Why Am I Craving Sugar?

Is dessert your favorite food group? Have you ever wondered, “Why do I crave sugar?” or “Why am I craving sweets all the time?” If so, you’re not alone.

When it comes to food cravings, sugar is at the top of the list for many people. It’s a tasty treat, but too much, too often, can become a problem. Learn the surprising reasons behind sugar cravings and tips to help you curb your sugar habit.

Is Sugar Addiction Real?

Many people swear they have a sugar addiction and can’t live without sweets. However, sugar isn’t quite as powerful as addictive drugs, so it’s unlikely to cause dependency.

Still, there is no denying that sugary foods taste good. And for many people, sugar increases feelings of happiness, pleasure, and reward. It sparks “feel good” chemicals like serotonin and dopamine in your brain.

If sweets taste good and make you feel good, it’s tempting to eat them more often. Once you develop a sugar habit, it’s often hard to break. Understanding the power of sugar is an important step to overcoming your cravings.

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The Problem With Too Much Sugar

Sugar isn’t necessarily bad for you. It supplies your body with glucose, an essential nutrient that fuels every cell in your body.

Various forms of sugar occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, milk, and natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. These natural sugars provide energy plus vital nutrients to fuel your body.

But food manufacturers also add sugar to many foods, from cereals to salad dressings, yogurt, and, of course, sweets. Added sugar doesn’t provide nutritional benefits, but it makes many packaged foods taste better. Eventually, you get used to the sweeter taste and crave more.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, aim to keep added sugar below 200 calories or 50 grams daily. Food manufacturers list added sugar on the nutrition facts label.

If you crave sweets, it’s easy to surpass your daily added sugar goal. Over time, too much sugar has adverse effects on your body and brain. It can cause or worsen these problems:

  • Cognitive decline, memory problems, and dementia.
  • Excess weight gain and obesity.
  • Fatty liver disease.
  • Heart disease.
  • Insulin resistance and diabetes.
  • Mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
  • Nutrient deficiencies if sugary foods replace a healthy diet.

Common Reasons for Sugar Cravings

Besides the fact that sugar tastes good, you might crave it for these reasons:

  • It’s comforting. Many people turn to sweets when they’re sad or depressed because sugar provides a short-term boost in feelings of happiness and pleasure.
  • It provides a quick energy boost. If you don’t eat enough throughout the day, you may crave sugar in the late afternoon or evening. Your body requires glucose when blood sugar drops and sugary foods or drinks can raise your blood glucose quickly.
  • It’s a habit. If you crave something sweet after a meal, it’s likely because you’re in the habit of eating dessert. The same is true if you stop to buy a donut or a sweet coffee drink every morning on the way to work.
  • It raises serotonin, a brain chemical that affects your mood. Extended periods of darkness in the winter can decrease serotonin levels in some people, causing the winter blues. Sugar and other forms of carbohydrates help increase serotonin levels.
  • It’s that time of the month. Hormones fluctuate throughout your menstrual period. For some women, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms can include sugar cravings.
  • You’re not sleeping enough. Lack of sleep or poor sleep quality can wreak havoc with your hunger hormones. Even occasional sleep deprivation causes higher levels of ghrelin, the hormone that triggers hunger, and lower levels of leptin, the satiety hormone. Many people crave sugary foods in the morning to satisfy that hunger.

Often, a combination of these factors causes or worsens sugar cravings.

How to Stop Sugar Cravings

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to curbing sugar cravings. Nutritionists often recommend starting with the following strategies to see what works best for you:

  • Aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night. Get in bed earlier so you can unwind, and turn off all blue-light devices at least one hour before bedtime.
  • Don’t skip meals or snacks. Eating every three to four hours keeps your stomach full and blood sugar balanced. That makes it easier to say no to sugar. If you eat two or three large meals daily, try eating three smaller meals with snacks in between.
  • Eat balanced meals and snacks. Your body digests sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods quickly. Including some protein and healthy fat with each meal and snack slows digestion and keeps you fuller for longer. Balance meals and snacks with protein from lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, or Greek yogurt, and fat from nuts or avocado.
  • Exercise regularly — ideally outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Exercise provides the same emotional boost as sugar. It also counteracts many of the adverse effects of excess sugar while promoting a healthy weight, heart, and blood sugar levels.
  • Opt for whole foods with complex carbohydrates. Highly processed foods, like fast foods, frozen dinners, or packaged snacks often contain added sugar or refined carbohydrates and can worsen cravings. Instead, choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and beans for your carbohydrates.
  • Revamp your habits and lifestyle to avoid sugar temptation. Keep sweets out of your house, stock up on healthy snacks like fruit and yogurt, and brush your teeth immediately after a meal.

Behavior change takes time and practice, so go slowly. Make one or two small changes at a time and build on them.

Also, consider working with a nutritionist, behavioral health therapist, or health coach. Having a support network can increase your chances of conquering your sugar cravings.

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Sugars and Sweet Taste: Addictive or Rewarding? LINK

Nutrients. The Impact of Free Sugar on Human Health—A Narrative Review. LINK

Obesity. Effects of Acute Sleep Loss on Leptin, Ghrelin, and Adiponectin in Adults With Healthy Weight and Obesity: A Laboratory Study. LINK

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. LINK

About UPMC Nutrition Services

Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.