The Science Behind Sugar Cravings
Do you crave a sweet treat after every meal? Or at the same time every day? Sugar cravings are common and can often be explained by simple things, like the side effects from certain foods in your diet or a bad habit that has reprogramed your brain.
But some sugar cravings can be a result of an underlying nutrient deficiency.
So next time you reach for a dessert after breakfast or candy from the jar on your colleague’s desk at work, stop and consider the psychological and biological reasons that are motivating your sweet tooth.
What’s happening in your brain
Several areas in your brain play a significant role in the crave sensation. The horseshoe-shaped hippocampus, located in your temporal lobe, is responsible for making short-term and long-term memories and plays a significant role in reward-seeking behavior.
The hippocampus enables you to remember the taste of dark chocolate versus milk chocolate.
In each hemisphere of your brain, there is a caudate nucleus, which influences reward-seeking behavior, but is also responsible for forming new habits – good and bad – like snacking the minute you walk through the door after work, without even noticing it. These habits are more like a conditioned response, meaning, even after a half day of work you have the urge to snack.
Habits formed by the caudate nucleus are hard, but not impossible, to break.
The insula, also in each hemisphere of the brain, produces emotions in response to a sensory experience. Excellent company marketing preys on the insula – think Coca-Cola. Coke’s 2018 summer campaign is “epic summer” – suggesting you need a cold, sugary soda pop to make memories that last a lifetime. The first taste, or even just the thought of giving into your craving, raises dopamine levels in your brain, providing you great pleasure with every sip.
Diet factors that can cause cravings
Although your brain can be a challenge to your willpower, there can be foods in your diet that trigger your longing for sugary foods. One dietary culprit is low protein intake. Because protein and fats slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, when you don’t consume enough of them your blood sugar can rise and fall at an abnormal rate. The result? Your body craves quick energy from sugar.
It’s the same reason you can crave sugar on a high carbohydrate diet.
Simple carbohydrates enter the bloodstream fast, raising blood sugar, then subsequently raise the hormone insulin. Without fiber, protein, or fat in your food, simple carbohydrates alone won’t leave you full or satisfied, and soon you’ll be wanting more.
Maybe not surprisingly, when cutting carbohydrates from your diet your body tends to crave the quick energy it’s accustomed to, so most of us experience a ravaging sugar craving the first few days on a low or no-carbohydrate diet.
Once your system learns to fuel itself without carbs, the craving dissipates.
Artificial sweeteners were invented to take the place of sugar for a lower-calorie option, but research suggests you will experience the same cravings, or even eat more food and total calories, when consuming this alternative, ultimately leaving you feeling guilty either way.
Bad habits promoting food cravings
Your sleep habits might be causing food cravings too. Research has shown that even one night of poor sleep can decrease the upper brain function of the cerebrum – the part of the brain responsible for complex judgments and decisions – resulting in next-day junk food cravings.
In a study that compared those who had a good quality night of sleep to those who didn’t, the poor sleepers craved junk foods totaling 600+ calories.
Why? Your internal clock plays a significant role in managing the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which promote and suppress food intake. Chronic abnormal sleep or sleep deprivation can be severely detrimental to your waistline when you give into those cravings.
Clinical issues you should check on
Stress affects your cortisol levels, a hormone that when elevated will alter your circulating levels of glucose and insulin. Stress affects hunger and cravings in people differently, but your body will quickly use its energy stores while in overdrive.
Depression or a bad mood can mentally and physically affect cravings too.
Sugar consumption increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, memory, and social behavior. Because sugar boosts serotonin, you feel happier, temporarily, so your brain craves this happy chemical again and again.
Mineral deficiencies might be another reason for your sweet tooth.
We used to think that if your body is craving a particular food or taste, then you must be deficient in it. While that’s not entirely wrong, like sometimes in the case of salty foods and a sodium deficiency, the craving for sweet, sugary foods might be explained by specific mineral imbalances in the body.
An iron deficiency will zap your energy, leaving you feeling fatigued and weak, and it can also be a reason for your cravings; i.e., your body will crave quick energy to perk itself up.
Calcium, zinc, chromium, and magnesium imbalances can manifest themselves as sugar cravings too.
These crucial minerals help maintain hydration status, which can erroneously make you crave sugar when you might just be thirsty. Together, these minerals are involved in hundreds of processes in your body, from carbohydrate metabolism to producing and regulating the hormones and enzymes that control the way you think, move, and feel.
Without sufficient consumption, absorption, and storage of these minerals, you might be experiencing abnormal reactions to the thought, sight, or smell of something sweet.
What to do?
Consider these seven quick tips for success while you plan long-term behavior changes to minimize cravings:
- Test your cortisol and melatonin fluctuations with an at-home sleep test.
- Recognize bad habits. Have an alternative the moment you get a craving; it could be doing 10 jumping jacks or drinking a glass of water. Start a new healthy habit.
- Incorporate more proteins or fats into your diet. Avoid snacks/meals that are made up of all carbohydrates. And reduce artificial sweetener intake.
- Get sufficient, better quality, and consistent sleep. Be diligent about going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
- Seek serotonin from other sources. Try green tea, walnuts, eggs, cheese, or increasing your exercise routine to boost your serotonin level.
- Reach for foods or supplements with a high-bioavailability of chromium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium.
Yang Q. Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. Yale J Biol Med 2010;83:101-108.
Greer S, Goldstein A, Walker M. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nat Commun 2013;4:2259.
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