Sugar, agave, honey, high fructose corn syrup, cane sugar, all of these are various names you may have seen on a food label, and they're all names for sugar. It's everywhere and seemingly in almost every product on store shelves. It's not a big surprise that people struggle with reducing the amount of sugar in their diets. According to a review of research from 2018, so many people are craving sweets that experts believe it has become ingrained in the culture and has become habitual.
In fact, "Why do I crave sweets after a meal?" has become one of the most common questions people ask when I engage in discussions about nutrition, health, and weight gain. Since it has become so common, explaining why this happens might prove helpful to trade this old habit for a new one.
The current recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines state that you should try to consume less than 10% of calories from added sugar. That's not much. But focusing on the foods you SHOULD fill your plate with will help alleviate at least some of the cravings. Half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables, and a quarter should be high fiber grains. A healthy dose of high fiber carbohydrates coupled with essential minerals and vitamins from these two foods groups can help because you will achieve more balance in your meals. This, coupled with lean, bioavailable protein, can make the difference when changing this habit.
There are many reasons a person may crave sugar. Some f them may be psychological, and some may be authentically physiological. Let's break them down one by one and explain them.
Who hasn't earned a "reward" in their childhood for doing or achieving something positive? You may have gotten good grades, helped your teacher or family member without being asked, decided to be nice to a sibling, or learned to ride a bike. It can be any number of instances where you got a sweet treat as a reward. Candy, ice cream, cake have all been used as a way to pat a child on the back.
As you entered adulthood, maybe you worked out consistently for a month and wanted to reward yourself with your favorite chocolate or pie flavor. This may be a behavior that you have chosen over time.
This is not to say that enjoying something sweet is inherently wrong; it isn't. We're just exploring possible reasons that craving sweets have become so common.
The intensity of the craving can then become a habit, and since so many of our ultra-processed foods contain sugar in some form, it's no surprise that this happens. Some highly processed foods that contain sugar are designed to entice you to eat more due to their hyper palatability. This subject has been debated in the professional nutrition world and one in which I hope to write more about in the future. Is sugar as addictive as drugs? That's debatable, and the science is unclear; however, we know that sugar may release dopamine in the brain (a feel-good neurochemical), which may cause more cravings.
POOR SLEEP HABITS
This study proposes that people who experience poor sleep eat more, have a deficient diet, and possibly crave sweet or starchy foods. It may be a way to boost their energy levels because they're exhausted. Not getting adequate sleep for at least 7 hours per night may interrupt digestion and lead to weight gain.
Conversely, overeating sugar significantly before bed can affect the quality of your sleep. Eating the bulk of your calories daily with a healthy balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat can help avoid snacking and late-night hunger. For better sleep hygiene, this article from Mayo Clinic may help.
Chronic stress leads to biochemical changes in your body, specifically the increased secretion of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid and is produced in your adrenal glands that are located above your kidneys. When you're under stress, cortisol is made available to your body by aiding in metabolism, reducing inflammation, increasing the amount of blood sugar available under stressful situations, and suppressing the immune system.
Hormones, including cortisol, are regulated via your endocrine system, and our body fights for homeostasis during a stressful event. Although the release of cortisol is beneficial to your body in certain situations, prolonged exposure to cortisol may have adverse effects, one of which is overeating.
In this study, 59 women were exposed to a stress session and a control session on different days. Those with a higher level of cortisol consumed more calories and consumed foods higher in sugar content.
Additionally, in a study of 172 men and women, those with higher cortisol levels had more elevated amounts of visceral fat in the abdominal area, suggesting that cortisol leads to overeating and overconsumption of high sugar foods.
More research is needed to establish the relationship between cortisol, craving sugar, or sweetened foods and weight gain. However, it appears there is a correlation.
HABITS DEVELOPED OVER TIME
Dessert after an evening meal used to be a regular part of everyday life. Continuing this tradition of dessert after dinner has caused difficulty in forming new habits. There is nothing wrong with enjoying dessert now and again, but it has to be balanced with healthy choices throughout the day. It's not easy to change old habits, but it's not impossible. Plan and realize the cravings will come, and know how you will handle them.
NOT ENOUGH CALORIES DURING THE DAY
Adequate calories with increased protein eaten throughout the day can help alleviate cravings. Skipping meals or not eating enough at each meal and then suddenly feeling extremely hungry once the clock hits 3 pm should be avoided. It's ok if you don't eat when you wake up, but a high-protein meal should be consumed by late morning at the very least. Keeping yourself from getting too hungry is one key to lasting weight management and alleviating cravings for sugar.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
If you're not already exercising, now is the time, especially if you're over 40. Not only does exercise help to curb appetite, but it also lowers stress levels and helps the body handle stressful situations once they present themselves.
Exercise also stimulates your body to release endorphins that produce feelings of happiness and contentment, which can help to manage stress.
HAVE A PLAN AND REROUTE YOUR CRAVINGS
Plan your sweets. When I work with clients, I never tell them to deprive themselves of their most loved foods. Deprivation of a craving may lead to wanting something more instead of less.
You are much more likely to moderate yourself and feel satisfied if you plan. For example, bring a fun-size candy bar to your lunch to enjoy mid-afternoon and track it on your fitness app if that is how your manage eating. Or, if you know, it's someone's birthday, and they're going to have a favorite sweet food, plan to have a reasonable portion. It's true that people who fail to plan, plan to fail.
SWITCH UP THE SWEETNESS
Now that you have a plan in place and know you will be satisfied with that sweet tooth, try to opt for healthier choices most other times. Fruits or vegetables high in vitamin C such as oranges, strawberries, blueberries, red peppers, and white or sweet potatoes are all excellent choices. Include them in your meals or snacks to help you curb your cravings. Have these foods accessible and visible. Studies show that we are more likely to eat what we have in front of us. Keep a fruit basket on the counter, or include some high vitamin C veggies in your recipes. Small changes can make all the difference in your health!
I work one on one with men and women who want to improve their health, their lifestyle, and change old habits. Check out my Book Online page to schedule a free consultation. We'll discuss your needs and goals and develop a strategy to set you on a path to your individualized health journey!