When our ancestors roamed the Earth thousands of years ago, sugar cravings were useful. They helped our hairy forebears identify the foods (like figs) that provided insurance against leaner times.
They even evolved a mutation that helped them store sugar as fat. The hominids with the mutation survived. The others did not.
Today, sugar cravings aren’t as handy. Our innate sweet tooth makes it easy for us to overconsume a substance that’s linked to just about every modern disease.
Here’s the thing. The human body hasn’t changed much in 20,000 years, but our diets and lifestyles have. And of all the dietary changes, the advent of added sugar is probably the most insidious. It’s hiding everywhere to add empty calories and derange our metabolisms.
Yes, if you sit in a metabolic ward and are only allowed to eat a limited amount of junk food, you may dodge most of the bullets associated with sugar consumption. However, most of us live surrounded by hyperpalatable foods, which make it easy to overeat. Thus, we suffer the consequences of the modern diet.
The main source of added sugar in the American diet is the sugar-sweetened beverage. This is a remarkably easy way to over consume calories in general and sugar in particular. This is why a primary recommendation I make for folks looking to improve health and longevity is to eliminate liquid calories. But how do we curb sugar cravings?
A good place to start is understanding why we crave it. Then we have a fighting chance of launching the appropriate countermeasures. You’ll learn how to launch those countermeasures in this article. But before we dive into sugar cravings, let’s spend a bit more time on the sugar crisis.
A Sugar Emergency
It’s common knowledge for most folks that sugar is bad for you. Even the US government—typically behind the curve on nutrition advice—recommends limiting added sugars to 10% of daily calories. And recently, they started mandating all food manufacturers to list added sugars on the nutrition label.
These are positive steps, but they’re insufficient. Ten percent of daily calories is a TON of added sugar—about 12 teaspoons worth on a 2000 calorie diet.
And believe it or not, 12 teaspoons of added sugar would be an improvement over the average American’s consumption of 17 teaspoons per day. (Mostly as liquid sugar). That’s the definition of a high-sugar diet.
A high-sugar diet drives myriad health problems. Here are a few examples:
- In one JAMA study, women consuming one or more sugary drinks per day had an 83% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to women drinking less than one drink per month.
- The literature suggests that the more sugar a person consumes, the more weight they gain.
- A paper published in the journal Nutrients found that heart disease risk increases by 10 to 20 percent for each additional sugary beverage consumed daily.
- High-sugar diets are linked to impaired cognitive function in Malaysian older adults.
I could go on, but I’d rather steer you toward this blog on how sugar is making us sick. Now then, let’s talk about sugar cravings.
Why Sugar is Easy to Overconsume
We looked briefly at why humans like sugar. We’re wired to like it. Sugar provided dense, fattening calories in a time when calories were hard to come by. But calories are (fortunately or otherwise) no longer hard to come by. And this leads to my first reason why we eat too much sugar:
Added sugar is everywhere. Pick up almost any packaged food and you’ll see for yourself.
The bottom line: It’s more difficult to kick a craving when you’re constantly surrounded by what you crave.
Eating patterns are influenced heavily by habit and conditioning. If you eat a cookie every night at 9:30 PM, you’ll crave cookies every night as the clock approaches the appointed hour.
Even if you aren’t hungry, you’ll probably reach for the cookie anyway. Habitual behavior is automatic.
And automatic sugar intake is widespread. With soda, fruit juice, and “sports” drinks as default beverages, the bad habit is reinforced with every sip.
#3: Neurochemical addiction
Heard of dopamine? It’s a chemical released by your brain that gives you a rewarding feeling of pleasure.
When we consume sugar, we get a big hit of dopamine. It’s part of our evolutionary wiring that makes us love sweets.
Your brain loves dopamine. It craves dopamine. And it knows it can get dopamine by consuming sugar. So it isn’t just that sugar tastes good—it actually feels good. (In the short term, anyway).
#4: Blood sugar spikes and dips
Hunger varies inversely with blood sugar fluctuations. As blood sugar dips, hunger rises.
And blood sugar on a high-sugar diet can be like a rollercoaster. When someone drinks a sugar-sweetened beverage, their blood sugar goes up, only to crash as insulin scrambles to clean up the mess.
The aftermath is a low-energy state, full of angst and craving. It’s called being “hangry”, and it doesn’t increase your likeability. Unfortunately, many consume more sugar as a short term solution, which worsens the downward spiral.
#5: It’s not satiating
There’s a reason calories from refined carbs are called empty calories. They don’t keep you full for long.
When someone eats a sugary snack before an all-you-can-eat buffet, they end up consuming more total calories than folks who eat a stevia or aspartame-sweetened snack. That’s been shown.
High-sugar diets can also cause issues with leptin, your satiety hormone. When leptin doesn’t work properly (called leptin resistance), you never feel full. That’s a recipe for overeating.
5 Ways to Reduce Sugar Cravings
Now that you know a few of the most common contributors to sugar cravings, you can take steps to lessen the cravings. It may be uncomfortable for a while, but getting out of our comfort zone is an essential part of implementing healthy changes in our lives. Try these tips:
#1: Stop eating refined sugar
I know, this tip is obvious. But if you continue to eat sugar, you will continue to crave it. Sugar can be addictive, just like caffeine or nicotine. The more you consume, the more you crave it.
Note: when you stop eating refined sugar, you may experience sugar withdrawal symptoms like headaches, mood swings, and insomnia. This is your body crying out one last time for its “drug”. This is not a reason to give up. Check out Tyler’s blog on the topic here.
The way forward? Keep eating whole foods and stay hydrated with water and electrolytes. The cravings are a temporary discomfort that will improve with time.
#2: Go low-carb
One of the best ways to control carb cravings is to eat a low-carb or ketogenic diet. When you keep carbs low, you gain access to that renewable energy source lining your frame: body fat. You’ll no longer need the hit of sugar to press on. For the most part, fat will fuel your day.
Being in ketosis (the fat-burning state generated by a keto diet) also helps reduce hunger hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide Y.
Less hunger means less overeating. This is one reason a ketogenic diet is such an effective weight loss tool. It helps people keep their calorie intake below the threshold of their calorie expenditure.
After limiting carbs for a few weeks, the sugar cravings tend to reduce naturally. Give it time.
#3: Get enough salt
What you think is a craving for sugar might be a craving for salt.
I see this all the time in keto dieters. They think carb cravings are giving them headaches, but the headaches are actually caused by sodium deficiency.
Keto folks tend to be deficient in sodium for two main reasons:
- Whole foods contain very little salt
- A low-carb diet increases urinary sodium loss
LMNT contains 1000 mg sodium (and ZERO sugar) per stick. It’s enough salt to make a difference, particularly in folks who eat a low-carb diet, practice fasting, or live active lifestyles.
#4: Get enough sleep
In other words, you’ll be ravenous AND your willpower will be in absentia. Bad combo.
I recommend spending 8 to 10 hours in bed each night to get 7 to 9 hours of restorative sleep. Guard this time ferociously—your body will thank you.
#5: Optimize your environment
The best way to avoid temptation is to avoid what’s tempting you. If you’re surrounded by sugar, you will eat sugar. If you’re not, you won’t.
Exert as much control over your environment as possible. Ideally, keep sugary foods out of the house. If family or roommates can’t be helped, at least keep the sweets sealed and out of your sight.
Still, unless you want to live hermetically for the next few decades, you can’t hide from sugar forever. That’s where the preceding tips come in. And the next section too.
How to Replace Sugar
Cutting back on sugar doesn’t mean eliminating treats from your diet. You can still have the sweetness without the empty calories.
My favorite noncaloric sugar substitutes are:
Each of these natural sweeteners contains zero (or practically zero) calories, doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, and is perfectly compatible with a low-carb or ketogenic diet.
For the sake of our collective well-being, we need to steer folks away from sugar and drive toward healthier sugar alternatives. Your daily personal choice for health has a ripple effect in this world. Start there.