When I was around 10 years old, I would go to the candy store in the mall and get a ½ lb bag of candy, filled to the brim with sweet tarts, pixie sticks, and taffy. I’d go home and eat the whole thing, like it was Halloween sometimes to the point where I’d feel so sick I’d even throw up. I didn’t have an eating disorder, I just had a misunderstanding of how sugar affected me, and when to stop. Flash forward into my adult life and I’ve dealt with sugar cravings for years. They’re gripping, they’re crippling, they can come out of nowhere and can be for a specific food or for anything to satisfy that urge. If you’re like me, and you experience sugar cravings, there’s probably been a point at which you asked yourself “why do I do this and why is it so hard to stop?”. Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve coached hundreds of people to unleash themselves from sugar craving shackles, and I’m going to share what I know to help you do the same. If you experience sugar cravings, here’s how to stop them before you can’t.
What Happens When Eat You Too Much Sugar?
In extreme cases, it makes you vomit like my 10-year old self. In less extreme cases, it can strip your micronutrients, lead you on a blood sugar roller coaster, or make you fat (not like that didn’t happen). When you eat too much sugar though, it’s not good. It can not only deplete your body of nutrients but strip incoming nutrients from being absorbed (yikes!) [R]
Here are some other things that happen when you eat too much sugar:
- Decreases appetite for more nutritious food.2
- Depletes nutrients within the body (in order to liberate the calories from sugar, as well as from an increase in bacterial and yeast overgrowth).2
- Provide zero nutrition.2
- Cause insulin resistance.27–30This will result in decreased use of glucose for energy (decreased uptake into cells),47 as well as impaired oxidation of fatty acids for energy.31 32
- Can lead to insulin resistance, they can induce a state of ‘internal starvation’, also referred to as ‘hidden cellular semistarvation’.33
- Decreases nutrient absorption due to intestinal irritation/damage.225
- Increases nutrient excretion caused by fructose malabsorption leading to diarrhea.46
- Damages the mitochondria and depletes ATP.8
- Produces unnatural drug-like cravings leading to a vicious cycle of continued consumption and further nutrient depletion.
On a diet of 2000 calories per day, 800 calories from added sugars represents a dilution of 40%, or a 40% displacement of foods with higher nutrient density by foods that not only provide fewer nutrients, but which may, in fact, require increased nutrient intake simply to be metabolized. It is easy to understand how consuming added sugars leads to nutritional deficit and serious sugar cravings.4 6
What Is Sugar
Simple carbohydrates are also known as sugars. Three of these sugars are referred to as monosaccharides because they have a single sugar molecule (mono- meaning ‘one’ and saccharide meaning ‘sugar’) whereas the other three types of sugars are known as disaccharides, which have two molecules of sugar joined together.
- Glucose (Monosaccharide):
Most abundant sugar molecule found in diets and the human body (found in complex carbs like sweet potatoes). Most preferred source of sugar energy for the brain, exercise, and cells.
- Fructose (Monosaccharide):
Sweetest type of natural sugar found in fruits and vegetables. Processed into high-fructose corn syrup.
- Lactose (Disaccharide):
AKA milk sugar. Fun fact - breast milk has higher lactose levels than cow’s milk, which makes human breast milk sweeter. Therefore, it’s encouraged to breast feed babies, so they can build up a tolerance to lactose in their body.
- Maltose (Disaccharide)
By-product of our bodies breaking down other molecules in foods. AKA malt sugar used to ferment beer and liquor creating empty calories.
- Sucrose (Disaccharide)
Contains fructose. Sweeter than lactose or maltose alone. Commercially processed from sugarcane and sugar beets which are then turned into table sugar, brown sugar, powdered sugar, and other sweeteners. On the more natural side of things, sucrose is present in sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, fruits and vegetables.
Why Do Sugar Cravings Happen
Regardless of the type(s) of sugars that you eat, here are some common reasons why you have sugar cravings and how to stop them before they start.
The Pleasure Center
Sugar is an excellent form of energy and it has the ability to fire off the happy hormone ‘dopamine’ creating a sense of pleasure and soothing in the Mesolimbic Dopamine System. The chemical dopamine gets fired off and released by neurons when we have sugary foods, signaling a positive, reinforcing reaction. We might experience this same sensation when we laugh, see someone we love, or experience something fun for the first time. [R] The positive signal reinforces behaviors, making us more likely to perform the actions that create this reaction in the brain.
The more sugar you have, the more often you have it, the more frequently dopamine is released and the more the brain wants to feel the same sensation from the sugar that we eat. Ever wonder why sugar cravings are so gripping? Or why we get so much joy from a fun decorated cupcake, donut, or cotton candy at the fair? Or in my case, from a candy store laden with jawbreakers, gummy worms, and meter long bubblegum? We’ve trained our brains to preferentially get more of these foods to feel the positive sensation again.
So ask yourself - are you eating the donut because of the sprinkles on top are your favorite color or are you eating it because you’re hungry? Are you keeping candy in the house because it makes you feel good or it’s because it is what you reach for when you need a ‘pick me up’? When you start asking yourself behavioral questions about your sugar cravings, you can begin to decipher, is this a habit or am I craving something more?
Sugar cravings can also stem from a very important part of the brain which enables reward-seeking behavior and habits, both positive and negative ones. When sugar consumption is high during childhood, it can alter and debilitate the hippocampus function and development, leading to even more gripping cravings as an adult, high blood sugar, and obesity. [R]
The hippocampus is where the answer of the question we asked in the previous paragraph, is filed in the brain. It’s like a little filing cabinet that remembers you prefer milk chocolate over dark chocolate, for example.
Say you keep the candy in the house like we just talked about. Let’s say every night, as you sit down to watch Netflix at 9:00 pm, you get up and go get a handful of candy without even thinking about it. It’s so quick and second natured that you don’t even think about what you’re doing.
This action (habit) is considered a conditioned response and a root of sugar cravings, thanks to the way it tastes, and the way your brain remembers it in the brain. You’re tired, you’re going to watch a movie, it’s the same environment night after night. The best part about sugar cravings being rooted in our habits is that we can change our habits, and overtime, uproot the way that the brain send signals and how quickly it sends them. [R]
Think of your brain like the freeway, ok? Follow me here - as you send signals for habits that you perform often, let’s say like the 9:00 pm candy craving, you begin to create grooves in the brain, similar to the grooves in the slow lane of the freeway from the semi-trucks.
As you begin to challenge the behavior, you can think of it as switching lanes, out of the grooved lane and eventually into the fast lane, where the pavement is the smoothest. You’ve began to uproot the grooves in which the neurons send that pleasure center release and habit based action cues, so that sugar cravings no longer have control over you, and instead, you have control over them.
Another place that we need to understand sugar cravings stem from are marketing messages. Ever see a picture of fries on a billboard and think to yourself, ‘wow, I want fries, I haven’t had those in a long time’. Would you have wanted them if you didn’t see the marketing message? Probably not.
Think about the movie theatre. Immediately when you go into the theater, you do what? You go get candy, popcorn, and sugary soda. Because ‘what’s the point of going to the movies without it?”. You then go sit in the theater and see the Coca-Cola ads with the fizzy drink, popcorn, and candy, with a campaign about how they all go hand in hand and to truly have the best experience, you have to have Coca-Cola products during your movie. [R]
Yikes. Probably want that coke and candy if you didn’t get it when you walked in right? That sugar craving gets strong because you just watched a marketing message telling you that you’re going to miss out if you don’t. [R]
So I beckon the question - does your sugar craving come from really wanting to eat or drink something, or does it come from a marketing message? Are you being told you want something, or do you really want it?
How Much Sugar Per Day
The American Heart Association (AHA) its recommended that a person consumes no more than 6 tsp (that’s 25 grams) of added sugar per day for women, and no more than 9 tsp (38 grams) for men. When it comes to children, the AHA recommended intake levels vary based on age and caloric needs, but the range is between 3-6 tsp (that’s 12-25 grams) per day. [R]
Keeping added sugars, both from natural and artificial sources, can be beneficial to the human body and can help keep you off the sugar roller coaster that leads to sugar cravings.
How To Stop Sugar Cravings
One of the most effective ways stop sugar cravings, is by hiring a certified nutrition coach. Working with a nutrition coach, like one from The Swole Kitchen, takes a holistic approach to address the fundamental needs our brains, bodies, environments and relationships to improve well-being, stress management, happiness and managing emotional health. Working with a nutrition coach to alleviate your grip with sugar and sugar cravings can prove to be an effective method to reclaim your health and your relationship with food.
Sugar Cravings: Takeaway
If you’re trying to get a grip on sugar cravings, recognizing the habit is the first step. The second step usually comes down to taking a good look at what you’re eating and drinking daily. A great place to start is by keeping a 3–5-day log of everything you eat and drink then adjusting as necessary. Ask yourself questions like how many nutrients are in my food? Do I need enough or eat too much? Do the foods I eat have a lot of added sugars? Do I eat a lot of processed foods instead of fresh ones? And what does your sleep schedule look like? These questions will hold the keys to breaking through your sugar cravings and figuring out how to stop before you can’t. Take it from me – they don’t have to have control over you, and the more you have control over them, the better you’re going to feel and the better your decisions are going to be.
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