Why Do We Crave Sugar and How to Manage It

Lead us not into temptation, just tell us where it is. We’ll find it  – Sam Levenson, comedian

Cravings, what causes them?

Cravings, we (almost) all have them. Research indicates 100% of women and almost 70% of men experience cravings at some point (2), though I am not sure I believe the remaining 30% of men! Women tend to crave sweet foods, whilst men tend to save savoury alternatives. The things craved foods have in common is that they are almost always high in calories, sugar and/or fat. Unfortunately, most people do not crave broccoli and carrots.

The exact mechanisms of why we crave certain foods are still largely unknown. Still, it is suggested that it could either be our gut microbiome (1) or it is the body’s response to a hypercaloric environment for which we are not evolutionarily equipped (4).

Either way, cravings are real and we tend to experience them more frequently when we restrict ourselves (2), such as when we’re on a diet or during Lent. For anyone who’s unsure of what Lent is (myself included), this is the 6 weeks leading up to Easter. Traditionally this is a time at which many people, religious or not, give up an indulgence to reconnect with their faith or just because they can.

Unrefined vs. Refined sugar

Refined sugar comes from sugar cane or beet which are processed to extract sugar. Chemical processes are used to remove impurities and coloured compounds. It is typically found as sucrose.

Sugar is stripped of its nutritional components during the refinement process and therefore provides no nutritional benefit to us. 

Unrefined sugars are those such as honey, agave nectar and maple syrup and those found naturally in fruit and even dairy. On occasion, they are subjected to slight heating, but this heat processing is nowhere near as extensive as with refined sugars. Unlike refined sugars, sources of unrefined sugar can contain an array of vitamins and minerals, all of which have beneficial effects on the body.

What is the body’s response to your choice of sugar?

Whether you consume white sugar in your coffee or drizzle your yoghurt with homemade berry compote, your body processes the sugar in the same way.

However, the body breaks down refined sugars at a far quicker rate than unrefined sugars. As a result, refined sugars cause insulin and blood sugar levels to spike. Prolonged consumption can cause the pancreas to overproduce insulin, in turn leading to too much sugar being removed from the blood – hypoglycaemia. In the long run, this will negatively impact the function of the liver, pancreas and adrenal glands.

Your brain will also react to the sudden influx of sugar by producing serotonin, which acts as a sleep-regulating hormone. An afternoon slump is far from ideal when you’ve got Easter celebrations to attend! 

In addition, insulin impacts leptin production (hunger hormone). Therefore, the higher your insulin levels go, the hungrier you’ll feel (regardless of whether you’ve just eaten a large meal). Your body will be forced into a state of simulated starvation mode and begins to start storing glucose as fat. This leads to weight gain in the long run.

On the flip side, unrefined or natural sugars are usually accompanied by fibre or other nutrients which slow down metabolism and therefore do not produce the same spikes and crashes in insulin and blood sugar levels. Fruit, for example, raspberries and apples are rich in sugar, but due to their high fibre content, the sugar is metabolised at a slower rate. In addition, they’re both packed with health-boosting vitamins and minerals, meaning they’re not only delicious but also nutritious!

We all know eating refined sugars is inevitable over Easter so we’ve put together some tips to help you balance it out.

Here are our top tips to help you through:

1.Don’t skip meals: Don’t purposefully skip meals to make up for anything extra you’ve consumed the day before, or anything extra you might consume over the weekend. Try to make sure you stick to regular meal timings as much as possible. Despite the tasty Easter treats, it’s still important to make sure we are eating healthy balanced meals where possible to ensure we are getting all the nutrients we need to maintain our health and our energy levels, across the holiday weekend.

2.Get enough sleep: A lack of sleep leads to increased Ghrelin (the hormone which signals to us when we are hungry) and reduced Leptin (the appetite hormone that signals to us when we are full). Try to get the recommended quantity of between 6-9 hours of sleep per night. Focus on your sleep hygiene, and avoid known stimulants like caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime. 

3.Give a little: Try to relax, and don’t be too restrictive. Depriving yourself of a treat here and there, can lead you to crave exactly the things you are trying to avoid. We should allow ourselves to take pleasure in the foods we are eating. Deprivation or restriction are more likely to lead to binge eating behaviours, and overeating, than if we consume a small or regular portion of the food we actually crave, like a delicious Easter bunny.

4.Exercise: It’s always important to stay active, though you might find your usual training schedule interrupted. Rather than sticking to a strict routine, go for a long walk with your family, to ensure you maintain a certain level of physical activity without sacrificing quality family time.

Finally, I’d like to point out that Lent does not last forever. Remind yourself of why you wanted to give up this indulgence for a while, perhaps you wanted to test your willpower, or maybe you wanted to shred before your Easter holiday. Understand that by committing to abstaining from a certain food for a while, you are purposely making this food the “forbidden fruit”, but from experience, I can tell you that this effect will wear off. Once you realise life is possible without chocolate you will crave it less, and before you know it you are stuffing your face with Easter eggs again.

References

  1. Anderson, S.C., Cryan, J.F. and Dinan, T. (2017). The Psychobiotic Revolution: mood, food and the new science of the gut-brain connection. Washington: National Geographic Society.
  2. Pelchat M.L., Johnson, A., Chan, R., Valdez, J., and Ragland, J.D. (2004). Images of desire: food-craving activation during fMRI, Neuroimage, 23(4):1486-93.
  3. Polivy, J. , Coleman, J. and Herman, C. P. (2005), The effect of deprivation on food cravings and eating behavior in restrained and unrestrained eaters. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38: 301-309.
  4. Formana, E.M, Hoffmana, K.L., McGratha, K.B., Herberta, J.D., Brandsmab, L.L., Lowea, M.R. (2007). A comparison of acceptance- and control-based strategies for coping with food cravings: An analog study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, (10): 2372-2386.
Georgia Head
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Published by Georgia Head

In her teenage years, a love of food and rowing led Georgia into this field as she wanted to know how to optimise performance through nutrition. With a BSc in Nutrition and an MSc in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, she has the skill set to help you track towards your goals and maximise your potential.