Sugar cravings are extremely common, but they can be the downfall of your healthy eating plans and goals. Especially with Halloween approaching, you might be worried about having sweets and candy in the house, and the temptation of tucking into your child's bounty once they're in bed...!
So how do we address sugar cravings and prevent them from sabotaging our goals?
Firstly, it’s important to know that there are (at least) 7 reasons for cravings. Knowing the reason behind your craving is important, as the solution will be slightly different for each one.
So, what are these 7 factors?
Many of us (in Western society) don’t know what true hunger feels like, and we often mistake thirst for hunger (especially as most people don’t drink enough water each day). As a result, it can be a good idea when you have a craving to try having a large glass of water first, wait 10 minutes, and then reassess how you feel. If you still feel hungry/the craving, then it’s more likely to be a true hunger craving (or caused by one of the other reasons below).
#2 Emotional distraction
Oftentimes we substitute food for other emotional comfort in our lives. For example, maybe you’re feeling sad or unloved, so you reach for a carton of ice-cream, because your mum used to give you ice-cream when you were sad, and you really valued this time with her and her attention.
Sometimes we seek food to avoid feeling negative feelings, or to (subconsciously) invoke happy memories, or even just because we’re bored. It’s important to pinpoint what you might be substituting food for, and, once you’re clear on that, try to find a healthier alternative that fills that void. For example, if you’re substituting food for love or emotional support, perhaps you could try doing a self-care activity instead of reaching for food, like having a bath, listening to music, talking to a friend, or going for a walk. The same activities can also help if you’re bored; sometimes all you need is a change of scenery or fresh air.
Sometimes our cravings can be seasonal, such as craving gingerbread-flavoured things around Christmas-time, or craving salads/lighter foods in the summer. If this rings true for you, I would suggest trying to honour this craving, as eating seasonally and intuitively is a healthy habit, but choose healthier versions of those foods. For example, if you’re craving ice-lollies in the summer, why not try something else that’s cooling, like watermelon, or making your own healthy ice-lollies from coconut yoghurt and berries? If you’re craving pumpkin pie in Autumn (Fall), why not try making a healthy pumpkin stew instead, or a pumpkin pie using coconut sugar instead of refined sugar?
#4 Oral hygiene
Another theory is that cravings can simply occur because we have a lingering taste in our mouth, having not cleaned our tongue properly. This is more likely if you eat something – let’s say, sweet-tasting – and still crave sugar an hour or two later. The solution for this is simply to make sure you’re brushing your teeth at least twice a day, flossing, and making a point of brushing your teeth after eating sweet-tasting foods (and dried fruit, in particular). It’s also recommended to scrape your tongue at least once a day, as many of us forget to clean our tongue so we end up with a thick coating that can impact our taste and cravings (as well as our health). You can buy a good quality tongue-scraper (usually made from stainless steel or copper) from most health food stores nowadays, and make sure you clean it regularly.
Many women crave sugar in their luteal phase, especially the week before their period. This may be partly because your metabolism increases in the luteal and menstrual phases of your cycle, meaning that you need (up to) an extra 200kcal per day during these phases. Cortisol is also naturally higher during these phases, which may push you to eating or craving sugar to keep up with/manage this extra stress.
If you notice that your cravings always seem to occur at the same time each month, then there’s a good chance they are due to your hormones.
To combat hormonal cravings, it’s important to focus on eating complex carbs during your luteal phase, which won’t spike your blood sugar the way that refined carbs (like pastry, bread, cookies, etc.) do, and will maintain your energy for longer. Great sources of complex carbs are brown rice and other gluten-free grains like quinoa and millet, as well as starchy vegetables like sweet potato. Sweet potato is also a fantastic choice for this phase, not only for its slow release of energy and the fact that it’s full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, but also because it’s naturally sweet tasting, so should help to satisfy the urge for something sweet. Cinnamon works similarly; because it helps regulate blood sugar levels and is naturally sweet-tasting, adding cinnamon to foods can help to combat sugar cravings.
#6 Nutritional deficiency
Sometimes a craving can be our body’s way of telling us that something’s off, that we are deficient in something (a vitamin, mineral, or energy in general). The most extreme example of this would be geophagia (a type of pica), where a person has a craving for organic (non-food) substances such as clay or chalk, which can be due to a mineral deficiency (the body is trying to correct the imbalance by pushing us towards eating mineral substances).
It doesn’t have to be this extreme though, even a craving for chocolate could be due to a deficiency in something like magnesium (since dark chocolate is rich in magnesium). If you constantly crave the same ingredient or specific food, or if your diet isn’t great (i.e. you don’t eat a lot of fruits, vegetables or whole grains), your cravings could be due to a nutritional deficiency. One solution would be to get a vitamin and mineral test done (either a blood test from your healthcare provider, or an organic acid test from a private health company) to tell you if you do have any deficiencies.
With this type of craving, it may be wise to honour the craving (since your body is trying to look out for you!) but choose a healthier alternative of whatever food you crave. If it’s chocolate, for example, then opt for a dark chocolate (at least 75%) with as little sugar as possible (look at the ‘of which sugars’ number on the back label; opt for one that’s ideally under 5g sugar per 100g) or that’s sweetened with a natural sugar such as coconut sugar, or a healthy sweetener such as stevia or xylitol.
#7 Dietary imbalance
Central to this theory is the idea that the body wants to be in balance, so if our diet is too heavily focussed on one food group or taste, we may end up craving something totally opposite. For example, if you eat a lot of meat (typically a very savoury taste), you might end up craving sugar to try to balance it out. Or if you eat a lot of sweets (or sweet-tasting things) you might end up craving salty foods.
Have a look at your diet and assess, honestly, whether you might be eating too much of one type of thing. Sometimes it helps to keep a food diary (unless you have a history of disordered eating or an obsessive personality) for at least 3 days consecutively, up to a month, as oftentimes we don’t even realise what we’re eating, or we subconsciously underestimate how much unhealthy food we eat.
Balance is key – we want to make sure we’re eating from each food group daily (protein, fats, carbs), that we’re eating a wide variety of plants (including nuts, seeds, and wholegrains), and that we include all the tastes (bitter, astringent, sour, sweet, salty, umami, pungent), particularly the bitter taste (which comes from things like leafy greens), which many of us avoid.
So much for general cravings, but what about sugar cravings, in particular?
The next time you get a craving, take some time to think about whether one of these factors may be the cause. You might want to keep track of your cravings with a journal, noting when you get them, what you’ve been doing that day, what you’ve been eating (that day and week), how you’re feeling, and what phase of your cycle you’re in. Once you’ve been tracking for at least a month you can look back and get more insight into what might be behind your craving. Once you know (or think) what might be causing it, you can try one of the targeted solutions above.
For general sugar cravings, besides assessing whether it’s hormonal or caused by a deficiency (or low energy from not eating enough calories in general), I would focus on complex carbs (like brown rice) for sustained energy and stable blood sugar levels, and naturally sweet-tasting foods such as root vegetables (sweet potato, beetroot, carrots), fruit, and cinnamon. You might also want to try eating every 2-3 hours to maintain stable blood sugar levels throughout the day (so 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day), and check that you’re including good quality fats (like avocado, olives and nuts) to help you feel fuller for longer.
When/if honouring the craving is the right approach, focus on choosing healthy versions of whatever it is you’re craving. So, if you’re craving ice-cream for example, instead of reaching for that tub of Ben & Jerry’s, try making a banana ‘nice cream’ (frozen, chopped bananas, blended to a soft whip texture) or making ice-lollies out of fruit and coconut yoghurt. If you’re craving cookies, can you make your own healthy version, sweetened with coconut sugar, for example? There are loads of great recipes out there (but let me know in the comments if you’d like a specific one!), so have a scout around.
It’s also a good idea to not have sweets and unhealthy food in your house – if they’re there, they’re more likely to be a temptation, so don’t buy them in in the first place! (Also, don’t go to the supermarket when you’re hungry as you’re more likely to make unhealthy purchases.) Instead, make sure you always have access to healthy snacks such as fruit, dates, etc., and keep some healthy snacks (like nuts, trail mix, etc.) in your handbag and car for those times when you’re desperate and likely to make rash decisions.
What is the main reason for your cravings? Which of these tips will you implement? Let me know in the comments below!
P.S. If you’d like more personalised advice and ongoing support in dealing with cravings or disordered eating, or you suspect you have an underlying deficiency or hormone imbalance to blame, book in for a free consultation where we can discuss your health needs.
P.P.S. I learned about deconstructing cravings as part of my amazing training to become a holistic health and nutrition coach with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN). If you're interested in learning all about nutrition for your own or your family's health, check out a sample class here. If you decide to train with IIN you can get up to $1800 off the cost of tuition if you use my link to enrol, or get in touch and I can refer you!