What Causes Sugar Cravings? [And How You Can Stop Them]
I often get asked, “What is the number 1 piece of advice you’d give someone to improve their health” and I always respond with the same thing...
Cut sugar out of your diet! Completely!
If you’re a regular reader here then you’ll know that I’m an advocate of low carb diets particularly for people who are struggling with their weight, and for metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
But if you’re sugar addicted then even the thought of completely cutting out carbs might be enough to bring you out in a cold sweat.
In this post I’m going to be diving deep into the brain to find out why we get sugar cravings, then we’re going to look at a couple of different ways to approach cutting that sugar out of your diet.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
We’re hard wired to crave sweet foods
This stems from our ancestors, who would have been hunting and gathering to survive. Things that taste overwhelmingly bitter are foods that we probably shouldn’t be consuming, or at least not consuming too much of.
This bitter taste acts as a deterrent – a signal to be careful when eating.
Sweet foods, on the other hand, taste good to encourage us to eat them.
Foods that taste sweet do so to signal to animals that they are safe to consume. Lots of fruits actually rely on animal consumption for the spreading of their seeds. To understand why humans have developed this addiction to sugar we need to understand what it does to our brains. Let's talk dopamine!
What is dopamine?
Dopamine functions both as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter that communicates information by relaying signals between nerve cells. It acts as a reward, released in the body when we complete a survival task, like sourcing food or procreating.
Dopamine is ultimately a hormone that encourages growth and development, and a desire for survival and procreation. It’s a vital chemical our bodies produce to encourage life-sustaining behaviors.
Without dopamine, we wouldn’t get anything done, as dopamine directly affects our ability to focus, and our motivation to complete tasks.
Dopamine is important in:
Reduced dopamine production is a feature of Parkinson's Disease and can be treated using a synthetic dopamine-like drugs. An excess of dopamine production can result in the brain signaling unnecessary movement, causing repetitive tics.
Pleasure Seeking Behavior
Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure in the brain. It stimulates us to seek out pleasure, through sourcing and eating food and procreating.
Dopamine is released when we see and smell food to encourage us to continue this behavior for survival. More dopamine is released when we eat.
Dopamine is synthesised from tyrosine (an amino acid), and studies have shown that introducing more foods that contain tyrosine into your diet could increase dopamine levels. Foods such as eggs, spirulina and beetroot contain tyrosine, while foods like fish, kale and green tea also encourage dopamine production in the brain.
Dopamine is released in the brain when we eat
When we eat the same food over and over again, our bodies get used to receiving the same nutrients, and it takes more food for dopamine to be released. As a result,we no longer feel as satisfied from the dish as we once did.
This is an evolutionary trait that encourages a varied diet and stops us from consuming the same nutrients for too long.
However, when it comes to sugar as we now know it, we seem to be losing these benefits of this evolutionary trait all together.
Why is sugar addictive?
Precisely because of this dopamine release in the brain when consumed. The more sugar our bodies are used to, the slower the dopamine release, and the more we need to eat to get that feel-good dopamine hit.
When we consume sugar, the brain produces huge surges of dopamine. Over time, our bodies get used to these high levels of dopamine, and we start to crave sugary foods more and more.
As we start to eat more sugar to allow for the high production of dopamine, our bodies also start to build a tolerance to dopamine, and we start to require more and more dopamine to benefit from this feel-good hormone. This is where the addiction aspect comes in.
This building of tolerance works in a similar way to alcohol consumption. Let’s say you consume alcohol fairly regularly and then you participate in Dry January, where for one month you don’t consume any alcohol. On February 1st, you celebrate with your friends and order a pint.
Because your body is no longer used to having alcohol in its system, you may feel the effects of the alcohol a lot quicker than before, because your tolerance has decreased.
This addiction aspect of sugar works in a similar way to cocaine or heroin. When humans take cocaine or heroin, a huge surge of dopamine is released. This is what makes these drugs addictive, and when tolerance starts to build, deadly.
There are of course large differences with cocaine and heroin addiction vs. sugar addiction. Cocaine and heroin can lead to homelessness and severe, instant health concerns. Sugar addiction plays a much more subtle role in the deterioration of our health, taking time to become apparent and symptoms that may seem somewhat harmless, such as afternoon headaches, intense sugar cravings, and frequent dips in mood.
Hit The Reset Button
So now we know that the more sugar we eat, the more sugar we need to consume for dopamine to be released in the brain. The good news is, when we start to cut down our sugar intake, our body readjusts and our tolerance decreases, meaning we’ll need to consume less sugar to get the same feel-good dopamine hit.
If sugar is so addictive, how do I cut down?
First, the bad news....
Cutting down on your sugar intake is no easy task. It requires commitment and a strong desire to improve your health.
Removing sugar from the diet can cause physical withdrawal symptoms such as:-
- Dips in mood
- Nausea (in severe cases) .
The good news
You can train your body to not crave sugar, and in doing so, retrain your taste buds to get rid of that sweet tooth!
It takes about 1 week of no sugar consumption for taste buds to reset to normal.
You’ll be amazed at how incredibly sweet those sweet treats taste after a week of no sugar!
After a few weeks of reducing our sugar intake, dopamine will start to be released quicker in response to consuming sugar, and we won’t need as much sugar to feel satisfied.
Find what works for you
There are different approaches to quitting sugar that resonate better with different people. Depending on your reasons for quitting sugar, your goals, and your habit breaking abilities, you may prefer to quit cold turkey or make gradual changes to your diet to minimise your sugar intake.
1. Quitting cold turkey
Maybe you’re an all or nothing kind of person, and that’s okay. Quitting sugar cold turkey can work for certain people, and might be necessary for others with specific health goals. Things to note about quitting cold turkey – depending on your previous sugar intake levels, you may experience withdrawal symptoms, and there are ways to combat those.
If you start to experience headaches in the afternoon, start eating one or two squares of dark 70%+ cacao in the mornings with a glass of water. Dark chocolate contains magnesium, which acts as a muscle relaxant in the body. Magnesium, as a result, can be an effective assistant for migraine and headache relief, while also being an ideal food to satisfy sugar cravings. (Where possible, always select an organic brand.).
In order to quit sugar cold turkey effectively, it helps to be organised and have an action plan. Before quitting, go through your food supplies and make sure you don’t have any temptations laying around! If you don’t have access to sugary foods, you’re more likely to succeed. Make sure you have recipe ideas ready and a fully stocked fridge full of the new foods you’re excited to be eating.
Quitting sugar cold turkey for some is incredibly difficult. It can seem intimidating and falling off the wagon with an all or nothing approach can be overwhelming.
2. Making gradual changes.
If this resonates with you, try this simple level up technique.
Take a look at your standard daily food intake. Identify places that could be improved, for example, let’s say in the morning, you’re rushing to get to work and grab a chocolate croissant and a coffee with two sugars from your local coffee shop and eat them in the car.
For one week, try levelling up this meal by swapping out this routine for a healthier one.
Whip up a high protein breakfast (while protein encourages dopamine production, it also helps to reduce sugar cravings as it makes you feel full and satisfied for longer) and eat mindfully before rushing off to work.
This may already be a huge change to your routine and daily norm, so avoid levelling up anything else until you’re confident in this new habit.
If this simply isn’t working for you, try levelling up a different aspect of your diet instead! No one’s perfect, and trial and error is key in this approach.
Here are some tips to curb cravings and manage the withdrawal symptoms.
If you can identify why you’re eating sugar when you’re eating it, you can start to identify new ways in which to respond to this craving.
For example, let’s say you work an office job and at 4 pm every day your colleague shares around some cookies and brings you a cup of tea. You like this routine and don’t want to get rid of it, it encourages socialising and signals the work day coming to a close. It’s important to recognise what this break does for you and think of ways you can keep it without consuming the sugar.
Maybe you start to bring your own savoury snack into the office and ask your colleague to make you a herbal tea instead of your English breakfast with one sugar. It might be helpful to tell the people around you what you’re trying to achieve in reducing your sugar intake. The more people know about your journey, the more encouraging they’ll be and the more careful they’ll be sharing food around the office that you’ve expressed you’re trying to stay away from.
This sounds like an obvious one, but starting your day with a tall glass of water can really help curb those cravings throughout the day. Thirst can often be confused with hunger, and sometimes when we’re craving something sweet, really we’re just dehydrated. In moments where you start to feel a sugar craving, drink a tall glass of water and wait a few minutes before grabbing a healthy snack (hyperlink healthy snack).
You’re on the right path.
Whichever way you decide to quit sugar, remember that falling off the wagon is a part of the journey. Making a bad choice at the beginning of the day shouldn’t dictate the fate of the rest of your day.
Try to identify why you fell out of the good habits and hop right back on the wagon to continue to take control of your health.
After a short while of cutting down sugar, your body will start to respond to sugar consumption in a healthier way, and will start to crave sugar less and less. The more you practice lowering your sugar consumption, the easier it gets.
Then… we can start to think about cutting down the rest of the carbs!