Sugar cravings: What’s happening and how can you prevent them?

Do you suffer from – or even enjoy – sugar cravings?

Long for late-night chocolate binges? Moon over many a supermarket lolly aisle? Dream about downing a chilled fizzy drink?

Well, you are not alone. But what’s prompting these yearnings for all things sweet? Is it your brain or your body? Well, it turns out that it’s a little bit of both.

Sugar is hard to avoid in the modern diet.

Sweet dreams

As well as the usual suspects such as confectionery and ice creams, it’s in our bread, salad dressings, commercial pasta sauces, tomato sauce, yoghurt, instant oats and canned fruit and vegetables.

So why do we crave even more?

According to Healthline, it’s not just a case of desire, there are some complicated mechanisms behind the process, some are physiological (the body) and some are psychological (the brain).

The psychological bit is that our brains love rewards. Turn the brain on and it will give you a big hit of dopamine. Dopamine is the ‘feel-good’ hormone and can give you a sense of pleasure.

Dopamine is also part of your body’s reward system, so your brain gets into a cycle of releasing dopamine and then seeking more of that feeling.

And let’s face it, for the vast majority of humanity, eating is pleasurable. And if that’s sugar, then the brain’s all for it.

Mixed signals

Another possible cause of sugar cravings could be your body sending mixed signals.

According to Mission Health, your body may be signalling to your brain that it’s hungry or thirsty, but this general craving is misinterpreted as a sugar craving.

If that’s not enough, if you are feeling stressed your body may be releasing the stress hormone cortisol. In a 2019 study, researchers found that having cortisol sloshing around in your body was linked to craving sweet foods.

Poor sleep has also been linked to sugar cravings. A 2013 study found people who don’t get enough sleep have general cravings for sweet, salty and starchy foods, possibly because their bodies need something to boost energy levels.

There’s also some social conditioning. You only need to look at even a fraction of food advertising to see how eating food is portrayed. Glossy, sophisticated advertisements depict a high level of appealing imagery. Advertisers want you to feel invested in their product and linked to the message of how a little bit of that gloss could rub off on you, one expensive ice cream at a time if that’s what it takes.

Bust the cravings

So what can you do if you want to bust those sugar cravings?

Well, a good night’s sleep is a good start. If you find you are struggling to get enough sleep, the Sleep Health Foundation has plenty of tips and fact sheets to help you improve your sleep.

You can also swap out those sugary snacks for fruit, particularly fruit high in sugar such as grapes or mangoes.

According to Mission Health, eating more protein may also put the handbrake on those sugar cravings. Protein can slow down sugar absorption and prevent a sugar ‘spike’ that your brain likes so much.

It’s also a good idea to check the labels. If the sugar content is too high, put it back and try to find an alternative.

Distract yourself with a quick walk. A 2015 study found a brisk walk of 15 minutes cuts cravings and will probably give you more energy than any chocolate-coated snack could anyway.

Do you have sugar cravings? Do you give in to them or try to fight them? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Huge health gains from a sugar tax, study finds

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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