5 ways to reduce sugar cravings (and why we crave it)

From the desk of
Robb Wolf
Science5 ways to reduce sugar cravings (and why we crave it)

When our ancestors roamed the Earth thousands of years ago, sugar cravings were useful. They helped our hairy forebears identify foods like figs, which could provide insurance against scarcer times. Hominids even evolved a mutation that helped them store sugar as fat. Those with the mutation survived, while others did not.

But here’s the thing: Our diet, lifestyle, and environment have evolved rapidly over the past 20,000 years—the human body has not. Hankering for hyperpalatable foods and sugar-loaded beverages isn’t useful when you’re surrounded by them. It only makes you more likely to overconsume sugar and develop some of the many modern diseases linked to it… type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and kidney disease to name a few.

So the obvious question is, “How do we curb sugar cravings?” A good place to start is understanding why we crave it. Then we can launch the appropriate countermeasures. In this article, we’ll do exactly that.

Why Sugar is Easy to Overconsume

We touched briefly on why humans like sugar. We’re wired to seek it out because sugar provided dense, fattening calories in a time when food was difficult to acquire. Chances are, if you’re reading this on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, calories aren’t too hard to come by anymore. This brings us to my first point: availability.

#1: Availability

Added sugar is everywhere. Pick up almost any processed, packaged food and see for yourself. Cookies, sauces, energy bars, and even so-called “sports drinks” are loaded with sugar. The bottom line: It’s more difficult to kick a craving when you’re constantly surrounded by what you crave, and many people default to these foods for their convenience.

#2: Habit

Eating patterns are influenced heavily by habit and conditioning. If you eat a cookie every night at 9:30 PM, you’ll begin to crave cookies as the clock approaches the appointed hour. Even if you aren’t hungry, you’ll probably reach for the cookie anyway. The science is clear: repeated exposure to a flavor increases our desire for that flavor, and this effect is amplified by greater concentrations of that flavor. This shift can occur within a matter of weeks or possibly even mere days.

#3: It’s not satiating

So our dietary habits are extremely important as-is, but automatic sugar intake seems especially widespread. Why? It could be that, with regard to “concentration” above, sugar is super easy to overconsume. Sugar-loaded beverages go down like nothing, and they aren’t satiating. It’s no wonder energy drinks, fruit juice, and soft drinks are many folks’ default beverages.

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 consume more total calories than folks who eat an aspartame or stevia-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.

#4: Neurochemical addiction

Heard of dopamine? It’s a chemical released by your brain that gives you a rewarding, pleasurable feeling. When we consume sugar, we get a big hit of dopamine. That forms the neurochemical basis for our tendency to love sweets. It isn’t just that sugar tastes good—it actually feels good.

#5: Blood sugar spikes and dips

Hunger presents inversely with blood sugar fluctuations. As blood sugar dips, hunger rises. And blood sugar on a high-sugar diet can be much 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 likability. Unfortunately, many consume more sugar as a short term solution, which worsens the downward spiral.

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 sweet things

The more you grant your taste buds sweet flavors (especially refined sugar), the more you will crave sweet foods and beverages.

If you dramatically and suddenly reduce your refined sugar intake, you may even experience sugar withdrawal symptoms like headaches, mood swings, and insomnia. This is your body crying out one last time for its “drug,” not a reason to give up.

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

This one goes hand-in-hand with the last tip. 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 should begin to lessen 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:

  1. Whole foods contain very little salt
  2. A low-carb diet increases urinary sodium loss

When rats don’t get enough salt, they become listless and depressed. Sodium deficiency can affect people similarly. LMNT contains 1000 mg sodium per stick, and zero sugar. 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

If you aren’t sleeping well, it’ll be tough to resist sugary temptations. Why? Short sleep doesn’t just increases hunger hormones, it also impairs impulse control. 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. 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 sight.

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 stevia (I use stevia in LMNT), monk fruit, and allulose.

Each of these natural sweeteners contains zero (or near-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.

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