Do you feel like sugar cravings are the one thing keeping you from staying consistent with your nutrition? Maybe you find that you can never keep dessert in the house, because you’ll eat an entire package of treats in one sitting.
In this article, we’ll discuss five nutrition and lifestyle strategies to help you prevent cravings, so you feel more confident and in control around food.
By Andres Ayesta, MS, RD
- Cravings refer to a strong desire or urge for a specific food, often calorie-dense items that are high in sugar and fat.
- They are driven by a combination of factors including the brain's reward system, psychological triggers, and physiological responses.
- Frequent cravings may indicate that a lifestyle or nutrition change would be beneficial.
- Strategies to manage cravings include consistent eating throughout the day, high protein meals, eating high fiber carbohydrates, sleeping adequately, and managing stress.
What are Cravings?
If you’ve experienced the overwhelming urge to eat an entire tub of ice cream, you’re probably familiar with the definition of a food craving: a strong desire or urge for a specific food.
The most common foods people crave are highly energy dense food items, meaning those that have a lot of calories in a small amount of food. Often, these foods are high in sugar and/or fat, like chocolate and baked goods .
Cravings vs. Hunger
So, what’s the difference between having a food craving and just feeling hungry? The two feelings can be related, but they’re not the same. Hunger occurs in response to an empty stomach and can be reduced by eating any type of food. Food cravings, on the other hand, are usually more specific and intense, and typically are only satisfied by a specific food . For example, if you’re hungry, you could feel full after eating a plate of broccoli. But, if you’re craving a cookie, you probably will still want it, even with a stomach full of broccoli.
What Causes Cravings?
There are several theories of why cravings happen that are related to physiology, psychology, and even our evolution!
The Brain’s Reward System
At the core, our desire for sweet foods is driven by the activation of reward centers in the brain. When we eat these delicious foods, it triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine causes you to feel pleasure and satisfaction, so eating sugar becomes linked to those positive feelings .
In the past, consuming energy-dense foods increased our chances of survival, before we had constant access to food. Now, this ancient wiring has negative effects because we now live in a food environment where highly processed and refined carbohydrates are available at all times .
There are several different psychological influences on cravings, with most theories viewing cravings as a learned response.
Have you heard of Pavlov’s dogs? If you’ve taken a Psychology 101 class, you might be familiar with this experiment. In the late 19th century, Ivan Pavlov researched the salivation response that dogs had when they were fed. The dogs would salivate when they were given food. Then, Pavlov started ringing a bell before he gave the dogs their food. Pretty soon, he found that the dogs would start to salivate in response to the sound of the bell, even when no food was given to them. The bell had become a cue that caused salivation (a conditioned response) .
Something similar can happen in humans with sugar cravings. Certain cues can become associated with eating sugar and result in conditioned responses. These conditioned food cues can cause salivation, increased heart rate, and activity in the reward area of the brain, even before you take a bite. When the cue happens, it can result in the feeling of a craving. These cues might be external, like food pictures or labels, but they can also be internal, like stress, negative emotions, and hormonal changes . Essentially, cravings become a habit, where we start to feel the typical thoughts and feelings of a craving in response to specific situations.
Add physiology (all the functions of the body) into the mix, and the science of cravings can start looking pretty complicated! Fluctuations in blood sugar are a major factor associated with cravings, which we’ll cover in more detail below . Even the gut microbiome, which is made up of all the bacteria in your intestines, has been found to influence cravings, although a lot of research is still needed in this area .
The First Step to Managing Sugar Cravings
Now that we understand how cravings happen, we can start to develop a plan to minimize how often cravings arise. It's important to understand that cravings are not something to fear or feel guilty about. They happen to almost everyone, and they’re not a sign you just need more willpower. Often, frequent cravings are a sign you should make a nutrition or lifestyle change.
The first big step when addressing cravings is starting to get curious about when they typically happen for you. Is there a specific situation that triggers them? Certain emotions? Take some time over the next week to mindfully observe yourself, taking notes in a journal if you can.
After you have an idea of when these are happening, you can start adjusting your habits based on what typically triggers your cravings.
Now, let’s take a look at five ways to prevent and manage cravings. While this article mainly discusses sugar cravings, these tips will also be helpful for cravings for high fat, salty foods, such as chips. Just a warning though – these aren’t magical solutions or special “hacks”. Most of them are simple habits, but many people neglect them in their busy lives.
#1: Eat Consistently Throughout the Day
This step is the foundation of all your nutrition habits. Yes, balanced meals, vegetables, and specific food choices are important, but if you’re not prioritizing mealtimes, then making healthy food choices will be difficult.
Have you ever experienced “The Late Night Hunger Trap”? This happens when you’ve been busy all day and haven’t given your body enough energy. By the time you get home, you have a strong physiological need for food (i.e., you are SO HUNGRY). So, your brain goes looking for ways to satisfy your hunger that meet your emotional needs as well, producing that dopamine release we talked about earlier. So typically, you don’t crave carrot sticks when you come home hungry after a long day. You’re going to go for the cookies, ice cream, and chocolate.
When you start to eat consistently throughout the day, you can avoid that extreme feeling of hunger late at night that often leads you to eating foods that might not be in line with your goals. Then, you can start to look at the specific components of those meals, which brings us to tip number 2 for reducing sugar cravings.
#2: Eat A High Protein Diet
High protein foods cause the greatest feeling of satiety compared to the other two macronutrients (carbohydrates and fat) . Not only will protein make you feel fuller and more satisfied for longer, but it also affects reward-driven eating (i.e., eating to get a dopamine release and feel good). In studies looking at the response in the brain to higher protein meals vs. lower protein options, there was less activation in the brain’s reward systems when the meals had more protein . Research has also found that eating a higher protein diet can reduce evening snacking on high fat and high sugar foods . This is important, since the evening is a common time for intense cravings to kick in.
Try to add a source of protein to every meal, aiming to get around 30 g or more per meal, with a couple high protein snacks during the day. If you’re on the go, you may want to consider supplementing with protein powder as a convenient way to hit your protein goals. Making a quick shake can be a great way to satisfy your sweet cravings.
#3: Choose High Fiber Carbohydrates
When we eat simple carbs (e.g., crackers, cookies, white bread, candy) our body breaks them down quickly, which causes a quick spike in our blood sugar levels. Then, the body releases the hormone insulin to bring our blood sugar back down. Often, this causes blood sugar to fall below the level it was at before eating, which can lead to excess hunger and overeating .
One small study that tested this compared a high glycemic index (GI) meal (containing carbs that spike the blood sugar quickly) to a low GI meal (digested more slowly, with a reduced blood sugar spike). The high GI meal increased activity in the areas of the brain related to food intake, reward, and cravings .
Based on these results, one way to minimize sugar cravings is to choose carbohydrates that are higher in fiber most of the time, since these take longer to digest. The best sources of carbs include fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Pairing your carbohydrates with protein and fat to create a balanced meal can also help prevent a large spike in blood sugar .
#4: Sleep 7-8 Hours Each Night
You’re probably not surprised to find that getting enough sleep is important for preventing sugar cravings. Think of the last time you were sleep deprived. Were you in the mood to eat fresh salads and balanced meals that day? Probably not. Most likely, you went for the energy-dense baked goods and fattier foods.
Studies have found that people who are sleep-deprived have an increased appetite because the body makes more of the “hunger hormone”, which is called ghrelin . One study cut participants' sleep time by 33% and found an increase in both hunger and food cravings . In another study, when sleep time was cut from 8 hours to 4 hours, the participants ate over 500 more calories! .
#5: Manage Stress Effectively
Food cravings have a strong emotional component, and many people use food to cope with feelings of stress. Cortisol is the main stress hormone in your body. While this hormone has many important roles, it can also disrupt the body’s usual functioning, including eating behavior .
Typically, acute stress (for example, one highly stressful day because of a specific event) results in decreased food intake. If that stress continues, a prolonged period of high cortisol usually causes an increase in appetite. The foods that are chosen during times of stress are usually those that are higher in fat and sugar, because of the positive feelings they produce .
Stress management will look different for everyone but try to incorporate at least one activity each day to intentionally manage your stress levels.
This may include…
- Spending time in nature
- Practicing yoga or tai chi
- Engaging in meditation or deep breathing exercises
- Creating art through painting, drawing, or crafting
- Reading a book
- Engaging in a hobby
In summary, cravings come from a complex blend of factors, including biology, psychology, and physiology. They differ from hunger due to their intensity and specificity.
Our brain’s reward mechanisms drive us towards high calorie, sweet foods, and cravings can become a response to cues like emotions and stress. Physiologically, blood sugar fluctuations and the impacts of stress on our hormones play a role.
Tackling cravings involves understanding triggers and implementing practical strategies. Prioritizing sleep, managing stress, adopting a protein-rich diet, and making mindful carbohydrate choices can prevent intense cravings and help you to feel more balanced and in control of your nutrition.
About the Author
Andres Ayesta is a sports dietitian and the founder of Planos Nutrition, with over 12 years of experience helping people transform their nutrition and lifestyle. He works with busy professionals and parents to help them lose weight, improve their confidence, and show up as the best version of themselves, using a personalized, evidence-based nutrition blueprint.
With a bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Southern Indiana and a master's degree in Exercise Science and Sports Nutrition from the University of Central Florida, Andres has earned numerous certifications, including Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach (CSCS) and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). He is a licensed Registered Dietitian in the state of Florida and provides coaching programs worldwide. To connect with Andres, you can find him on TikTok @andresthedietitian or Instagram @andresayesta
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