Why You Crave Sugar by Joan Kent, PhD, MS
Updated: Nov 21, 2022
Have you ever had a sugar craving, one that made you go off your healthful diet? Many people claim that those cravings never go away, but they absolutely can and do. Completely.
Why shouldn’t we simply eat sugar when we crave it? Well, for starters, sugar lowers our quality of life in several ways. First, it affects our health. High levels of insulin that are triggered by sugar promote inflammation, which is medically recognized as the root cause of most, if not all, disease.
Sugar also affects food intake. It increases appetite by inhibiting the brain’s satiety center, and it changes food preferences, prompting the desire for foods high in sugar and/or fat. Both of these are linked to the brain’s release of endorphins (beta-endorphin).
What are cravings?
A craving is an intense urge or desire to eat a particular food. It’s not hunger. A desire for sugar is one of the most common cravings. Some people can indulge their cravings without repercussions. For others, giving in to cravings can undermine workouts or lead to weight gain, mood swings, diabetes or other health issues.
We typically hear that cravings result from low blood sugar, emotions or biological need. Those explanations leave much unexamined. Let’s look at the real reasons for sugar cravings.
Why We Have Sugar Cravings
Too little fat
Science journals refer to the sugar-fat seesaw, which describes an inverse relationship in the fat and sugar we eat. As one decreases in the diet overall, the other increases. In fact, the low-fat craze from 1985 to 1995 led directly to the overconsumption of sugar.
Fats help control sugar cravings by stabilizing blood glucose, and also by influencing hormones and brain chemistry. When fat enters the small intestine, the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) is released. CCK reduces hunger, appetite and the desire for carbohydrates. When someone is on a low-fat diet, less CCK is released. That can result in the desire for more food, particularly carbs.
But how does sugar enter the picture? The brain releases endorphins when we eat sugar or fat, and we become accustomed to our usual endorphin level. Lowering our fat intake decreases endorphins, making the brain want endorphin-triggering foods. That leads to either fat or sugar cravings. If you won’t eat fats, the sugar cravings will take over.
Sugar, alcohol and opiates all affect the same key brain chemicals. Someone who has recently quit alcohol or drugs may have intense sugar cravings. That’s why AA meetings feature back-of-room cookies and brownies. Eating sugar (or alcohol) when you crave it can backfire, though, due to a phenomenon associated with internal triggers.
External triggers involve seeing or smelling an appealing food and wanting it. Internal triggers involve eating a small amount of a trigger food, which makes us want more. Drug research calls this “priming.” It’s linked with a specific brain receptor for the chemical dopamine. Eating a little of what we crave is mainstream “wisdom,” but this can be terrible advice for sugar addicts, who are highly susceptible to priming.
I consider priming the best argument against eating sugar when you crave it—it’s likely to start a binge. Priming also makes it difficult to wean from sugar slowly. Going “cold turkey” is usually better. Not everyone wants to hear that news, and it’s understandable after years of addiction. The fact remains, however, that priming has the potential to unleash big cravings.
Okay, it’s mean, but when researchers want to stress mice, they pinch their tails. The mice then run to their food bowls and eat. The endorphins triggered by stress increase their appetite. When stressed mice are offered both mouse chow and crumbled cookies, they choose cookies. Endorphins make sugar more appealing.
Of course, people are more complex. Some are sensitive to endorphins and react to any stress by eating. For others, short-term stress decreases appetite.
In long-term stress, cortisol levels remain elevated, continuously stimulating the appetite. Long-term stress also decreases serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, which leads to cravings and a preference for carbohydrates and sugar. In addition, low serotonin makes us impulsive—and likely to eat the junk we crave.
Serotonin is a well-known brain chemical. Low levels of serotonin may contribute to depression. The chemical also has profound effects on cravings, appetite and food preferences.
Serotonin disturbances include premenstrual syndrome (PMS), seasonal affective disorder, menopause, chronic alcohol use and/or insulin resistance, which can result in increased appetite and cravings, especially for sugar. Sugar increases symptom intensity and magnesium excretion, leading to irritability, anxiety or depression. These states of being can bring on more cravings in a self-perpetuating cycle.
Eating too little protein can be a primary cause of sugar cravings. Proteins are built from amino acids, which form brain chemicals. When they’re at optimal levels, we crave sugar less and resist cravings more easily.
Protein also triggers CCK as it enters the small intestine. A low-protein diet can decrease CCK (as a low-fat diet does) as well as key brain chemicals, including sertonin. That will trigger sugar cravings.
Protein is essential in eliminating sugar cravings. High-protein foods include fish, poultry, grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, eggs, shellfish, cottage cheese and plain Greek yogurt with 18-20 grams of protein per serving. If you don’t eat animal products, I recommend plant protein powders from hemp, peas, vegetables or brown rice to ensure adequate protein to eliminate sugar cravings.
Please keep in mind that nuts are mostly fat. It's healthful fat, mainly monounsaturated, so nuts are good to eat, but they are not protein. Many nuts even have more carbohydrate than protein. Some people resist these facts, but the numbers don't lie. Almonds, an exception, have virtually identical levels of protein and carb—but not much of either and, of course, are primarily fat.
Quinoa is mostly carbohydrate, with about as much protein per cup as two medium-sized potatoes. The well-known vegetarian beans-and-rice combo is mostly carbohydrate. Lentils are primarily carb; less than half of their nutritional content is protein. For what it's worth, these foods are low in fat but not high in protein.
Many people mistakenly believe seeds are primarily protein. Chia seeds, for example, contain primarily carbohydrate: 12g fiber, 9g of fat (most of it polyunsaturated) and 4.7g of protein. A cup of sunflower seeds supplies roughly equal amounts of protein (29g) and carb (28g) but carries 72g of fat and 818 calories. Hemp seeds offer a better protein-to-carb ratio: two tablespoons provide 6.3g of protein and 1.7g of carbohydrate, but they still contain 9.7g of fat. Pumpkin seeds also offer a better protein-to-carb ratio. A quarter cup provides 9.7g of protein, 3.4g of carbohydrate and 15.8g of fat.
Never skimp on protein if you're trying to end sugar cravings. A protein-to-carbohydrate ratio that greatly favors protein is ideal. Plant-based protein powders are truly helpful here.
Stopping cravings now and later
B vitamins are co-factors that help form the brain chemicals (including serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine) that stop cravings. For a short-term solution to sugar cravings, you might try liquid B-complex. Take one teaspoon of B-complex when you have a craving and give it a few minutes to take effect. [Check with your doctor first to make sure B vitamins are okay for you to take.]
Eliminating sugar cravings on a more permanent basis involves a coordinated plan that includes the following:
Eat meals that include protein and healthful fats along with your other foods. Do it consistently.
Avoid casual tastes of sugar, even if everyone else is having dessert, for example.
Learn and use some helpful stress management techniques.
Use liquid B-complex whenever an unexpected craving occurs.
This approach works, and the effects will strengthen over time. When you hear people say that they’ll never be able to conquer their sugar cravings, you’ll be armed with the knowledge that it is possible to banish them—for good.
Kavanaugh, Ann. "Sugar’s Sick Secrets: How industry forces have manipulated science to downplay the harm." UCSF.
Kent, Joan. "My Sugar Industry Article Scooped the New York Times."
Kent, Joan. Stronger Than Sugar: 7 Simple Steps to Defeat Sugar Addiction, Lift Your Mood, and Transform Your Health
Joan Kent, PhD, MS
Joan Kent is a pioneer in sugar addiction and psychoactive nutrition. She was the first to document the neurochemical pathways of addiction to sugar, and to explain the sugar/fat seesaw, both neurochemically and hormonally. Joan has helped hundreds of clients with food addictions, mood disorders, inflammation, binge eating and metabolic syndrome, which leads to diabetes, hypertension, insulin resistance, heart disease, cancer, and a number of other conditions.
Joan’s philosophy stems from a quotation by Simone de Beauvoir: “Confidence in the body is confidence in the self.” People who struggle with food and health lose trust in the body. Because Joan’s psychoactive approach increases her clients' confidence and improves their quality of life, the quote has become her professional mission statement.
Joan has written two bestselling books. Stronger Than Sugar helps readers conquer their sugar addiction. The Sugar-Free Workout offers ways to fuel before, during and after workouts without relying on the sugary foods that often masquerade as "training fuel."
Contact Information: Joan Kent, Ph.D., Psychoactive Nutrition M.S., Exercise Physiology Speaker, Author, ACE-Certified Health Consultant drjoan@FoodAddictionSolutions.com www.FoodAddictionSolutions.com 415-850-5909