I often hear others talk about struggling with having a sweet tooth. As in, sugar is addicting and impossible to resist. I find that most people identify with with being at least a little anxious, and sometimes totally out of control around sweets. Today I wanted to unpack that a little bit and pose the question - why does this happen and if this sounds like you, what can you do about it? I've come across a lot of questionable tidbits of advice around the internet that recommend everything from cayenne cleanses to a Whole30 to get sugar intake under control. Those are both pretty extreme and in my opinion, unnecessary. Here are three reasons why you might crave sweets frequently (and none of them involve being addicted to sugar).
Obligatory disclaimer: it's totally fine (and normal!) to crave something sweet on occasion but if you feel like this is all-consuming and something you want to work on, read on! Also, nutrition is personal and individual - these are potential causes, but not necessarily true for everyone so take this post with a grain of salt.
1. You are under-eating.
You might remember this post I wrote back in December where I shared my thoughts on the idea of sugar addiction. Even though each of us might deal with indulgent foods differently, based on my professional experience, I find that most cases of sugar cravings are the product of under-eating.
As an example, a friend of mine once shared that she felt seriously tempted by afternoon sweets, but once we dug a little deeper she came to her own conclusion that this happens on days when she doesn't pack enough food to get her through the work day. So essentially she just needed fuel, but her biological hunger was being misinterpreted as a sweet tooth. Does this sound like it could be the case for you too?
I also see this happen in the evening. If you are cutting way back on carbohydrates at dinner, you might be back in the kitchen searching for something sweet an hour or two later.
2. You don't get enough sleep.
Another potential culprit of increased sugar cravings (or increased appetite in general) could be a less-than-ideal sleep routine. Research strongly suggests that insufficient sleep results in decreased levels of leptin and increased levels of ghrelin. These are two hormones that play a role in our hunger and satiety signals and this particular combination results in a stimulated appetite, decreased satiety after a meal and decreased energy expenditure (1,2).
I ask my coaching clients about sleep habits in our first meeting together and I can always see a bit of confusion as to why this would connect with nutrition. In addition to the hormone-related example above, if someone is overtired, chances are they might skip exercise, choose less healthful food options and over-rely on caffeine too.
3. You're stuck in a cheat day mentality.
Oh the cheat day... this can be a tough habit to break, but I swear things are more fun and relaxed on the other side! One question I often ask someone who is considering an all-or-nothing type approach is:
Have you ever known someone who does a cleanse or super strict diet? If yes, what was their eating pattern like on the day after it ended?
Chances are, it involved seriously overdoing it on all of the foods that weren't "allowed". This isn't a long term strategy and it can promote binging, guilt, and a vicious cycle of feeling out of control around food. I shared this article from Bon Appetit on Facebook a few weeks back and found it to be really spot on. The author describes how the cheat day mentality "sabotaged attempts at finding balance in... health and nutrition". Getting stuck in a cheat day mentality can be destructive to your relationship with food and might even result in you constantly thinking about foods that are off limits (like sweets). Working with a registered dietitian to develop sustainable eating patterns can help you end this pattern for good.
Action Steps Moving Forward
So now the question is, what action steps can you take to move away from some of these behaviors? First and foremost, choose meals and snacks that are satisfying, balanced and taste good to you. Trying to go low-cal or only picking the "healthy" item can backfire and lead to cravings later if it's not something you even want or like in the first place. I usually encourage clients to eat more, not less, to prevent this sort of thing from happening. This can also prevent large blood sugar spikes.
If your sleep routine could use some work, make a serious effort to get that figured out. I won't go too deep into this topic because I know most people have heard all of the classic recommendations already. If you make it a priority and still can't seem to get a solid night of sleep, this is something that warrants a doctor's visit because you could potentially have sleep apnea or another underlying condition that requires treatment.
Using a meal time habits journal for a week or so can be a helpful way to track eating patterns and how certain meals/snacks make you feel. This isn't your typical food recall or My Fitness Pal log. It's more focused on behaviors such as: how hungry you were, where you were, who you were with, and what your mood was in relation with what you ate at a given time. This can be extremely helpful for identifying issues that you might not even be aware of (see below to download the template I use with clients).
Now I would love to hear from you! Can you relate to any of these issues and if so, what steps have you taken to overcome them?
1. Taheri S, Lin L, Austin D, Young T and Mignot E. Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Med. 2004;1(3):e62.
2. Dashti HS, Scheer FAJL, Jacques PF, Lamon-Fava S, and Ordovás JM. Short Sleep Duration and Dietary Intake: Epidemiologic Evidence, Mechanisms, and Health Implications. Adv Nutr. 2016; 6(6): 648–659.