6 Reasons Why You're Always Craving Sugar—Plus Expert Tips on How to Stop

We asked experts how to quell sugar cravings—and what to eat instead when you're craving something sweet.


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If you're anything like me, food is always on the mind. And although there's something to appreciate in every culinary category, there's just something about sugary things that make me lose all self-control. Dessert after meals feels like an obligation, candy is an essential food group, and snacking on sweets is a serious activity.

Quelling Sugar Cravings Isn't Always Easy

I've never questioned my voracious sweet tooth until my doctor told me that my excess sugar consumption could lead to a slew of health issues, including cavities, inflammation, diabetes, and heart disease. Knowing all of this, I was determined to start eating less sugar. The problem? I found it way more difficult to control my sugar cravings than I thought—and it turns out there’s way more to it than lack of will-power. 

So we asked health and nutrition specialists—Michael Crupain, MD, MPH, board-certified preventive medicine physician and author of the best-selling book What to Eat When; Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, practicing internal medicine physician, host of the TED Health Podcast, and founder of End Well; and Michael Hartman, PhD, nutrition scientist and vice president of research and development at Plexus Worldwide—to explain why we get sugar cravings after meals—and how to quell them.

Common Reasons for Sugar Cravings

01 of 06

Force of Habit

As it turns out, sugar cravings are often the result of conditioning over time. In other words, it's a habit. "You've got a stimulus, a behavior, and a reward," says Dr. Crupain. "In the case of a sugar craving, the stimulus could be finishing dinner, the behavior is eating the sweets, and the reward is how you feel—in this case, good." The feel-good hormone that's released after indulging in our favorite dessert is called dopamine and the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels is called insulin, Dr. Crupain explains. "When we eat sugar, insulin goes up in the primitive parts of our brain that is our reward pathway. This causes an increase in dopamine release, which makes us feel good and turns our behavior of eating sugar into a habit. As a result, we learn that every time we eat a meal (or something else), if we engage in the behavior of eating sugar, we will feel good."

Sugar craving solution: Replace your habit with another one—either a pleasant activity or a non-sugary treat.

To kick the habit of over-indulging in sweets after eating, Dr. Crupain suggests finding a healthy, replacement habit post-dinner to "reprogram your brain." Because when you take a pleasurable habit away, your brain will really miss it, likely making cravings more intense and harder to stop. Give yourself another activity or treat in dessert’s place: This can include talking to a friend on the phone, enjoying your favorite show, or taking a relaxing bath. If you feel like you still need something to consume, grab some fruit (these are whole foods and natural sources of sugar that also offer lots of fiber to temper sugar spikes); make yourself a cup of decaf tea; or grab a handful of nuts. Also, high-quality sweets—sans artificial stuff—can be just as satisfying as lower-quality sweets.

02 of 06

Gut Health and Gastrointestinal Issues

According to Hartman, poor gut health, gut inflammation, and other G.I. tract issues might be another cause of sugar cravings. “Pathogenic gut bacteria feed on sugar as one of their nutrient sources so that the craving is really the bacteria signaling it wants its food to multiply,” he explains, adding, “some studies show that an absence of certain beneficial bacteria (including Lactobacillus johnsonii) can also cause cravings, possibly through the reduction of GABA production.”

Sugar craving solution: Improve the health of your gut microbiome—and consult a doctor if simple lifestyle changes don’t help.

You can make several lifestyle tweaks to improve the health of your gut microbiome naturally. A big one is eating to support and boost gut health, and the main ways to do this include eating lots of high-fiber foods, eating more probiotic foods (think: fermented foods), and eating to reduce inflammation (avoiding inflammatory things and prioritizing anti-inflammatory things). 

But similarly to how you should always consult a doctor if you’re lacking important nutrients, your G.I. tract also deserves professional attention if altering your diet and environment aren’t helping to quell gut-health-related sugar cravings. Your doctor may suggest a test to help identify the overgrowth of harmful gut bacteria, and finally help restore the proper balance in your microbiome.

03 of 06

Hunger Hormones

Another reason you might be constantly hankering for dessert could have to do with the hunger hormone ghrelin. “Research has shown that ghrelin levels increase in response to sugar intake and may contribute to the development of sugar cravings,” Dr. Ungerleider says. However, she notes that “while ghrelin may play a role in regulating sugar cravings, it’s not the only factor at play.”

Sugar craving solution: Try to maintain a more nutritious, balanced diet.

To keep your blood sugar balanced, Dr. Ungerleider suggests opting for a diet that includes a combination of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. “Foods that are rich in fiber, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, can help slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, preventing blood sugar spikes,” she explains. “Also, foods that are high in protein, such as lean meats, beans, and legumes, can help regulate blood sugar by slowing down digestion and promoting feelings of fullness.” Additionally, nuts, seeds, and avocados provide healthy fats, which can aid in stabilizing blood sugar by slowing the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.

04 of 06

Low Serotonin Levels

If you've ever wondered why you might feel like you need to indulge in ice cream after a tough day, that might have something to do with your serotonin levels. Serotonin helps to regulate mood, so it makes total sense that our bodies crave it when we're anxious, stressed, or depressed.

“Low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin have been linked to sugar cravings, as well as a variety of other symptoms such as mood disorders, anxiety, and sleep disturbances,” Dr. Ungerleider explains. “Serotonin is known to play a role in the regulation of appetite and food intake, as well as mood and overall feelings of well-being.”

Sugar craving solution: Find healthy, sustainable ways to manage stress and anxiety.

We know it's way easier said than done, but managing anxiety and stress can definitely help curb those sugar cravings. “One strategy is regular exercise, which has been shown to improve mood and reduce stress levels. Meditation and deep breathing exercises can also be effective in reducing stress and promoting relaxation,” says Dr. Ungerleider. “Seeking support from friends, family, or a mental health professional can be beneficial for managing anxiety and stress and reducing the likelihood of engaging in unhealthy behaviors such as overeating.”

05 of 06

Lack of Sleep

When's the last time you really got a good night's sleep? If it was a while ago, this sleep deprivation could definitely be contributing to your sugar cravings. "A lack of sleep is linked to overeating, especially the overconsumption of junk food," says Dr. Crupain. "Try to get about eight hours of sleep a night so you'll be less likely to overeat sugary treats."

Sugar craving solution: Establish a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine.

Some pointers for getting a better night's sleep: Get regular exercise, but don't exercise two to three hours before bedtime; avoid taking daytime naps longer than 20 minutes (especially naps later in the day), try to wake up and go to bed at the same time every day; and don't use your phone an hour before sleep time. If you're still having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you could have insomnia—talk to your doctor who’ll be able to point you to a sleep specialist and/or prescribe additional sleep solutions.

06 of 06

Lack of Nutrients

If you find yourself feeling dizzy without sugar or having chronically strong cravings, it's time to tap a professional, as it could indicate a deeper nutritional problem. For instance, intense and (seemingly) unchangeable sugar cravings may stem from a blood-sugar imbalance, like hypoglycemia.

But don't jump to conclusions just yet: When your body lacks certain minerals that are involved in regulating insulin levels, that could also affect your hankering for sweets. For instance, if your body doesn't get enough magnesium, it will have trouble bringing energy into the cells and crave sugar to help raise energy levels.

Sugar craving solution: Consult a doctor and/or registered dietitian nutritionist.

Whether it's nutritional deficiency or a deeper health issue, it's best to consult a professional. They can help determine what you're lacking, how much you need, and ensure the lack of nutrients doesn't lead to further problems.

Healthy Things to Eat When You Feel Sugar Cravings (Without Sacrificing on Nutrition)

Fortunately, there are a ton of healthy foods you can munch on when you feel a sugar craving coming on, from fresh fruits and nuts, to Greek yogurt and dark chocolate. 

  • Fresh fruit: Since fruit contains natural sugar, it can satisfy cravings while also offering plenty of fiber and micronutrients (hello, antioxidants!).
  • Nuts and seeds: If you’re looking for some extra protein, healthy fats, and fiber, nuts and seeds are jam-packed with these nutrients and promote feelings of fullness to boot.
  • Greek yogurt: Similarly to how nuts and seeds prompt feelings of fullness, Greek yogurt also offers that perk, along with providing lots of protein, gut-friendly probiotics, vitamins, and calcium. (Look for plain Greek yogurt varieties without high added sugar.)
  • Dark chocolate: Chocolate lovers, you don’t have to give up your comfort treat! “Dark chocolate is lower in sugar than milk chocolate and contains antioxidants and other beneficial compounds that can promote health,” Dr. Ungerleid says. If you absolutely need some chocolate, opt for the dark stuff that’s at least 70-percent cocoa.
  • Whole-grain crackers with cheese: Bring out the whole-grain crackers (that have not been stripped of their good-for-you fibers) and cheese—this snack combo provides plenty of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates to satisfy hunger in a sustainable (and delicious) way.
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