Why do we have sugar cravings? And what to do about it…
2020 has been a rollercoaster of a year. According to the Lockdown Diet Report by Cambridge Weight Plan, 50% of Brits stockpiled foods like pasta, chocolate, and crisps, with only 13% stockpiling frozen fruits and vegetables. This behaviour had a devastating impact on their waistline and gut microbiome. Turning to comfort foods such as refined carbohydrates is a coping mechanism in times of uncertainty. Carbs are involved and the synthesis of feel-good hormones such as serotonin (a neurotransmitter associated with feeling good) and dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward). The
problem is that anything that provides a quick burst of energy can also take it away quickly. It then becomes a vicious circle because the more we eat refined carbs, the better you feel in the moment, and so we keep chasing that feeling.
However, anxiety is not the only reason why we have sugar cravings. In this article, I will explain the main reasons behind our sugar cravings and what we can do today to get back in control.
The most common cause for sugar cravings is the body needing more fuel. When we eat a food containing carbohydrates, our digestive system breaks it down into sugar, which enters the bloodstream and is carried to the cells where it is used for energy. This is done by the action of insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas. When our cells become starved for fuel –because we go hours without eating, because we consume too many refined carbs that are too quickly absorbed or because we consume too many saturated fats that delay stomach emptying and cause high blood glucose, our brain sends out hormonal messages encouraging us to eat.
Chronic stress is another reason for our sugar cravings. Centuries ago, stress meant being chased by a lion. Nowadays, stress is our boss, our in-laws, our work deadlines, etc… Chronic stress triggers the releases of cortisol, a hormone that helps our body cope with the stressful event. To fight or flee the stressor, our body mobilizes all the sugar available, so we end up with high blood sugar that will not be used - as we are not chased by a lion! Our cells do not get any glucose as it is needed in the blood for ‘’immediate’’ use. Overtime, our cells
may become insulin resistant and we may develop cardiovascular diseases such as type 2 Diabetes. The unused glucose is eventually stored as fat in and around our liver and our starving cells will make us crave more sugar in the form of a donut or a croissant.
Our internal clock plays a significant role in managing the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which promote and suppress appetite. Sleep deprivation causes changes in hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. The hormone leptin suppresses appetite and encourages the body to expend energy. Sleep deprivation reduces leptin. The hormone ghrelin, on the other hand, triggers feelings of hunger—and ghrelin goes up when we are short on sleep. A study
on the link between sleep and sugar consumption showed that increasing sleep amounts reduced sugar intake by about 10 grams in a day. So, my friends, you know what to do.
Last but not least, let’s talk about gut health. Why do some people seem to eat whatever they want and not gain weight, and others appear to gain weight even if they eat reasonable amounts of food? The answer, at least in part, may be found in the bacteria that live in our guts. Our gut is populated by trillions of bacteria that help us digest, keep us regular and keep infections at bay. Research has shown that our gut microbiome can influence our weight. Indeed, certain bacteria have an appetite for more refined foods and the more we
have these bacteria inside our gut, the more they will want to eat this type of food.
What are the consequences of sugar cravings on our health?
Cravings that lead to an overconsumption of refined carbohydrates have many
consequences on our health, beyond just weight gain. Too much refined sugar can lead to chronic inflammation and weakened immunity. Indeed, chronic inflammation reduces the ability of white blood cells to perform optimally. This results in a reduced capability to fight infections. In today’s world, we all understand the importance of supporting our immune system so working to find the root cause of our sugar cravings instead of giving in to them is a great way strategy.
What can you do to reduce your sugar cravings then?
Balance your meals with adequate amounts of protein, healthy fats, and carbs to avoid sugar crashes. Fats and protein are a bit more complex to break down which means that they can slow down the absorption of glucose, which can lead to more stable blood sugar levels throughout the day.
- Fill half your plate with vegetables, ¼ with starchy grains and ¼ with protein + fat
- If you have cravings and mood swings throughout the day, it might be a good idea to start eating small balanced meals every 2-3 hours for a short period of time until your blood sugar levels are stabilized.
- If you are going to snack, pay attention to sugar content of your snack. Always go for something balanced such as Foodie for Health banana bread. Use sweeteners like raw unpasteurized honey, coconut sugar or date syrup and stay away from additives and preservatives as they can disrupt appetite hormone function.
Improve the quality of your sleep:
- Wear a sleep mask (and potentially earplugs): Studies have shown that the use of earplugs and eye masks can promote more REM sleep (or deep sleep) and elevated melatonin levels (the sleep hormone)
- Avoid stimulants in the evening (caffeine, alcohol) and late dinners with spicy foods as they might cause heartburn
- Take an Epsom salt bath: Epsom salts are a naturally occurring compound of minerals such as magnesium which is known to help alleviate muscle pain and promote relaxation
Manage your stress levels:
- Go for a 10-min walk: anytime you feel annoyed or stressed about a situation, go for a walk. The action of walking will trigger the release of endorphins, which are neurotransmitters telling your body that everything is fine. Naturally, you will feel less inclined to seek out immediate food reward.
- Listening to classical music can have a tremendously relaxing effect on our minds and bodies. It can have a beneficial effect on our physiological functions by slowing the pulse and heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and decreasing the levels of stress hormones.
- Use lavender oil: Aromatherapy can reduce the perception of stress and decrease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Lavender aromatherapy has indeed been shown to promote sleep in infants and adults.
Diversify your gut bacteria:
- Consume fermented foods with live cultures: sauerkraut, kefir, kombucha, live
- probiotic yogurt. Cultivating a variety of beneficial bacteria can help support your gut health and balance your gut microbiome. Make it a daily thing. It is like watering your plants.
- If you suspect bacterial overgrowth (intense sugar cravings with bloating, cramps, constipation, brain fog, etc…), get in touch with a health practitioner you trust.
- Consume a variety of dietary fibre: We are supposed to consume 30gr of fibre every day. However, more than 70% of the UK population only eats about 15 gr. Fibre acts like a broom that sweeps out your intestines which helps to keep them clean and fibre also feeds beneficial bacteria that keep you happy and healthy.
Addressing sugar cravings is not an easy thing if you do not know why you have them in the first place. In most cases, addressing sleep, nutrition and stress levels will solve at least 80% of the problem. So, do not be so quick to take supplements and prioritise making small lifestyle changes every day so you can experience long-lasting results.
Have a fantastic day,