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The Surprising Science Behind Sugar Cravings

When it comes to getting out of “sugar jail,” is it simply a matter of willpower—or something more complex? As it turns out, it takes more than just fortitude to break the cycle, as our cravings for the sweet stuff depend on real physical factors hardwired into us.

However, a life sugar sentence isn’t a foregone conclusion. Here’s the science behind why we crave sugar—and how we can retrain our bodies to find lasting freedom from those cravings.

1. This is your brain on sugar. Our brains are very complex and are therefore responsible for our sugar cravings in more than one way. The first is that sugary and fatty processed foods have the same effect on our brains as recreational drugs. That is, when you eat something sweet, your brain responds by flooding your body with feel-good dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Dopamine keeps us in sugar jail by making it addictive and impossible to resist, despite knowing it’s unhealthy. Second, the insula, a small region of the cerebral cortex located deep within the brain, is believed to be responsible for a variety of things, including hunger and craving, subjective emotional experience, and self-awareness of the body. It, too, can raise dopamine levels at the very thought of a pleasurable experience, such as biting into a soft chocolate chip cookie.

Finally, when you unconsciously reach for dessert or a sweet midday pick-me-up, that’s your caudate nuclei at work. With one in each hemisphere of the brain, they process past experiences to influence future decisions and actions. In this way, they’re responsible for habit formation—and hyperactive caudate nuclei may even be a factor in OCD. How to fight back: While it can be a bit of a challenge to work against your brain’s natural responses, you can reverse bad habits by practicing good ones. Think of healthy ways to distract yourself when a craving strikes, such as counting to ten, taking a short walk, or drinking a glass of water. This helps begin to break the cycle.

2. Your cravings have caveman roots. In addition to sugar jailer dopamine, our cravings also stem from our hunter-gatherer days. Our brains are hardwired to seek out high-calorie foods because once, we didn’t know where our next meal was coming from. Today food is no longer in such short supply, but these natural impulses still lead us to make poor choices. When presented with a cookie or a carrot, our caveman brain wants us to choose the unhealthy but calorie-dense food over the nutritious one. And with processed food available just about everywhere we turn, our brains are triggered to crave now more than ever. How to fight back: The best way to fight this ancient impulse is by eating mindfully. Recognize why your brain wants the sugary treat and make a conscious effort to choose the healthy option. Spend time savoring your food at meals instead of rushing through them distracted at your desk or in front of the TV. Over time, your body will learn to find satisfaction in better choices.

3. Your diet needs more lean protein, healthy fats, and fiber. If you find yourself constantly craving sugar, consider whether your diet is balanced. A balanced diet rich in healthy fats, lean protein, and fiber is essential to blood sugar regulation, as they all help slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, preventing those craving-inducing highs and lows. A high-carb diet will train your body to expect its energy from quick bursts of simple sugars, leading to even more cravings, while a low-carb diet will quickly teach it to get its energy from more complex sources. How to fight back: Incorporate more lean protein (wild-caught fish, pastured poultry and eggs, and grass-fed beef), healthy fats (avocado, nuts, and seeds), and fiber into your diet. Reduce simple carbohydrates from refined flours, sugars, etc. and make sure that every meal is balanced with protein, fats, and healthy carbohydrates.

4. You’re consuming too many processed foods with the “salt-sugar-fat trifecta.” Finding it a challenge to resist that Hostess cupcake is no accident—manufacturers specifically engineer their food to be irresistible. The magic formula lies in the salt-sugar-fat trifecta, and while these individual ingredients have been around for hundreds of years, they’ve only recently become cheap and abundant. Together, they amp up the sensory experience of food in a way that’s quite difficult to recreate at home. The addition of fat not only makes flavors more rich and complex, but acts as a lubricant that allows food to go down easier. Many processed foods are even mashed—AKA prechewed. The average bite of processed food takes less than 12 chews to swallow, meaning you can move that much quicker to the next hit of pleasure. How to fight back: With every sense stimulated by something like a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Late Night Snack, your brain will have a harder time finding the same pleasure in a bowl of mixed berries. Help yourself by making food purchases mindfully. Read labels and choose limited ingredient options, shop as much as possible from the periphery of the grocery store (where the least processed food tends to be), and the next time a junk food craving strikes, take a minute to ask yourself if you truly want it—or if your brain is just responding to stimuli designed to make you crave.

5. Poor sleep leads to poor decision-making. Quality rest plays a major role in your overall wellness—your resistance to sugar cravings included. Even one night of bad sleep can affect your judgement and decision-making, leaving you that much more susceptible. Chronic sleep issues can also put you in sugar jail, as it messes with your hormone-regulating internal clock and throws off your leptin and ghrelin levels (the appetite suppressing and boosting hormones). In fact, a 2012 study performed by the Mayo Clinic reveals just how big of an impact poor sleep can have on your diet—participants who slept just 80 minutes less than usual wound up consuming an extra 550 calories the following day! How to fight back: Help yourself by setting a regular bedtime routine, including setting and sticking to a schedule (even on the weekends!) Unwind and prepare for sleep by limiting screen time before bed, taking a hot bath, and/or meditating.

6. Depression and stress can be a factor. Cravings for a sweet treat during tough times can be more than just emotionally-triggered. In addition to raising dopamine levels, sugar also elevates serotonin, making that cookie or donut a short-term antidepressant. Stress also messes with your hormones, spiking cortisol and consequently impacting your glucose and insulin levels. Faced with either of these conditions chronically, your brain will train itself to demand a simple mood boost from unhealthy sources. How to fight back: Arm yourself with healthy stress-busting and mood-boosting habits, such as getting quality sleep, exercising regularly, and/or practicing yoga or meditation. You can also boost serotonin naturally though foods such as eggs, salmon, and nuts and seeds.

7. Mineral deficiencies can be a culprit. Because hundreds of minerals play hundreds of important roles in how our bodies function, an imbalance with one or more can lead to sugar cravings. For example, low iron levels leave you lethargic—so naturally, your body will call for a quick energy boost from simple carbohydrates. Thirst-regulating minerals calcium, chromium, magnesium, and zinc will also prompt a craving for the sweet stuff when you’re actually just thirsty. These minerals are all also responsible for things like carbohydrate metabolism and hormone and emotion regulation, so imbalances may also leave you further susceptible to the mere suggestion of something sweet. How to fight back: Work with your healthcare provider to determine whether you have a mineral deficiency and resolve it through a targeted diet and quality supplements, if necessary.

My job is not only to educate you about healthy food choices, but also to help you see all the options you have when it comes to changing your eating habits. If you feel you could use a bit of structure, accountability, and cheerleading, contact me. I am here to help.


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