Busting Sugar Cravings 101: An Essential Guide

Written by: Kristy Maskell, BSc
Reviewed by: Rachel White, RD

What are sugar cravings?

Ever tucked into treats at the office? Turned to a pint of ice cream after a stressful day?
Always needed to finish your meal with a sugary dessert? All these are just some examples
of sugar cravings. Everybody experiences a sugar craving at some point. A sugar craving can be your body’s response to various factors, including stress and undereating.

Common triggers for sugar cravings

Habit
Feeling obligated to have something sweet after every meal? This may be a force of habit.
Your body can be conditioned to want the same sugary hit due to the release of a feel-good
hormone (known as dopamine).1 This may make you crave that ‘good’ feeling after eating,
even when you are not physically hungry. This is quite common and completely normal.

Under-eating
Sugar cravings can be a sign of underfueling your body. When you under eat, your body
instinctively seeks fuel from high-energy, high-sugar foods.2 Whether you are following a
strict diet plan or are not balancing your meals with a wide variety of foods, sugar cravings
may result from under-eating.

Lack of sleep
Inadequate sleep can leave you feeling fatigued and in need of an energy boost. In fact, lack
of sleep can impact the way your ‘hunger’ hormones are expressed, leading you to grab a
sugary snack to honour your hunger cues.3

Fluctuating hormones
Any spike or drop in hormones is known as a fluctuation. Fluctuations are natural and may
occur for a variety of reasons, for example, during sexual development (puberty). Just some
of the hormones that may lead you to crave sugar are ghrelin, leptin, and cortisol.


Emotional response
If you are reaching for sweet foods when you are feeling stressed, you are not alone!
Chronic stress can contribute to sugar cravings.4 Sugar consumption can reduce the stress
response, which in turn increases your desire to eat comfort foods and leads to further
emotional eating incidences.5

Should you stop eating sugar?

Research shows that a diet high in sugar can lead to obesity and tooth decay. However,
quitting sugar altogether can lead to further sugar cravings and an unbalanced diet. It is
therefore recommended that you consume less than 5% of your total daily intake of free
sugar (all sugars added to foods), this is equivalent to about 30g/day.6 Reducing the
likelihood of sugar cravings can be part of a long-term, sustainable process guided by a
registered dietitian or other qualified healthcare professional.

Handy tips for sugar cravings

Here are some handy tips that may help you reduce your sugar intake:

  • Satisfy your sweetness – honouring your body’s cues is not a bad thing. You may
    decide to nourish your body with sweet foods that provide a whole host of nutrients.
  • Target your triggers – know there is a particular time your sugar cravings hit?
    Identifying these triggers and taking steps to reduce them can help your sugar
    cravings.
  • Make meals matter – Avoiding meal skipping and incorporating enough fibre and
    protein into your meals can make you feel fuller for longer, alleviating sugar
    cravings.
  • Get support – it may be a good idea to speak to a qualified health professional. Book
    your free discovery call
    to start your first step in getting support with a specialist
    weight management dietitian
    .

Disclaimer: This information is purely informational. You should always consult a qualified
health professional, like your GP, if you are wanting personalised advice for reducing your
sugar cravings

References

  1. McCutcheon JE. The role of dopamine in the pursuit of nutritional value. Physiol
    Behav. 2015 Dec;152:408-415. Available from:
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938415002632
  2. Sumithran P, Prendergast LA, Delbridge E, Purcell K, Shulkes A, Kriketos A, Proietto
    J. Long-term persistence of hormonal adaptations to weight loss. N Engl J Med. 2011
    Oct 27;365(17):1597-604. Available from:
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22029981/
  3. Mosavat M, Mirsanjari M, Arabiat D, Smyth A, Whitehead L. The Role of Sleep
    Curtailment on Leptin Levels in Obesity and Diabetes Mellitus. Obes Facts.
    2021;14(2):214-221. Available from:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8138234/
  4. Chao AM, Jastreboff AM, White MA, Grilo CM, Sinha R. Stress, cortisol, and other
    appetite-related hormones: Prospective prediction of 6-month changes in food
    cravings and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2017 Apr;25(4):713-720. Available
    from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5373497/
  5. Ulrich-Lai YM, Ostrander MM, Herman JP. HPA axis dampening by limited sucrose
    intake: Reward frequency v.s caloric consumption. Physiol Behav. 2011
    Apr;103(1):104-110. Available from:
    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0031938410004580
  6. Public Health England. Why 5%? [Internet]. London: ;2015 [cited 2024 Jun 03].
    Available from:
    https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attach
    ment_data/file/769482/Why_5__-_The_Science_Behind_SACN.pdf

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