Today, the average American consumes 152 pounds of sugar per year, equal to three pounds per week — more than 10 times the recommended amount. Excessive sugar consumption predisposes individuals to excessive weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, several cancers and myriad metabolic diseases. So, “why do I crave sugar?” we hear you say.
Science tells us that sugar cravings are reinforced by cultural, lifestyle and biological factors. Learn why we experience these impulses — and how to overcome them.
Why should you care: Sugar kills
When you eat sugar, your body reacts emotionally, physically and metabolically, so it makes sense that eating too much of it can negatively impact your every biological system. Research shows that overconsuming sugar puts you at a higher risk of mortality, due to the increased likelihood of developing:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Obesity, weight gain and increased waist size
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Cognitive decline (dementia, etc.)
- Colon and pancreatic cancers
- Kidney diseases
- Retina, muscle and nerve damage
- Cavities and tooth decay
- Skin aging and wrinkles
To be clear, your body does need a certain quantity of sugars and starches from carbohydrates to supply glucose to the brain and provide energy to cells around the body. However, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), the body does not need any added sugar to function healthily.
What causes sugar cravings?
Sugar cravings can come from emotional or biological sources, impacting every individual uniquely. In other words, cravings can come from your belly or your brain — and understanding why you’re experiencing this drive for something sweet can be key to controlling it.
Culture and conditioning
We’re taught from a young age that sugar is a reward for good behavior or to be eaten on a special occasion. As adults, we indulge in sweet treats as a cultural tradition or to evoke nostalgia. And as the pandemic surged and life became more stressful and lonely, some of us began to form sugar-centric habits that made us remember better times.
Sugar is everywhere
The amount of sugar in our diets has increased significantly over the past several decades, in concert with lifestyle changes demanding convenience-focused shopping. Ultra-processed and processed foods now take up a large portion of the modern diet. The long list of names for added sugars can make them sneaky and hard to find. Other than the well-known cane sugar, other names include glucose, lactose, fructose, agave nectar, honey, brown rice syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, evaporated cane juice, malt syrup, sucrose and molasses.
A recent study concluded that the average American receives nearly 60% of their daily caloric intake from ultra-processed foods. These foods contain, on average, more than 21% of added sugars — which means that nearly 13% of our daily energy is from added sugars alone. As a comparison, the same study found that added sugars in unprocessed or minimally processed combined amounted to less than 4%. Learn more: The Truth About Processed Foods.
Our brains like it
The human brain uses glucose — the most basic form of sugar— as its main source of energy for all cognitive activities: thinking, memory and learning. When you consume sugar, your brain releases dopamine, a feel-good chemical. The release of dopamine has two effects: it reinforces the action of what you just ate and makes you want more of it. Over time, consistent or increasing sugar intake creates a higher tolerance level and your brain will need more to experience the same feel-good effects of the dopamine release. Consuming food for pleasure instead of hunger is referred to as “hedonic hunger.”
The cyclic effect on your blood glucose levels
When you consume sugar, it causes a spike in your blood glucose level, which then causes the body to release insulin. If sugar is constantly dumped into the bloodstream, the pancreas over-produces insulin to keep up and your cells may stop responding to it — resulting in insulin resistance. What’s more, if there’s a big difference between the spike and normal blood glucose levels, your body will begin craving foods that will raise your blood sugar once again. Thus, these sugar cravings put you on a blood glucose roller coaster and often encourage you to eat more than your body needs, which can lead to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other health issues. Learn more: What Is Metabolic Health?
Poor “sleep hygiene” and stressful lifestyles
If you don’t get enough sleep, your body is probably craving sugar (for energy) as a way to fight exhaustion. A 2018 randomized control study reported that even 20 minutes of additional sleep per night led to a decrease in sugar consumption after just one month. Learn more: Why Sleep Matters For Your Metabolic Health.
Can I be Addicted to Sugar?
Many researchers would argue that sugar behaves like an addictive drug. Sugar is readily absorbable, habit-forming, can alter your mood and produces drug-like psychoactive effects. A number of animal studies show that sugar consumption creates cravings comparable to cocaine, sex and cigarettes — and sugar can be as or more rewarding than those other substances.
How do I stop the urge to eat sugar?
Resisting your cravings, habitually, will actually lead to fewer cravings over time. But we know that simply resisting sugar (or anything you love) is extremely difficult, so here are some ways to make it easier to stop your sugar cravings. Keep in mind that lifestyle and dietary changes take time, commitment and allowing yourself to give in to the cravings when it’s important to you:
1. Discover where your added sugars are hiding
Federal law requires that all packaged foods list the total amount of sugar as well as the amount of added sugars. Added sugars include all sugar that’s been added in the manufacturing process, seen on the ingredients list as cane sugar, dextrose, honey, sugars from concentrated fruits or vegetables, etc. Total sugars are the amount of added sugars plus the naturally occurring sugars found in your food. For single-ingredient sugars, such as maple syrup, a nutrition label may only have total sugars listed because the only caloric nutrient is sugar.
Importantly, just because sugars are naturally occurring doesn’t mean they don’t negatively impact your insulin response or blood glucose levels.
What to look for on the label
Sugar amounts are listed by weight in grams and by Percent Daily Value (% DV). One teaspoon of raw sugar is equal to 4 grams (equal to 4 calories), and the American Heart Association recommends that men should consume no more than 9 teaspoons (equal to 36 grams, or 150 calories) of sugar per day. Women shouldn’t consume more than 6 teaspoons (equal to 25 grams or 100 calories) of sugars per day. The % DV tells you how much a nutrient is recommended per day based on a 2,000 calorie diet and helps shoppers know when you’re getting too much of a nutrient.
Looking at the ingredients list and the nutrition facts label can help you find ways to lower your sugar intake. Next time you’re in the grocery store, take a look at the nutrition labels to get a sense of how much sugar you’re consuming in a day — but understand that this does not include your purchased morning latte or dinners in restaurants.
Weight loss contributes to a decrease in food cravings, and physical activity is a key component of any long-term weight loss plan. Some researchers suggest that physical activity — even in the absence of weight loss — can lead to lessening food cravings.
3. Increase your protein and fiber consumption
High protein foods and high fiber foods digest in your body slowly, keeping you fuller for longer and avoiding any blood glucose spikes. Keeping your body satiated curbs your sugar cravings and keeps you from wandering to the pantry searching for a sugary snack to tide you over until the next meal. See: What You Need To Know About Prebiotics and What Is Fiber?
4. Decrease your sugar consumption with “the 3 S’s”:
- Stop the temptation: The easiest way to eat less sugar is to simply make it less available. Avoid buying those sugary cereals, your favorite candies and sweetened beverages. Tip: Stay on the perimeter of the grocery store where all the “real food” is generally stored.
- Swap it out: Next time you’re at the store, take a few minutes to browse the aisle and see if you can find a less sugary alternative. Try the unsweetened version of dried fruit, for example. Try baking by swapping unsweetened applesauce or banana puree for sugar. Think high-fiber whole grains instead of refined white breads; quinoa instead of white rice; apples instead of donuts; hummus instead of a sour-cream-based dip for a snack.
- Sweeten it yourself: Make your favorite foods at home and add the sweetener yourself; you may be surprised at how little you end up using.
Check out the American Heart Association’s website for more ideas.
Each person experiences sugar cravings because of a unique combination of biological, cultural and emotional factors. The bottom line is that if you can reduce the amount of sugar you consume, the less you will crave. To reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, start by identifying where your sugars are coming from by reading the ingredients and food labels. Then, focus on the 3 S’s: stop the temptation, swap it out and sweeten it yourself. In addition, practice good sleep hygiene, manage your stress levels, subscribe to an overall healthy diet and stay physically active — all of which will help reduce your sugar cravings.