How to Stop Sugar Cravings

Tips to get relief during weight loss

Are you plagued by a nagging desire to gobble down sweet treats? Are you trying to change your diet only to be dragged down by a preoccupation with candy, cookies, and baked goods? If you're like most dieters, you need to learn how to stop sugar cravings.

There is good news and bad news when it comes to sugar cravings. The bad news is that almost everyone gets them when they try to change their diets—so you should probably expect them to occur. But the good news is that researchers have studied sugar cravings and their scientific findings may help you get relief.

how to stop sugar cravings
Illustration by Cindy Chung, Verywell

Why Do I Crave Sugar?

If you crave sugary foods, you're not alone. Studies show that 97 percent of women and 68 percent of men experience episodes of food cravings. Often these cravings are for sugary foods. In fact, in North America, chocolate is the most frequently craved food.

Scientists have long believed that cravings for carbohydrates and other sugary foods are driven by a desire to improve mood due to the fact that consuming sweet treats increases serotonin levels in your brain.

Serotonin is a brain neurotransmitter that boosts your sense of well-being, so it makes sense that if a food makes you feel better, you're going to want to eat more of it.

But there are other reasons that you may be experiencing a preoccupation with sweet treats:

  • Emotional stress: If you are experiencing stress at home, on the job, or in your relationships, it makes sense that you would seek comfort from food. Given sugar's effect on your feel-good hormones, sweet foods would be a natural choice for someone feeling down.
  • Macronutrient imbalance: If you eat a diet that is lower in filling foods, such as protein, healthy fats, and fiber, you may experience blood sugar swings that impact your cravings. For example, if you eat a high-starch, sugary breakfast (such as a donut or a pastry), you are likely to feel hungry again shortly after eating. When your body craves quick energy, it craves sugar.
  • Lack of sleep: Scientific studies have determined that a lack of sleep is often followed by an increase in cravings for sweet, salty, and starchy foods. And researchers have found that we make poor food choices when we are tired.
  • Underconsumption of calories: If you are fasting—or simply not consuming the right number of calories, your sugar cravings are likely to increase, according to clinical studies. Many people who are trying to lose weight eat too few calories in an effort to speed the process, leading to binge-eating behavior.
  • Low-carb diets: Some limited evidence exists that eating a high protein, low carbohydrate diet may increase your cravings for sweet-tasting, palatable food.
  • You're a woman: Researchers have acknowledged that sugar cravings are common among all of us, but they are more common in women. In fact, women are likely to crave foods that are both high in sugar and high in fat.
  • High sugar intake: This factor seems obvious, but according to research, there is a strong correlation between a person’s customary intake of a flavor and their preferred intensity for that flavor. That means the more sugar you consume, the more sugar you will crave.
  • Frequent use of artificial sweeteners: Zero-calorie sweeteners can change your sense of taste when it comes to sweets, causing you to crave increasing amounts of sugar. Depending on the brand that you use, your artificial sweetener may be anywhere from 200 times to 20,000 times sweeter than sugar. When you become accustomed to tasting foods that are overly sweet, eating sugary food that is reasonably sweet isn't quite as satisfying any longer and you crave more.
  • Micronutrient deficiency: Some nutrition experts have suggested that a magnesium deficiency may lead to increased sugar cravings. While there may be some truth to the relationship, there is a lack of clinical evidence to support that assumption.

Sugar Cravings vs. Sugar Addiction

If these potential causes look familiar, you might worry that you are addicted to sugar. However, researchers are careful to note that scientific evidence does not clearly prove the concept of sugar addiction. But not all scientists agree.

A true addiction requires that you have a strong compulsion to use a substance, you experience uncontrolled consumption of that substance, and that you experience physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking it.

The author of one study reports that sugar addiction can be explained as a dependence on the feel-good chemicals that get released upon sugar intake. They write, "The evidence in the literature shows substantial parallels and overlap between drugs of abuse and sugar, from the standpoint of brain neurochemistry as well as behaviour."

But then other scientists disagree. As one researcher wrote, "There is no support from the human literature for the hypothesis that sucrose may be physically addictive."

Confused? While it may feel like your sugar cravings are strong enough to fit the clinical description of addiction, it's important to keep your food habits in perspective. Understanding the difference between sugar addiction and sugar cravings may help you to kick your sugar habit.

In general, addictions require the support of trained professionals to get relief. And in fact, you might benefit from the support of a nutritionist or registered dietitian in your desire to cut back. But, it is also possible that you can stop sugar cravings on your own.

How Much Sugar Is Too Much?

Avoiding all sugar is not realistic. Some sugar—especially sugar from natural sources like fruit or dairy—can be healthy for your body. But most of us get too much sugar and that's a problem.

The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar per day. That's 36 grams or 150 calories from sugar. The organization recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons of sugar per day. That's 25 grams or 100 calories.

As you evaluate your sugar consumption and compare it to these recommendations, remember that sugar is added to many foods that you might not expect. For example, bread, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, ketchup, and many other savory foods often contain added sugar.

So how do you track your sugar intake? For now, the best way is to check the ingredients label of your packaged foods. If you see an ingredient ending in "-ose," it is a sugar. For example, maltose and sucrose are both sugars.

In addition, many healthy-sounding ingredients are often sugars, such as natural maple syrup, raw honey, organic cane sugar, molasses, and fruit juice are all forms of sugar.

By 2020, food manufacturers will be required to list added sugars on food labels. When that happens it will be easier to track your consumption. Some manufacturers are already compliant with the rule. But for now, you'll need to use detective skills in most cases to keep track of your added sugar intake.

How to Stop Sugar Cravings

Are you ready to tackle your sweet tooth? These tips can help you to curb cravings and reduce your intake of sugar. Expect the process to be more difficult in the beginning and ease up as you move through the process.

Use Artificial Sweeteners Cautiously

Replacing sugar with low or no-calorie sweeteners can help to cut calories, but studies suggest that there is a link between artificial sweetener use and weight gain. That doesn't mean that the sweeteners cause weight gain, but some experts feel that they encourage eating behaviors that increase cravings for sweets.

In addition, research has shown that sweet taste, whether delivered by sugar or artificial sweeteners, can enhance human appetite overall. So if weight loss is your goal, it's important to remember that using zero-calorie sweeteners can increase your cravings for all foods, not just sweets.

Make Sleep a Priority

If you are trying to lose weight, getting enough sleep is a vital key to success. Not only will it help you to curb cravings, but it will keep you energized throughout the day so that you can increase your step count and participate in calorie-burning workouts.

Set a regular bedtime and decrease the number of distractions in your bedroom. Move the TV to another room and charge your phone in the kitchen.

Check Your Vitamin and Mineral intake

Use a food log or meet with a registered dietitian to make sure that you are getting all of the essential micronutrients that you need. While a magnesium deficiency isn't proven to cause sugar cravings, it is still a possibility, and there is no harm in making sure that you are getting the important nutrients that you need.

Reduce Your Intake of Sugary Foods

This seems like an obvious tip, but it is an important one. The more sugar you consume, the more sugar you crave. Try not to buy sugary foods or keep them in the house. Instead, stock up on healthier alternatives:

  • At breakfast choose protein-based foods like eggs, low-fat Greek yogurt, or whole oats instead of sugary cereal or baked goods.
  • At lunch, skip the cookies or baked treats and pack fresh fruit like a banana or an orange.
  • Consider ditching the soda, sports drinks, or sugar coffee beverages when you get tired in the afternoon and grab water instead.
  • Make after-dinner dessert a special treat for special occasions rather than an everyday affair.

You can also try keeping minty treats on hand (like mint tea or sugar-free gum) that help to curb cravings. There are also products on the market, including MealEnders and Sweet Defeat, that are specifically designed to help you stop eating when you are full.

Increase Your Intake of Fruit

When you cut back on added sugar, your cravings are likely to increase. Keep easy-to-eat fruit on hand (like berries, bananas, cut melon, or citrus fruit) to give you a boost of sweetness with the benefit of fiber and vitamins. While some diet experts caution against overeating fruit, you're not likely to gain weight or increase sugar cravings from fruit consumption.

Evaluate Your Calorie Intake

Use a calorie calculator to make sure you are getting the right number of calories each day. If you're trying to lose weight, a calorie deficit is necessary, but going too low can backfire. Once you have a healthy calorie goal, try to schedule your meals and snacks throughout the day so that you never get overly hungry.

Consume Enough Healthy Carbohydrates

Current dietary guidelines suggest that we consume 40 to 60 percent of our daily calories from carbohydrates. So if you consume 1,500 calories per day, you would eat 600–900 carbohydrate calories or 150–225 grams of carbohydrate each day to meet that guideline.

Try to get carbohydrates in the form of whole unprocessed foods, like fruits and vegetables. Sweeter veggies and grains (like oatmeal, corn, or sweet potatoes) can provide a boost of sweetness to curb cravings for less healthy carbs like baked goods or sweetened cereal.

Enlist Support

If you are constantly surrounded by sugary foods, it's going to be hard to reduce your cravings. It is important that you speak up if someone in your office, your home, or your school is pushing food on you.

Suggest that treat days at work include fruit instead of baked goods, encourage the family to go for a walk instead of indulging in dessert after meals, or ask your friends at school to keep sweet treats tucked away and out of sight.

A Word From Verywell

Food cravings can feel overwhelming at times. In fact, they may feel like an addiction—completely out of your control. But many times you can stop sugar cravings on your own by simply changing some of your daily routines and habits.

First, try to get enough sleep, balance your diet with healthy protein and filling fiber, and reduce your use of artificial sweeteners. If those adjustments don't work over the course of a few weeks, reach out to a registered dietitian to get help. An organized food plan from a licensed professional will help you to get the nutrients you need to restore balance and wellness.

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