of candy or cafe mocha. It’s more important to understand the 3 main causes of sugar cravings in the first place so the solutions make sense and can be implemented smoothly.
#1: We’re hard-wired to crave sweets
Think about it.
From the time we are born we’re programmed to crave breast milk—which is loaded with precious nutrients, including an abundance of natural sugars which feed the brain, build up glycogen reserves in the liver and encourage a healthy appetite.
Additionally, as humankind has evolved, we’ve sought and prized sweet, calorie-dense foods like berries, fruits, honey and potatoes to give us the energy we needed to survive.
And while our natural sweet tooth has served us historically, modern access to processed foods and refined sugar is now doing us more harm than good.
#2: Sugar has been shown to mediate our stress response
If you’ve ever inhaled a chocolate bar after getting bad news, or relied on sugary drinks to get you through a high-pressure assignment, then you know how comforting sugar can be during times of stress.
And science has now proven that “self-medicating” with sugar can help mediate the stress response in some people. Temporarily.
Researchers at the University of California, studied the effects of sugar-sweetened and artificial-sweetened beverages on a group of women, and found that the group consuming the sugar-sweetened beverages had lower levels of stress-induced cortisol 2.
This means that if you’re stressed, sugar can indeed help you feel better. Again, temporarily. Of course, this study is not intended to be encouragement to eat sugar to reduce stress, but rather a study looking into the mechanisms of the unhealthy relationship of eating sugar when stressed. The positive benefits on cortisol can be short lived, as regular consumption of sugar and disrupt a healthy cortisol metabolism and contribute to metabolic issues such as weight gain, inflammation, and diabetes. It also means stress increases your chances of becoming hooked on the sweet stuff, trapping you in a vicious cycle.
#3: Nutrient deficiencies fuel sugar cravings
While many people see their sugar cravings as a sign of weakness, it’s often a symptom of nutritional imbalance.
A lack of specific nutrients, like protein, B-vitamins, magnesium and chromium for example, can cause you to crave more sugar.
Now that you understand the 3 main causes of sugar cravings, lets look at some practical and natural ways to get those cravings under control.
Sugar craving solution #1: Include some protein at every meal and snack
Blood sugar stability plays a key role in food cravings, and protein is your best ally in maintaining healthy blood sugar.
That doesn’t mean you have to go paleo or start snacking on bacon—balance is the goal here, and for some, too much animal protein can cause energy dips and other health issues.
Beyond animal-based proteins, you can snack on nuts, seeds, tempeh, hummus, beans and lentils.
Plant-based protein powders, soy-free, low-sugar protein bars or dairy-free milks in smoothies can be a good choice when are not able to have a proper meal. I often share with patients that I’d rather they have their protein in a bar or smoothie rather than skip a meal or have a high-carb meal as they are navigating this new world of protein at every meal and snack. That advice seems to help in the initial stages, and the intention is to gradually replace powders and bars with fresh food as often as possible.
Sugar craving solution #2: Up your consumption of veggies
Colorful vegetables are still your best source of life-giving nutrients, and you can eat as much of them as you want in place of sugary treats. When you focus on eating more veggies instead of trying to avoid sugar, the benefits from the increased vegetables naturally reduce sugar cravings.
Also, sweet-flavored vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, sugar snap peas, jicama and bell peppers help satisfy a sweet tooth and can be consumed regularly.
Focus on what you can have, not what you can’t have.
Sugar craving solution #3: Drink plenty of water
I learned a long time ago that food cravings are often a sign of dehydration.
This goes for sugar cravings too.
Next time you want to reach for that sugary snack, drink a glass of water or two and notice that your cravings will often subside.
A simple solution to reduce sugar cravings before they happen: drink 6-8 glasses of pure filtered or spring water per day.
If you’re accustom to drinking sodas and crave that fizzy-satisfaction, try switching to sparkling water (unsweetened naturally flavored also an option) .
Then gradually replace with non-carbonated water and/or water with slices of fruit, and eventually you’ll be satisfied with plain water.
Bottom line: while I prefer my patients not consume copious amounts of carbonated beverages for their bone and digestive health, if you need to drink fizzy water for a period of time to break your soda habit, go for it.
Just make it your goal to switch to plain, pure water as soon as possible.
Sugar craving solution #4: Don’t skip breakfast!
Keeping your blood sugar stable starts with what you eat in the morning…so don’t skip breakfast.
You don’t have to eat a large amount of food, but a balanced breakfast with some carbs and protein can do wonders for curbing sugar cravings later in the day.
Some of my favorites are:
- Protein smoothies with pea or hemp protein, berries, bananas, and greens
- Eggs with gluten-free toast or in a gluten-free wrap (such as a coconut meat tortilla)
- Dairy-free yogurt with hemp seeds and gluten-free granola
If you can handle dairy or cultured dairy, go for it. Personally, I do better without (hence the dairy-free milk choices).
Sugar craving solution #5: Get enough sleep and address sleep issues
Sleep has a huge impact on your blood sugar levels, appetite and sugar cravings.
If you don’t get enough sleep, it can cause sugar and food cravings by interfering with your leptin and ghrelin levels3.
Leptin and ghrelin work together to regulate your appetite and satiety.
So if they are imbalanced, you’ll have a hard time feeling full and satisfied which can lead to cravings for high-calorie, high-sugar foods.
Additionally, a lack of sleep causes an increase in cortisol4, your body’s stress hormone, which (as we covered above) can drive you to self-medicate with sugar.
How much sleep should you get to avoid these hormonal imbalances?
That varies a bit from person-to-person, but ideally you should get between 7 1/2 – 9 hours of sleep per night and awaken feeling refreshed and recharged.
If you’re having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up refreshed, talk to your integrative health practitioner immediately to get that resolved.
Sugar craving solution #6: Consider supplementing with the following vitamins/minerals
While supplementation alone will not curb sugar cravings entirely, optimizing the following key nutrients can really take the edge off sugar cravings:
- Chromium—this mineral is used by doctors to control blood sugar levels and can be helpful, in small doses, to combat sugar issues.
- B-vitamins—B-vitamins are quickly depleted by excess sugar consumption, and I’ve had many patients report a reduction in cravings after taking a high-quality B-Complex. Check with your practitioner about the best formula for you—especially if you have the MTHFR mutation—and make sure it contains ample B12.
- Magnesium—sugar intake also depletes magnesium reserves, and magnesium is critical to maintaining your stress response, helping anxiety and promoting healthy sleep. I recommend magnesium glycinate for its superior absorbability and gentleness on the stomach.
- High-quality probiotics—it’s been long-recognized that gut issues, like candida, are exacerbated by sugar. And recent research has shown what you feed your gut bacteria can have a significant impact on which foods you crave5. Thus, it’s a good idea to include a high-quality probiotic to help promote “good” gut bacteria and help knock back those cravings.
For specific doses and formulas, be sure to check with your practitioner.
Sugar craving solution #7: Change your relationship with stress
By now you’ve learned how stress and anxiety can trap you in a vicious sugar-craving-cycle.
Becoming aware of that is the first step, the next step is to do something about it.
When it comes to changing your relationship with stress—and anything for that matter—I’ve always found it’s easier to replace unhealthy habits with healthy habits, rather than trying to just quit cold-turkey.
This blog has numerous stress management tools under the “Peaceful Mind“, “Joyful Spirit” and “Loving Heart” categories, and many of the points above will help you reduce stress and anxiety naturally.
Sugar cravings and sugar addiction may seem impossible to overcome at times…especially with societal pressure to “indulge” so many treats available at our fingertips.
The good news is, you now have the knowledge and power you need to start overcoming sweet cravings and take back your health.
Take it a step at a time and always, always be kind to yourself in the process.