sugar addiction

The Why Behind Some of Your Sugar Cravings

salt and straw san diego honey lavender ice cream cone

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. 

salmon with orzo salad

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. 

chocolate chip cookie

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? 

References:

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.

Meal Time Habits Journal

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    When Sugar Might Not Really Be the Problem

    patriotic chocolate covered pretzels and strawberries 

    The other night I had the TV on in the background while I was working on a couple of things. The news was on and I wasn’t paying much attention until I heard some sort of food-related fear mongering pitch just before a commercial break (contain your shock). The anchor said something along the lines of, “something you put in your body is taking years off of your life and you may not even realize it”.

    All right anchor man, you have my attention… let’s hear it!

    The segment started with how many sweets we all eat around the holidays (complete with all of the food porn of sugar and desserts streaming in the background), and how “bad” they are for you. Of course there was a doctor in a suit talking about how sugar is the cause of every chronic disease in existence. Then he went on to say that people think they know how much sugar they consume, but don’t consider foods like grains, pasta, or baked goods. I swear I could have set a timer and beat the over-under on how long it would take him to mention cocaine (too predictable).

    At the end of this, I felt so on edge. It makes me upset when I see things like this on major media outlets because I'm pretty sure it only does one thing, and that’s encourage people to feel even more worried about food than they already do, which exacerbates any potential overconsumption issue instead of doing anything to mitigate it.

    A brief science lesson on sugar

    The word “sugar” is typically used interchangeably with “glucose”, although this can be confusing because most people think of granulated sugar or any other added sweetener when they hear the word sugar (as opposed to glucose, which is a building block of carbohydrates).

    Because of this wording blunder, people often make the assumption that the body "doesn’t know the difference” between say, fruit, black beans, and jelly beans. But just because the body breaks down each of these into glucose, does not mean they are all nutritionally the same. The beans and fruit both contain fiber, which slows down digestion and results in a more gradual blood sugar (and subsequent insulin) response. They also both have vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to function optimally, plus phytochemicals/other compounds that totally kick ass when it comes to immunity and inflammation. 

    Did you know that glucose is also the brain’s preferred source of fuel? It’s actually the primary energy source for all of our cells which is why very low carbohydrate diets typically don’t go well for active folks (or really anyone who needs to focus during the day).

    As humans we really are wired to prefer the taste of sweet foods as a survival mechanism and if you think about it, the first food we are exposed to - breastmilk - is sweet! Preferred level of sweetness can vary by individuals, which is why some of us might identify with having a "sweet tooth" and others prefer salty or savory foods (2). 

    I'm actually super interested in this topic because in one of my genetics classes in grad school, we used test strips with different compounds to determine if we preferred sweet foods or bitter foods. Basically if you were a "super taster", the compound on the strip was so bitter you wouldn't be able to stand it, and it's thought that super-tasters prefer sweeter things. If your genotype is different, you wouldn't taste this compound at all and are thought to prefer the taste of bitter foods. I think it's fascinating that our tastes can vary this much. Which do you think you are? 

    So is sugar really addictive? 

    The literature varies on this, but many studies have shown that while sugar may elicit "addiction-like behaviors" it is not addictive in the sense that the word is generally used. You’ll often read that eating sugar “lights up the same pleasure centers in our brain as drugs”, but we need food to survive so it doesn't make sense to compare the two and makes the science a little harder to interpret. One review that I found also notes that addiction-like behaviors, such as bingeing, only occur when there is intermittent access to sugar (as opposed to unlimited access) (1). This is a great point and drives home that message that when something is "off-limits", you might want it even more. 

    I also think there is something to be said about habits. If you condition yourself to have a piece of candy after every meal, you’re probably going to start grabbing for a piece of candy after every meal without even thinking about whether you really want it. Is there any habit like this that you engage with regularly and can re-assess? 

    When I posed this question of sugar addiction on Instagram, a few different people mentioned habits in their response noting that coffee, chocolate, exercise and nightly wine could all be classified in this way. You can condition yourself to "want" or "need" something. While learned habits are certainly hard to change, they shouldn't be confused with addiction. 

    Conclusion

    I think we all know that sugar shouldn't be the foundation of a healthful diet. This isn’t new information, this is just another reason to focus on basing your meals and snacks around whole foods, and getting yourself in the kitchen to cook! You can do this without overthinking things like grams, teaspoons or percent daily calories, in my opinion.

    Also remember that your total dietary pattern is more important than any one food. We've learned this time and time again in the case of cholesterol, saturated fat, fat in general... Now sugar is the villain du jour. But even a diet with zero added sugar can be nutritionally lacking. On the other hand, sugar can also make certain things more enjoyable, meaning improved satisfaction of some really awesome-for-you foods. Health benefits are not negated by adding something palatable. 

    In my experience, deeming a food “off limits” or "bad" is what promotes those all-consuming thoughts about it that many might mistake with addiction. I am familiar with the concept of moderators vs. abstainers and can appreciate that we aren’t all built in the same way. You might feel like you need to completely avoid something in order to remain in control, and you may be right. For many of you, that probably isn’t the case though. My goal in writing this is to encourage you to really think about your relationship with sugar (or any food) and decide if restriction and/or labeling it "good" or "bad" may actually be the cause of any issues you might be experiencing.

    Sources:

    1. Westwater ML, Fletcher PC, and Ziauddeen H. Sugar addiction: the state of the science. Eur J Nutr. 2016;55(2):S55-S69.

    2. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: use of nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2012;112:739-758.

    3. Rippe JM and Angelopoulos TJ. Relationship between added sugars consumption and chronic disease risk factors: current understanding. Nutrients.2016(8):697.

     

    Of course I’m always open to new ideas and ways of thinking, so I would love to hear your thoughts on this! Do you believe in the concept of moderators vs. abstainers and if so, which are you?