Why you are addicted to sugar and what to do about it
Are you a sugar addict? Do you always finish the tub of ice cream? The bag of cookies? Do you always need your post dinner dessert?
Sugar cravings are real. And we all encounter them at some point. But if you are constantly craving sugar, ti’s time to evaluate what’s really going on.
Are you looking to kick sugar cravings to the curb?
Read my post below for my top reasons for sugar cravings and what to do about them!
But wait, is sugar really that bad?
Sugar may be demonized by many nutritionists and health advocates, however it’s not all bad. When it comes to naturally occurring sugars like fruits and vegetables, these sugars feed our cells and our brain in order for us to function optimally.
However, it’s when we eat too much sugar and the wrong kinds that all hell can break loose.
What are the effects of excess sugar in the body?
It’s a burden to your liver. Sugar gets processed by your liver and can overtax the organ, leading to potential liver damage over time. Your liver has over 300 processes to take care of in the body, it doesn’t need another job to do. It has been shown that the the liver metabolizes alcohol the same way as sugar. This promotes insulin resistance, fatty liver and dyslipidemia (abnormal fat levels in your blood).
It spikes blood sugar. Concentrated sugars, like white sugar, brown sugar, agave, syrups, and honey all spike blood sugar. This results in a roller coaster ride resulting in energy crashes and, you guessed it, more cravings. It also promotes insulin resistance because the high blood glucose prompts your pancreas to pump out more and more insulin, until your cells become resistant to it. This results in high blood sugar and insulin levels in the blood stream which leads to excess fat gain and can result in diabetes.
It depletes good gut bacteria. High sugar consumption alters your gut flora and can feed the bad guys like candida which cause a problem when there is an overgrowth. It also increases inflammation which can lead to leaky gut and affect nutrient absorption.
It impairs fertility. Blood sugar spikes disrupt ovulation - preventing progesterone production and promoting estrogen dominance, leading to symptoms like PMS, heavy periods, and anovulatory cycles. Ovulation is important for progesterone and estradiol production, making periods easier, improving mood and libido, and reducing the risk for breast and endometrial cancers. Not to mention, boosting the rate of conception.
It increases weight gain. Sugar creates imbalances with insulin and leptin signalling which makes you eat more and store more fat. Fructose and artificial sweeteners trick your appetite by failing to stimulate ghrelin and leptin, your hunger and satiety hormones, which means you aren’t getting the signal to stop eating. This can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
Why do we get sugar cravings?
Leptin resistance: when sugar is consumed it gets stored as fat. Fat releases leptin. The more fat you have the more leptin you secrete. Leptin is the satiety hormone that tells you that you have had enough to eat. But over time, similarly to insulin resistance, these increased high levels of sugar can prompt leptin to become released in excess by fat cells and your body can become resistant to it. Your brain then is not receiving the appropriate feedback to stop eating. which means more sugar cravings, more fat, and even more leptin.
What to do: avoid refined sugars and processed foods and opt for high fiber foods, healthy fats, and lean protein at meals.
Stress: during times of stress your brain needs glucose in quick supply and craves quick energy foods like simple carbs and sugars. Stress prompts the body to increase cortisol output in response to sugar consumption at a higher level than if you were calm. One of cortisol’s jobs is to increase our desire for sugar, which is our survival mechanism to deliver quick fuel to the brain and muscles. Sugar also soothes our stressors, temporarily, by boosting serotonin and dopamine (our pleasure and motivation boosting neurotransmitters). The thing is this “high” doesn’t last long and results in a significant crash which makes you want even more sugar.
So sugar cravings as a response to stress is a natural response. the brain and body demand it. This is a normal reaction. However, the problem is when we activate this stress response regularly.
What to do: manage your stress properly. This means managing your time by setting boundaries and learning to say no. Adopt a bedtime routine without electronics and practice deep breathing on a daily basis. Try yoga and go for 30-60 minute walks in nature. Exercise is another tool that releases endorphins similar to those experienced when eating cake, and it’s the real thing.
Hypoglycemia: also called low blood sugar, results from overeating sugars and refined carbs. It is linked with insulin resistance and glucose intolerance. These foods trigger a spike in blood sugar and insulin which results in a significant drop or crash, leaving you feeling irritable and lethargic.
Hello food coma!
This can lead to insulin resistance and diabetes over time as well as increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, obesity, and chronic inflammatory conditions.
What to do: focus on low glycemic/fiber/healthy fats/proteins. These include berries, apples, beans, legumes, quinoa, yam, sweet potato, squash, and the spice cinnamon, great for blood sugar balancing!
Microbiome imbalances: as previously mentioned, sugar feeds pathogenic organisms and depletes beneficial organisms in the gut. This results in dysbiosis. Our gut bacteria are beneficial to human health as they produce certain vitamins, increase nutrient absorption, promote elimination of toxins and waste, and secrete immune chemicals that protect us from all sorts of bugs. Did you know that 70% of your immune system resides in your gut? Read my past article here to learn all about it.
When there are increased pathogenic bacteria and yeasts, you may have increased cravings for sugar and carbs because these pathogens crave these foods and feed off them. Whereas your good gut bacteria feed off fiber from fruits and vegetables.
What to do: feed your good guys! This means prebiotics like onions, leaks, artichoke, asparagus, oats, and fiber rich foods like chia seeds, flaxseeds, avocado, berries, psyllium husks, and pretty much alllll the vegetables. Include probiotic rich foods on a daily basis to get more beneficial bacteria through foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, kefir, kombucha.
Certain nutrient deficiencies have been linked with sugar cravings:
Chromium: essential mineral for blood glucose regulation, chromium is needed for the production of insulin and is an essential component for Glucose Tolerance Factor and carbohydrate metabolism. High sugar consumption increases the risk of chromium deficiency. Foods rich in chromium include: meat, shellfish, clams, whole grains, oysters, apples, bananas, onion, romaine lettuce, tomato, cinnamon, grapes, sweet potato, and spinach.
tryptophan: essential amino acid used by the brain to produce serotonin (happy neurotransmitter).
Foods rich in tryptophan: Spirulina, pumpkin/sesame/sunflower seeds, raw cacao, oatmeal, sweet potato, spinach, and raisins.
Sulphur: mineral necessary for glutathione production (master antioxidant and detoxifier).
Foods rich in sulphur: Cruciferous vegetables, cranberries, horseradish, asparagus, carob powder, garlic, and onions.
Phosphorus: mineral used for carbohydrate and fat metabolism, manufacture of protein, and ATP production to produce energy.
Foods rich in phosphorus: Whole grains, pinto beans, pumpkin seeds, brazil nuts, and lentils.
Emotional eating: sugar cravings may indicate a need for reassurance, pleasure, or reward. For many of us we turn to sugar as a coping mechanism and to receive some form of comfort. But as we all know, these effects never last long. It’s important to differentiate your cravings from neurological, biological, and emotional in order to address the root cause.
What to do: check in with yourself next time you have a sugar craving. Ask yourself some thought provoking questions first:
Am I actually hungry? Have I eaten enough sustaining nutrient dense foods today?
What just happened that might be triggering emotional distress? Am I trying to avoid or suppress certain emotions?
Neurotransmitter imbalances: as mentioned, sugar can momentarily trigger serotonin and dopamine production. Serotonin, also known as the “happy chemical”, tells your brain that it is satisfied. If we have low levels of serotonin we will seek foods to get our fix of serotonin; like sugary foods.
Sugar cravings can also be triggered by a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine triggers feelings of pleasure and happiness. Over time with the excess consumption of sugar, the brain can lose its own ability to make dopamine and will rely more and more heavily on external sources, making you pick up that cookie day after day. After if you avoid it, you may also experience withdrawal symptoms.
Signs of low neurotransmitters: weight gain, depression, insomnia, inflammation, anxiety, carb and sugar cravings, overeating…
What to do: eat adequate protein. Protein makes amino acids which are precursors to neurotransmitters. If you aren’t eating enough protein or absorbing it properly, you won’t be able to produce the necessary neurotransmitters. Fix your gut health and include easily absorbable protein sources like bone broth or a good quality protein powder. Check out my gut healing protocol here.
Lack of sleep: lack of sleep increases ghrelin (hunger hormone) and the activity of the part of the brain responsible for desire, whilst lowering leptin (satiety hormone) and the activity center of the brain that guides decision making.
When researchers asked a group of women to reduce their sleep from their regular 7.5 hours to 4.5 hours for four consecutive nights, they craved sugar and ended up eating over 500 extra calories per day!
What to do: schedule in 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Adopt a bedtime routine 1 hour before bed. Get into bed by 11pm. Buy blue light blocking glasses or download f.lux on your computer to avoid exposure to blue light, which suppresses melatonin production and messes with your circadian rhythm.
Top tips for sugar cravings:
Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
Balance every meal with vegetables + fat + protein.
Practice stress management. Activate the parasympathetic system on a daily basis: deep breathing, meditation, walking, yoga, baths, essential oils.
Get to the root: is it a biological - neurological - or emotional craving?
start your day with a protein rich breakfast within 90 minutes of waking. Think scrambled eggs with spinach and avocado, chia pudding, buckwheat pancakes, overnight oats with coconut milk and almond butter, protein shake, etc. Check out my breakfast recipes for ideas to mix it up!
Substitute refined sugars for maple syrup, honey, dates, or molasses, or even better lucuma, stevia, monkfruit, vanilla, or cinnamon, which don’t affect your blood sugar.
Include fermented foods like kimchi, natto, kombucha, kefir and fermented vegetables.
Have a protein rich snack when you feel the 4pm craving hit. I love protein balls!
Invest in a good quality muti-vitamin if your diet is poor and you aren’t meeting adequate nutrient status.
Eat fiber rich foods and liver loving foods like artichoke, leafy greens, flaxseeds, beets, cilantro, and apples.
Include adequate protein at every meal (15-20grams).
Drink 2-3L of water everyday.
Avoid getting hangry; eat regular meals and keep healthy snacks at the ready.