Sweet-tasting foods are undoubtedly one of life’s best simple pleasures and the upcoming holidays will definitely provide an opportunity for ‘pleasure overload.’ Regardless of the time of year, however, if you suffer from sugar cravings you’ll want to read on to learn what could be fueling them. And while the focus of this post is the causes of sugar cravings, many of these are also linked to fat and salt cravings as well.
First of all you need to know that there is evidence that the source of our cravings for fat, sugar and salt may date back to the Stone Age. So it is not just you and your willpower – these cravings are part of your biologic makeup.
Reports of the food habits of the Stone Age humans indicate that they tended to consume fatty animal foods which provided a dense source of calories that would last; sweet tasting plants that tended to be safe and non-toxic choices; and salty substances that would help their bodies conserve fluids. These choices helped them survive in times of famine.
Modern humans, however, do not have to cope with the absence of food or water, yet we still tend to share these same preferences – leaving us with little protection against the abundance of foods available to us at all times. Not only that, but our choices have also suffered from the introduction of highly processed refined ingredients. I could write several posts on that topic alone – but for now I recommend reading Michael Moss’s book – Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us if you have not done so already.
But know it’s not just the fault of our ancestors – or the food industry – that we at times feel out of control around certain foods. There are other factors at play in creating and perpetuating intense cravings.
8 Surprising Causes of Sugar Cravings dives into factors. While this list is not exhaustive, it does include the majority of causes so you can start getting a handle on your cravings.
A diet heavy in processed foods will leave the body short on the essential vitamins and minerals it needs. That malnourishment triggers signals the brain to get calories quickly causing most people to reach for sugar.
But sugar further blocks the absorption of essential minerals. And scientific studies have proven that a deficiency in calcium and magnesium actually causes sugar cravings! That’s right, the act of eating sugar literally makes you want more sugar.
And you might find it interesting to know that low magnesium levels are also known to trigger chocolate cravings. So try to get more calcium and magnesium into your diet. And the next time you have a chocolate craving, try eating some foods rich in magnesium such as spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, yogurt, almonds, black beans, avocado, figs, dark chocolate or banana.
Consuming too much starch and not enough fat and/or protein
Carbohydrates are digested quickly, and are converted to simple sugars faster. This prompts a fast rise in your blood sugar, and a fast crash in your blood sugar – producing more cravings. When you consume protein with your carbohydrates, however, the rise in your blood sugar is slower and sustained, as will be your energy over a longer period of time without the resulting crash in blood sugar.
So try to consume proteins with your carbohydrates. And choose a protein snack over a carbohydrate snack as proteins sustain your blood sugar over a longer period of time than a carbohydrate snack.
Activating the brain’s reward system
Sugar has the ability to lift energy levels and moods quickly; it even alters brain chemistry by activating the brain’s reward center. When the reward center is activated it increases your levels of serotonin and dopamine.
So why is that important? The most basic explanation is this: pleasure is dopamine and happiness is serotonin.
Central to the brain’s sensation of enjoyment is the neurotransmitter dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When you eat sugar, it stimulates a dopamine release, and you experience a pleasurable sensation.
Serotonin regulates anxiety, happiness, mood and sexual desire and function among other things. Serotonin-releasing brain neurons are unique in that the amount of neurotransmitter they release is normally controlled by food intake: Carbohydrate consumption -acting via insulin secretion – increases serotonin release; whereas protein intake minimizes this effect. Hence many people crave carbohydrates, particularly snack foods to make themselves feel better.
Since sugar acts quickly, its sudden absence is felt acutely. And when it’s gone, it creates more cravings.
So how to avoid the cravings brought on by the need for serotonin and dopamine release? Try to find ways to incorporate pleasure throughout your day. Find the little things –and I don’t mean those little chocolate kisses 😉 – that give you pleasure and be sure to engage in them regularly.
Use of artificial sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners might temporarily satisfy that sweet craving, but when those sweeteners hit your taste buds, they send a signal up to your brain to expect sugar (glucose). When the sugar is not forthcoming, your body and brain continue to seek the sugar that it believed it would be receiving – creating even more cravings – and you are right back where you started.
Neuroscientists at Yale’s School of Medicine found that artificial sweeteners do not “fool” the brain into thinking its sugar. Instead, they leave the brain craving high-calorie foods even more.
You may think that you are fooling yourself when you have an artificial sweetener, but you aren’t fooling your brain. Bottom line is to avoid the artificial sweeteners to decrease your sugar cravings.
When we sleep poorly or go for long periods of time without sleep, our bodies’ production of the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin get out of whack. Leptin is a hormone that lets our body know when to stop eating. Grehlin is a hormone that makes us feel hungry. It also causes us to crave carbohydrates and simple sugars.
So when we are lacking in sleep our body tends to produce less leptin, making us want to eat more. And when we are sleepy, the body almost always resorts to trying to eat ourselves awake, usually seeking sugar for a quick boost. And we know that when we are tired our cognitive performance is inhibited, as is our impulsivity. So you barely stand a chance against those cravings if you are overly tired.
So how to head the cravings off at the pass? Get a good night’s sleep. Create health sleep habits to ensure restful nights of sleep. (I will cover more about creating healthy sleep habits in a future post.)
Cravings may also be in response to changes in cortisol levels – the stress hormone that prepares the body for ‘fight or flight’. When you are in a state of stress, there is an increase in blood levels of glucose and glycogen to fuel the stress response of increasing cortisol levels in your body – which in turn kicks off a roller coaster of blood sugar highs and lows.
To keep energy up, you begin to crave simple sugars as it is the quickest way to refuel. And in a situation where stress is chronic, as it is during much of modern life, these food cravings can be persistent.
There are many ways to manage stress in your life, and I will do more blog posts on stress management in the future. But first and foremost, take a good look at your life and see where you can eliminate any unnecessary stress. Delegate some responsibilities if possible, take a mental health day or simply carve 15 minutes out to take a bath or go for a walk.
Another result of chronic stress is adrenal overload. Adrenal glands pump out the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol when we’re under pressure. When under constant pressure, these glands can become sluggish, so we often turn to sugar for a short burst of energy.
And know that cortisol is also necessary to control blood sugar levels, and with low cortisol levels, adrenal fatigue sufferers tend to develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). Cravings for sugar are common with adrenal fatigue as they give you a short-term energy boost. In the long run, however, it will only deplete your energy further.
There are several ways to stabilize blood sugar by making sound nutritional choices. Eat a combination of good quality protein, healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, eat regular meals and minimize processed foods high in sugar that cause blood sugar levels to spike and then drop.
Imbalances in the beneficial bacteria of the intestinal tract can lead to overgrowth of yeast and fungi – otherwise known as Candida. These undesirables have high sugar requirements and cause increased sugar cravings in people with yeast and fungi overgrowth. Eating sugar makes the yeast multiply, thus intensifying cravings and creating a vicious circle. Food allergies and sensitivities can also cause blood sugar imbalances yielding further sugar cravings. Also stress, which increase your body’s secretion of the hormone cortisol, can suppress your immune system, allowing yeast to run amuck, making sugar cravings constant.
I could write multiple posts on this topic alone, and I intend to, as I have been going through a protocol to rid myself of candida and food sensitivities myself. It is a very complex and dynamic issue and can’t be easily covered in this blog post. But I will definitely be going into more detail in future posts.
For now, if you suspect that you have candida or suffer from food allergies and/or sensitivities, first and foremost you need cut back on sugar, caffeine and alcohol and take a probiotic supplement or yogurt to support a healthy gut.
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