Why do I have sugar cravings and how to stop them?
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Do you know that moment when all of a sudden you get an urge to eat a specific food? Maybe for you, it’s for something sweet like chocolate. This is a craving, we’ve all had them, and for most of us, it’s probably been sugar cravings. Let’s take a deep dive into cravings, why they occur, what’s going on inside your body when you experience them, and how to stop sugar cravings once and for all.
What are cravings?
A food craving is an intense desire to consume a particular type of food, often with urgency. They can occur anytime but mostly happen in the late afternoon and in the evening. There is some debate whether food cravings happen from not eating enough food, or whether they’re developed over time through the conditioning behavior model. Both are possible. The conditioning model for food cravings suggests that cravings develop when regularly eating certain foods in combination with certain activities. For example, eating something while watching television or feeling a certain way (feeling lonely). Picture this, you come home from a long day at work, have dinner and sit down to watch some television. A craving for something sweet arises, and before you know it, you’re reaching for the fridge. Hands up if you’ve experienced this scenario?
Weight management and sugar cravings
Cravings are powerful things. What someone craves, how often, and how much they satisfy that craving can even influence how much they weigh. In fact, food cravings can influence up to 11% of the change in eating behavior and weight gain from person to person.
What foods do we crave the most?
It is common for us humans to crave energy-dense foods such as chocolate, pastries, or sugary drinks. In fact, you may not be surprised to know that chocolate and chocolate-containing foods are the most frequently craved foods. This is followed by other high-calorie-containing sweets and savory foods. Many of us also have a tendency to crave low-calorie-containing fruits. Interestingly, the desire to eat foods high in calories increases throughout the day, while the craving for fruits decreases.
The difference between hunger and cravings
To the person experiencing them, a hunger and a craving may feel strikingly similar, and whilst there is definitely some cross-over, they are different. Here are four points to help distinguish the difference between hunger and a craving:
- Feelings of hunger occur when your stomach is empty, or your stomach is not full.
- Hunger and food cravings often happen at the same time, but you don’t have to be hungry to experience a food craving.
- Normally food cravings can only be satisfied by eating a particular food, whilst hunger will normally stop by consuming any kind of food.
- Food cravings can be separated from feelings of hunger because of their specific desire for a certain food, as well as the intensity of that desire.
Food cravings can be caused by a number of factors
Like anything to do with the body, its functions are complex and multifaceted, and cravings are no different. Food and sugar cravings are driven by many factors, such as physical, emotional, and psychological. So how can you tell which one your craving is driven by? Great question!
Physical cravings are connected with several processes that prepare the body for food and stimulate eating. These processes include increased production of saliva in the mouth (sounds gross, but it’s normal), as well as the activation of the reward part of the brain. There are some links between nutrient deficiency and food cravings, but they account for a small fraction of food cravings.
Emotional cravings can be stimulated by feelings of nostalgia, seeking or needing comfort, and other various emotions such as feeling sad. This can explain why when you visit Grandma’s place, you get a craving for her delicious apple pie. Or when you miss you visit your childhood town, you get a sweet craving for a milkshake from the corner store. (or could say, “you get a craving for your favorite sweet pastry from the local bakery”).
There are several psychological reasons for why and how food cravings happen. A popular idea is based on what’s known as Pavlovian conditioning. This is where an activity or place has been repeatedly paired with eating food. Similar to an emotional craving, doing this activity or visiting this place alone can result in cravings. For example, every time you go to the beach you eat ice cream. You then visit the beach one day (without ice cream), and you get a strong sweet craving for ice cream.
Think about your own life and the common cravings you experience. Can you identify if they are physical, emotional, or psychological?
The connection between blood glucose curve and cravings
As humans, taste is an important factor that governs our eating behaviors. Most of us have a natural inclination to sweet-tasting foods as they are often tastier. Because our bodies desire that optimal taste factor, it can often lead to consuming food high in sugar. Consuming a high amount of sugar leads to a blood glucose spike, which induces insulin secretion to take the blood glucose up into the cells. Consequently, too much sugar in the body can cause a rapid rise in insulin concentration, which causes a rapid glucose uptake from the blood to the cells resulting in a dip in blood glucose levels, which can then can lead to more sugar cravings (like a loop).
A dip in blood glucose levels can also occur when we haven’t eaten enough food. As blood glucose is a source of energy for your body, this can lead to food cravings. And these food cravings are often for high-carbohydrate and high-sugar foods.
How to avoid blood glucose dip?
One way to help prevent blood glucose dips is to manage and monitor our blood glucose through the use of a continuous blood glucose monitor (CGM). A CGM tracks our bodies’ blood glucose levels and measures its unique reactions to food, exercise, and sleep. Additionally, focusing on eating regular protein-rich meals, that are low in carbohydrates is a way to manage and prevent blood glucose dips.
Why do women in a certain cycle phase feel cravings more often?
Many women experience sweet cravings and certain types of foods depending on where they are at in their monthly cycle. A woman’s ovarian hormones are powerful hormones that can influence hunger levels and cravings and binge eating. This also varies depending on which part of the cycle a woman is in (follicular phase or luteal phase). Let’s dive deeper into why women in certain phases of their cycle feel cravings more often.
The follicular phase (days 1- 14)
During the follicular phase when the estrogen levels are high, many women experience reduced hunger and cravings and a decrease in weight (which is the opposite of the luteal phase). It’s believed that estrogen helps to regulate appetite, while progesterone functions to counteract the effects of estrogen. This can explain how sugar cravings happen less during this phase.
Luteal phase (days 14-28)
During the luteal phase (postovulatory period), estrogen levels are low and progesterone levels high. This can result in women experiencing the following:
- Eating more food than normal
- Increased cravings (especially craving sweets)
- Increase in body weight
- Increased energy needs (which may lead to an increased physiological need for carbohydrates).
- Decreased insulin sensitivity
During this luteal phase, the lower estrogen levels result in what most of us know as PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Evidence shows that food cravings may be a reaction to negative mood changes caused by PMS. Decreased serotonin levels during the premenstrual phase increase negative mood and cravings for serotonin-releasing foods, like chocolate. It’s possible that these changes in hormones are partially to blame for the increase in food intake and food cravings. So, ladies, it’s very possible that your hormones may be influencing your sugar cravings. But there are ways to help avoid these sugar cravings. You can find the right foods for each phase of your cycle and stop sugar cravings once and for all.
How food restrictions can lead to sugar cravings
Weight concerns and dieting have become common among women who sadly regardless of their weight, think they are fat. Because of this, they frequently diet in an attempt to lose or control their weight. Anyone who chronically restricts their food intake can experience intense and frequent food cravings. This can then lead to binging, overeating, and an unhealthy preoccupation with food.
Because of this food preoccupation and increased food cravings, people that chronically diet are more likely to respond to external food cues than non-dieters. They also become less responsive to their body’s internal hunger and fullness cues. Those that restrict their food and experience chronic hunger, can have elevated motilin levels, depressed insulin levels, and pancreatic polypeptide responses. Which then leads to increased food and sugar cravings. So the more you restrict food, the more intense the food cravings become.
How can I avoid cravings?
Having cravings is normal but not necessary. Understand which foods keep you energized and full long after the meal, and which foods make you feel hungry shortly after, and increase your cravings by keeping track of your glucose levels. Your body is constantly trying to tell you, what is good for you and what is bad for you. Why not listen to it?