5 reasons you’re craving sugar and what to do about it. By Dr Rachel Evans
Reaching for the sugar regularly can be a telling sign of certain behaviours and bodily needs that may need addressing, according to Dr Rachel Evans, a psychologist in eating disorder recovery. From eating habits, to low blood sugar, emotional control and restricting mentality, an intense desire for sugary food can often be an indication of nutrient deficiencies, personal habits and behaviours. “When people are craving something sugary, they will often try and have something healthy instead of succumbing to their desire for sweet food, or if they do give in to their cravings, then they will often feel guilty like they are ‘out of control’ or over indulging around food,” she says.
“People tend to automatically think cravings are ‘bad’, but there needs to be a shift in mindset here and I like to teach my clients that a craving is essentially just your body and mind giving you information. Craving sugar is completely normal and satisfying these cravings doesn’t make your eating habits ‘bad’. This mindset shift, helps my clients to then feel less guilty about experiencing a craving, as they are able to look at what’s happening and make changes, rather than diving straight into a tub of ice cream. Based on her experiences with clients, Dr Evans has compiled a list of the main reasons people crave sugary foods, along with advice on what can be done to effectively prevent cravings. Here are the five reasons you’ve craving sugar and what to do about it:
- Hunger or low blood sugar
When we are hungry, we tend to think about food a lot more because our brain is trying to alert us to the fact that we need to eat; if this feeling comes on suddenly and intensely, then it is a craving. If we have gone for a long period of time without food or if we are following a low-calorie diet and cutting out certain food groups whilst trying to be ‘healthier’, then our blood sugar can drop and our body produces neuro-peptide Y, which increases our appetite and motivation to eat. To prevent cravings, ensure meals are balanced, satisfying and include protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. It’s also a good idea to incorporate a balanced afternoon snack for a pick me up.
- Restricting mentality.
Many people struggle with a deprivation mindset and try but fail to be successful in restricting what they eat. As we want what we can’t have, we always tend to crave sugary foods whilst we are trying to restrict them. Often when this happens, many people believe that they just need to avoid sugar, but what actually helps to reduce cravings is eating in moderation and ditching strict diet rules. Whilst people may feel like they are overeating sugar as they move from the restrictive eating habits towards a more balanced diet, this is typically just a phase and after a week or so of eating as much sugar as they want, most are then craving vegetables.
If we automatically crave sugar at a certain time each day, the craving could be habitual. Common timings for sugary cravings include the 4pm slump, after dinner, or even first thing in the morning for an energy boost. Habits can also include going to the cinema and feeling the need to eat popcorn whilst watching a film. These habits are automatic patterns of thoughts or behaviours that have developed over time in response to triggers, because the thought or behaviour provided a reward, for example, the sugar rush from a sweet treat. To combat this, it’s important to work out triggers and avoid or remove them. Try and swap the behaviour for one that still ensures a reward, just not sugary foods.
Emotions can influence our food decisions much more than we think, but after eating we often find that consumption doesn’t resolve feelings which can then resurface later at some point. The best way to combat emotional cravings is by taking a second to recognise which feelings are causing us to reach for certain foods. This strategy works because emotions are processed in the limbic system (mid-brain), whereas labelling activates our prefrontal cortex (the area involved in cognitive processing); essentially it can help to activate the rational part of our brains which remembers bingeing on sugar isn’t in line with long-term goals to get healthy, and then this will help us think of alternative methods to make us feel better.
- Deep-rooted connections to certain foods
We learn a lot about food and our relationship with it at an impressionable age before we are even seven years old. Our subconscious then stores these food beliefs for life and drives 95% of our thoughts and behaviours towards food. Many deeprooted connections to food come from commonly conceived beliefs such as ‘food is love’ — often people crave sugar when they have the unmet need for love in life. Another such belief is ‘food is a reward’ — so we have something sweet when we have been behaving well. This can then carry on when we believe we have done something well in later life, and we may think “I’ve worked really hard on this project” and reach for the brownies. The most effective way to combat this is to recognise patterns from childhood and when exactly they are showing up in life now. Another way to tackle these behaviours is to look into hypnotherapy, to directly access the subconscious mind and find the root of eating issues, then rewire for more helpful thought patterns.
Dr Rachel Evans is a psychologist in eating disorder recovery. Find out more at: eatingdisordertherapist.co.uk