Picture this: you’re sitting at your work desk, the clock strikes 3.30pm, and suddenly your sweet tooth is desperately craving sugar. You battle against the craving for 15 minutes barely able to concentrate on the screen in front of you before giving in and sneaking three packets of biscuits out of the office kitchen.
Sound familiar? Sugar cravings are really common, and they can be really hard to ignore. The truth is, fighting against them with willpower isn’t actually going to get rid of them. In this article, I take you through 5 causes of sugar cravings that will probably surprise you, and you’ll learn how to eliminate your sugar cravings (no willpower required!)
1. Depression/low mood
Ever felt happier after eating a chocolate chip cookie? It’s not just your taste buds having a party. Carbohydrate consumption increases serotonin release – a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood control, among many other things. So what happens when you eat carbs? You get a little boost in serotonin, and you feel happier. (1) It is well-researched that low moods and depression cause an increase in cravings for carbohydrate- and sugar-rich foods because your body is searching for that little ‘hit’ of the feel-good chemical serotonin.
Action: Try other serotonin-boosting foods like sauerkraut, bananas, walnuts, salmon and green tea. Exercise is another effective way to keep serotonin levels healthy. If you suspect you may be suffering from depression, visit a GP or psychologist.
2. Lack of quality sleep
Sleep deprivation affects our food choices in a number of ways. First of all, if you’re not getting enough sleep, your body produces more ‘hunger hormone’, making you eat more often, and you also produce less ‘full hormone’, so you’re not as able to recognize when you’re full – meaning you eat more than you need to. So a lack of sleep really is setting you up to overeat and overconsume the following day (2).
Research has also found that sleep deprivation has a direct impact on the rational decision-making part of our brain, making us more prone to choose ‘junk’ foods (3).
Lastly, when you haven’t had enough sleep you tend to feel pretty tired, and guess what your body will use as a quick energy boost? You guessed it – sugar.
Action: Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep per night, and avoid screens (including your phone!) for at least 30 minutes before bed. Avoiding caffeine, refined sugars and exercise in the evening are also important. Sleep isn’t just about duration – you need to be getting deep, quality sleep to reap the benefits.
3. Iron deficiency
You’ve probably heard that iron deficiency will make you feel lethargic and zap your energy levels. When you’re suffering with low energy for long enough, your body will start to look for anything that gives you a temporary energy ‘boost’ – including sugar! Hello, sugar cravings.
Action: If you struggle with low energy, visit your GP to get your iron levels checked. Ensure your diet contains iron-rich foods like spinach, egg yolk, red meat, pumpkin seeds and lentils.
4. Inadequate carbohydrate intake
Ah, the irony. You go on a strict low-carb diet in an attempt to lose some quick kgs, and 3 days into the diet you’re craving carbs and sugar like nobody’s business. Why? Your body needs carbohydrates to function. If you restrict your carbs, or just don’t eat enough of them, your body is eventually going to scream out for some. And you’re not going to crave sweet potato or a dark grain bread – you’re going to crave cake, or bread, or cookies, or muffins.
Action: There’s nothing wrong with reducing carbohydrate intake – just remember, your body still needs some carbs! Eat low-GI carbs like sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, beetroot, whole grains, and brown rice.
5. Inadequate protein intake
Just like your body needs carbs, it needs protein too. When it comes to sugar cravings, protein consumption is important to keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. If you skip the protein in your breakfast and lunch meals, chances are you’ll be hit with a sweet craving around 3-4 pm. Protein and fat slow the release of sugar from your food into your body, keeping your blood sugar stable and helping prevent those sugar cravings later on.
Action: Make sure your breakfast and lunch meals contain protein – nuts, seeds, meats and seafood, mushrooms, lentils, beans, etc. A protein-rich snack between meals will also help to stabilize blood sugar levels, thereby reducing afternoon cravings.
The bottom line is, it’s really important that you understand the cause of your cravings. Cravings are your body’s way of saying it needs something – and when you start to listen to your cravings you will start to understand what your body needs – be it more protein, better quality sleep, iron or something else. Cravings have meaning. Once you’re able to address the cause of cravings rather than the craving itself, you’ll no longer need willpower to “fight” against your cravings.