The science behind sugar cravings: Why we crave it and how to beat it

Consuming too much sugar can be scary for our bodies, much like the painted figure behind this old man eating cotton candy at a local amusement park in Istanbul, April 14, 2013. (iStock Photo)

If it feels like a little army of demons takes over your body and tortures you until you feed them sugar, you might be experiencing sugar cravings. And if these happen more often than not, perhaps it’s time to consider the psychological and biological reasons behind it

Maybe an unexpected wave of sadness or happy news sets it off or a really convincing ad, and sometimes it just comes out of nowhere when you suddenly find yourself in a state of irrepressible desire for something sugary and sweet. Experiencing these strong cravings frequently can, unfortunately, lead to unwanted weight gain and affect overall health adversely.

When we eat sugar, our body starts to secrete serotonin (the hormone of happiness) and endorphins (feel-good hormones), which gives us that temporary feeling of happiness. Hence many of us turn to sweets in times of unhappiness. But if you are seeing the bottom of a chocolate spread jar an hour after you open it or finishing everything sweet in sight after random pangs of hunger, you might want to reconsider your health and think about underlying causes. Dietician Büşra Mutlu from Memorial Hospital says that sugar cravings are not difficult to overcome as long as they are managed correctly.

6 underlying causes

Research has shown that many factors can lead to sugar cravings. According to Dietician Büşra Mutlu from Memorial Hospital, these can be listed as follows:

Hypoglycemia: Hypoglycaemia is a rapid fall in blood sugar to levels below what is considered normal. Sugar cravings are inevitable in cases of prolonged hunger without any snacks in between. In hypoglycemic patients, doctors recommend consuming light meals every three hours.

Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): Most women with this common hormonal disorder also have latent diabetes. Those who have PCOS tend to have high insulin levels which can make them crave sugary foods even after eating meals. Such cravings can be prevented with a treatment plan drawn up by a nutritionist, obstetrician and gynecologist.

Mineral deficiency: It is known that people with iron, chromium and magnesium deficiencies are prone to experiencing more sugar cravings, as a lack of these minerals can reduce response to sugar (glucose) in blood. Therefore, vitamin and mineral deficiencies should be evaluated with a doctor’s control.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS): While most women do not normally have the urge for something sweet, they can experience intense food cravings a week or two before menstruation. This is due to the decrease in the estrogen hormone and fluctuations in serotonin, which can cause a drop in blood sugar levels.

Emotional state: The desire for some delicious dessert may increase in periods of depression. Depressed people are known for trying to self-medicate with sugar and carbs, although the opposite may also be true for some. Insulin, the hormone that allows our body’s tissues to use the sugar we consume, is a precursor to serotonin, so after eating a sugary snack our insulin levels rise, and this causes a temporary elevation in serotonin levels. However, sugar has been found to cause inflammation in the body and heighten the risk of or worsen depression. Studies have also shown that women who are unhappy in their marriages experience more sugar cravings than those who are content.

Our habits: If your family or their friends offered you sweets and chocolate as a reward in your childhood, this could get engrained in your brain as a perceived value of reward in the future, even when you are content with your life and are successful. While a square of dark chocolate may not be a problem, telling yourself “I will treat myself to something sweet” can trigger sugar cravings.


Normally, dried and fresh fruits can help beat those sugar pangs. However, sometimes they just don’t cut it. Although chewing sugar-free gum is known to reduce our urge for dessert (but it can cause stomach problems and bloating, so beware), trying to shift your focus to something else has proven to be just as effective. Getting your digestive system back on track and strengthening it with healthy, balanced meals can also help eliminate those cravings. Here a few suggestions by Mutlu:

Eat less but frequently: Reduce the amount of food you eat in your main meals of the day and snack regularly with light alternatives, which in turn can help you balance your blood sugar levels and prevent hypoglycemia attacks.

Maintain a 150-calorie limit: Consuming a dessert that does not exceed 150 calories per day will be less harmful to the body than eating sugary foods all day. If you still want to eat some dessert, choose milky or fruity desserts over syrupy and heavy-carb options.

Mix desserts: Instead of eating a whole bar of chocolate on its own, a banana or a few strawberries dipped in chocolate has been shown to reduce cravings. Consuming small amounts of chocolate dragees with hazelnuts or almonds can also curb your craving for sweets.

Fruit is the way to go: Fresh and dried fruits can meet your needs for something sweet. Adding a source of calcium (such as yogurt, nuts or green leafy vegetables) to fruit can increase the feeling of satiety, too.

Find a new focus: When the idea of eating something sweet comes to mind, do an activity that you can complete in 10 minutes to take your mind off of it. A quick clean around the house, getting up and walking around your office, calling a friend for a quick chat, or reading a newspaper can make you forget those cravings.

Avoid simple carbohydrates: Simple carbohydrates such as pastry products increase our tendency to eat something sweet. Instead of white flour and rice, try consuming bulgur, whole wheat bread, whole wheat products and dried legumes along with sources of protein to increase satiety while decreasing the desire for dessert.

Seek support: If changes in your emotional state such as stress and sadness cause you to have cravings, you may consider getting professional support from a psychologist. You should bear in mind that no food or dessert will solve any problems in life.

Satisfy your eyes first: Visual perception is known to improve the sense of taste. Try to create healthy yet beautiful looking, enticing recipes that you can prepare at home.


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