Medically reviewed by
Dr. Carla Montrond Correia ND, CNS
5 min read
Whether it’s added to coffee, sprinkled on cinnamon toast, or baked into brownies, sugar can often make things taste better. However, too much sugar may have some negative impacts on health.
According to the American Heart Association, added sugar intake should be limited to no more than 100-150 calories per day from sugar. This translates to about 6-9 teaspoons per day or 24-36 grams per day. That’s less than the average can of soda, which has about 35-40 grams of total added sugar.
So if too much sugar can be a problem, why do we crave it?
There are a few different reasons why we may crave sugar.
Food cravings can be driven by a chemical called dopamine. This feel-good hormone is released when we eat something pleasurable and can cause the brain to seek out these foods again and again.
It’s widely accepted that combinations of foods can drive cravings. Research suggests that sugar and fat together are the basis for sugar cravings. For example, people tend to crave ice cream versus a spoonful of table sugar.
Now that we know some of the potential reasons behind sugar cravings, let’s review some of the specific situations that can trigger these cravings.
We may turn to a tasty treat in times of stress or get cravings for comfort food when things feel overwhelming. But is there really any scientific evidence behind “stress eating” and sugar cravings?
There does appear to be a relationship between sugar intake and stress, but much of this research is focused on the effects of sugar intake on emotions, rather than stress causing sugar intake.
Studies have shown that stress can drive food cravings and that food cravings are associated with higher BMIs. If stress is causing sleep issues, this may also drive food intake. It’s been shown that sleep deprivation can lead to eating high-calorie foods.
While these studies show evidence of a connection between stress and increased cravings and food intake, there is more research to be done to find out if stress causes craving for sugar specifically.
If your friend tells you that they are craving pickles dipped in maple syrup, they must be pregnant, right?
The reasons behind food cravings during pregnancy are not fully understood, but it’s thought that hormonal changes, nutritional deficiencies, and cultural and psychosocial factors may play a role. More research is needed to better understand this, but it’s clear that pregnancy can lead to food cravings.
Aside from pregnancy, hormonal shifts during the menstrual cycle may also drive sugar cravings.
One potential cause of food cravings is a deficiency in nutrients.
We can’t talk about sugar cravings without mentioning chocolate. Chocolate is the most frequently craved food in North America, according to research. Some believe that cravings for chocolate are driven by a deficiency in magnesium. However, cravings for other foods high in magnesium (like nuts) are not very common.
More research is needed to understand the potential relationship between nutrient deficiencies and sugar cravings.
Now that we’ve talked through some of the potential reasons for sugar cravings, let’s discuss ways to enjoy sugar in moderation.
If you’re dealing with sugar cravings, you may think that you need to remove all sugar from your diet. You may have been told to clean out your kitchen and get rid of every sweetener in your home. This might work for some, but for others, it can cause even more cravings.
A better approach is to reduce sugar, but allow for some sugar in your life.
One way to start reducing sugar is to make healthy swaps. When sugar carvings strike, reach for a combination of carbohydrates and healthy fat or protein. This could be an apple with nut butter or hummus and carrots. A snack may also be too small to satisfy you and you may actually need to eat a complete meal in order to keep you fuller for longer.
Have you heard of mindful eating? This practice allows you to be fully present while eating instead of being distracted.
When you do choose to have a treat, try eating it mindfully.
Let’s say you are going to eat a piece of chocolate. Hold the chocolate in your hand and clue into how it makes you feel. Are you excited to eat it? Is your mouth starting to water? Next, smell the chocolate and focus on the scent and any good memories that it brings up. Then put the chocolate in your mouth and let it melt slowly. How does it taste? What is the texture?
While this exercise may feel a little silly at first, eating mindfully can help you truly enjoy sugar when you do choose to indulge.
If you are constantly craving sugar, it’s important to make sure that you are meeting your fluid and nutrient needs.
For fluids, it’s recommended to drink between 9-13 cups of fluids per day. This can vary based on activity levels and sweating.
It’s also important to eat balanced meals that contain protein, fat, and fiber in order to keep you full. Research suggests that balanced eating can reduce cravings for sweets.
We talked about the potential relationship between stress and cravings, so stress-reducing activities may be helpful.
Don’t forget your sleep! Aim for 7-9 hours per night.
While it’s clear from the research that sugar cravings do exist, the specific causes are not fully understood. Things like stress, hormones, and nutrient deficiencies may all play a role.
There are ways to help with occasional sugar cravings but If you need more help cutting down on sugar, consider working with a registered dietitian.