How to Help Curb Sugar Cravings

Sweet treats can be a healthy addition to a balanced diet when enjoyed in moderation. But what happens when moderation turns into frequent sugar cravings? The truth is almost everyone gets sugar cravings, so the question becomes "how do we stop those sugar cravings?"

The good news is that researchers have studied sugar cravings and their findings may help you get some relief. Learn why you have these cravings so you can learn how to stop them.

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. These cravings are often for sugary foods. In fact, chocolate is the most frequently craved food in North America.

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, also known as a feel-good hormone, is a brain neurotransmitter that boosts your sense of well-being.

Other Reasons Why You May Have Sugar Cravings

  • Emotional stress: If you are experiencing stress at home, on the job, or in your relationships, you may seek comfort from food. Given sugar's effect on your feel-good hormones, sweet foods are a natural choice if you're feeling down.
  • Macronutrient imbalance: If you eat a diet that is low in protein, healthy fats, and fiber, you may experience blood sugar swings that impact your cravings. For example, if you eat a breakfast that’s high in sugar and low in fiber and protein (such as a donut or pastry), you’re likely to feel hungry again shortly after eating. Your body craves sugar when it wants quick energy.
  • 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. Researchers have also found that we tend to make poor food choices when we are tired.
  • Underconsumption of calories: If you are fasting—or simply not consuming enough calories—your sugar cravings are likely to increase. This is because your body is craving that quick energy.
  • High sugar intake: The more sugar you eat on a regular basis, the more sugar your body will crave. Research has shown a strong correlation between typical foods consumed and your preference for that food.
  • Frequent use of artificial sweeteners: Zero-calorie sweeteners can alter your sensitivity to sweet, causing you to crave increasing amounts of sugar. Depending on the brand that you use, your artificial sweetener may be anywhere from 200 to 20,000 times sweeter than sugar.
  • Micronutrient deficiency: Some nutrition experts have suggested that a magnesium deficiency may lead to increased sugar cravings. While there may be some truth to this relationship, the evidence is limited.

Sugar Cravings vs. Sugar Addiction

If these potential causes sound familiar, you might be concerned that you are addicted to sugar. Although not all scientists agree, researchers are careful to note that evidence does not prove that sugar is an addicting substance.

A true addiction requires that you have a strong compulsion to use a substance, you experience uncontrolled use of that substance, and that you experience physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop using 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. While another researcher assures us that there isn't any evidence that sugar is 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 kick your sugar habit.

Generally, addictions require the support of trained professionals to get relief. In fact, you may benefit from the support of a nutritionist or registered dietitian in your efforts to cut back. However, it's also possible to curb your frequent 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 a healthy addition to your diet. Restricting certain foods can also lead to binge-eating behavior, or overeating the food that you are avoiding.

Most of us do consume too much sugar, which can be problematic for our health.

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. It's recommended 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 unexpected foods. For example, bread, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, and ketchup often contain added sugar.

So how do you track your sugar intake? One of the most fail-proof methods 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.

Additionally, many ingredients that may sound healthy are in fact sugars, such as natural maple syrup, raw honey, organic cane sugar, molasses, and fruit juice. You'll need to use detective skills in most cases to keep track of your added sugar intake.

How to Fight Sugar Cravings

These tips can help you curb your cravings and reduce your sugar intake. The process will be challenging but will become easier along the way. Remember, it takes time for your body to adjust to new habits, even when the habits are healthy ones!

Use Artificial Sweeteners Cautiously

Replacing sugar with low or no-calorie sweeteners can help cut calories, however, the safety of regularly consuming these artificial sweeteners is often questioned. It has also been suggested that weight gain is a possible side effect. This is due to the fact that artificial sweeteners may encourage eating behaviors that increase cravings not only for sweets but for food in general.

Make Sleep a Priority

Getting enough sleep is a vital key to success for good health. Not only will it help you stop your sugar cravings, but it will also keep you energized throughout the day.

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

Check Your Vitamin and Mineral Intake

Use a food log or meet with a registered dietitian to ensure that you're getting all of your essential micronutrients. While a magnesium deficiency isn't proven to cause sugar cravings, it's still a possibility, so you may consider evaluating your vitamin and mineral intake.

Reduce Your Intake of Sugary Foods

The more sugar you consume, the more sugar you crave. Try to be more aware of the amount of sugar in the foods you buy. Stock up on healthier alternatives:

  • Incorporate protein and fiber-rich foods at breakfast, such as eggs, plain Greek yogurt, or unsweetened oatmeal
  • If you're craving a sweet treat, try eating a piece of fresh fruit first
  • Slowly decrease your consumption of sweetened beverages, like soda, sports drinks, and sweet coffee drinks—and make sure you're drinking enough water!

You can also try keeping minty treats on hand (like mint tea or sugar-free gum) that help curb cravings.

Eat More Fruit

When you cut back on added sugar, your cravings are likely to increase initially. Keep easy-to-eat fruit on hand (like berries, bananas, cut melon, or citrus fruit) to give you a boost of sweetness with the added benefit of fiber and vitamins.

Consume Enough Healthy Carbohydrates

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that we consume 45 percent to 65 percent of our daily calories from carbohydrates. If you consume 1,500 calories per day, you would eat 675–975 calories from carbohydrates or about 170–245 grams of carbohydrates each day to meet the guideline.

Aim to get most of your carbohydrates from whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy. Sweeter vegetables and grains, like oatmeal, corn, or sweet potatoes, can provide a boost of sweetness as an alternative to foods high in added sugar.

Enlist Support

If you are constantly surrounded by sugary foods, it's going to be hard to reduce your cravings. It's important that you speak up if you need to makes changes in your workplace, at home, or at school. Remember to do what is best for you!

A Word From Verywell

Food cravings can feel overwhelming and out of your control. Remember, you’re not in this alone! Conquering your cravings will take time, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a registered dietitian for help. An organized plan from a licensed professional can help you get the confidence and tools you need to succeed.

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