Do you have a constant sugar craving that just won't go away until it's satisfied? Feel a meal is incomplete without desert? Or reach for sugar laden foods when stressed? It may be more than just a sweet tooth that is driving your craving.
Unmet biological needs
While we tend to think of sugar cravings as ‘all in the head’, they are often the body’s way of saying something is missing or unbalanced
Mineral deficiencies – Sugar cravings can be caused by low levels of certain minerals in the body. Common culprits include magnesium, zinc, chromium and calcium. These minerals are involved in hundreds of bodily processes, including energy production, the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and the regulation of blood sugar and dopamine levels. Sugary foods tend to be low in these minerals, and encourage their loss through the urine.
Insufficient carbohydrates – If you have been on a LCHF diet and have new sugar cravings you may want to consider adding more carbohydrates back into your diet. Carbs are the preferred fuel source of the body and the brain and going too low on this macro-nutrient can trigger hunger and food cravings. Insufficient carbohydrates strip the body of this needed energy source, potentially dropping blood sugar levels below the healthy range and triggering sugar cravings for quick energy. This is particularly the case when we are stressed – more on that below.
Insufficient protein - Protein helps to balance blood sugar and insulin levels by slowing the release of sugar (glucose) in the bloodstream. A lack of protein can cause blood sugar to spike, and then crash – causing the body to crave a quick fix, such as sugar.
Candida albicans – This pesky yeast thrives on sugar. It uses sugar to build its cell walls and to expand throughout the gut, ultimately wreaking havoc by disturbing the balance of the microbiome. To satisfy its need for sugar, candida can send messages directly to the brain via the Vagus nerve. While we may experience this sugar craving as willed by the mind - in reality, it was willed by a yeast.
Artificial sweeteners – While it can be tempting to switch sugary foods for artificially-sweetened replacements, they can actually increase our craving for real sugar by interfering with the body’s use of glucose. “When sweetness versus energy is out of balance for a period of time, the brain recalibrates and increases total calories consumed” (Greg Neely, University of Sydney).
Sleep issues – Sleep deprivation causes the brain to seek energy – particularly through sweet foods - by increasing ghrelin, a hormone stimulating appetite; and by decreasing leptin, a hormone suppressing appetite. Furthermore, a lack of sleep activates the body’s stress response and the release of cortisol, which further increases appetite.
Sugar’s impact on the BRAIN
The reward system - What do sugar cravings and drug addiction have in common? They both activate the release of dopamine and opioids in the brain’s reward system. We crave foods which are highly palatable – sugar, salt, fat, etc. – because they stimulate the release of these neurochemicals. Such repeated ‘hits’ reprogramme the brain to want more, in the same way as with addictive drugs, leading to a loss of control around food consumption. As with addictive drugs, sugar bingeing stimulates the release of neurochemicals, followed by withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, depressive behaviour and/or aggression – thus stimulating further the craving for sugar, to ‘take the edge off’ of the withdrawal symptoms.
Sugar as a “‘food addiction’ seems plausible because brain pathways that evolved to respond to natural rewards are also activated by addictive drugs.” (Avena, et al., 2008, Neurosci Biobehav Rev.)
Mood - Serotonin is a mood-boosting neurochemical, is stimulated by sugar consumption. When we consume sugar and refined carbohydrates, insulin is released to remove the excess from the bloodstream. Insulin shifts amino acids from the blood to the muscle, except for tryptophan – the building block for serotonin – which can now enter the brain without having to compete with the other amino acids. The resulting increase of serotonin provides a temporary sensation of happiness, driving the brain to crave more once the ‘hit’ wears off – particularly when our mood is low. Over time, high sugar consumption can inflame symptoms of depression.
Stress - The brain has an increased need for energy when the stress response is activated. While short-term stress tends to reduce appetite, chronic stress results in prolonged production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and stimulates appetite to fuel the brain. A 2015 study (Chao, et al., J Health Psychol.) linked chronic stress with craving for foods, such as sugar, and behaviours that feed the dopamine and serotonin pathways, and associate food cravings with stress-induced weight gain. In times of stress, an average person in the UK consumes around 20 teaspoons of sugar per day (UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey, 2018).
Sugar’s impact on the BODY
The World Health Organisation recommends sugars should comprise 5% of an adult’s daily caloric intake – roughly 25g, or 6 teaspoons of sugar for a diet of 2,000 calories. By comparison: one can of soda contains 9 teaspoons of sugar.
Diets high in sugar have been linked to an increased risk of chronic disease, including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sugar can provoke weight gain, chronic inflammation, microbiome imbalance, mood disorders, cognitive decline and lack of energy. Furthermore, sweet foods often displace nutrient-dense foods, robbing the body of the nutrients for all the bodily functions.
What can you do to reduce your sugar cravings?
Healthy dietary and behaviour changes can help to reduce your reliance on sugar to boost your mood and energy, and diminish the harmful effects of sugar on your overall health.
Consume protein with each meal, and particularly at breakfast. Eggs, seafood and poultry, containing tryptophan, can help to produce the serotonin that you’ve been seeking through sugar.
Eat healthy fats – which can slow the absorption of glucose in the bloodstream. Remember: the key to blood sugar balance, and all that goes with it, is the slow, even release of glucose.
Reduce refined carbohydrates - Replace processed carbohydratess (white pasta / rice / bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits) with unrefined carbs (vegetables, fruit - in moderation, brown pasta / rice / bread, whole grains). Vegetables are another good source of carbs. Don’t cut-out carbs entirely – remember that the body needs some for energy.
Get your minerals – Below are good food sources of minerals that are often lacking in the general population, and particularly with a diet high in sugar.
Magnesium - Dairy, fish, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables
Zinc- Oysters, red meat, poultry, legumes, nuts.
Calcium- Dairy, fish, vegetables (Chinese cabbage, broccoli, kale) sesame seeds .
Chromium- Meat, whole grains, fruits (apple, banana), vegetables (broccoli, green beans, potato), spices (garlic, basil).
Eat regularly – to balance blood sugar. Research (Massey and Hill, 2012, Appetite) has shown that regular meals can decrease cravings.
Keep hydrated – As hunger and thirst can be experienced similarly by the brain, good hydration can help to reduce food cravings.
Boost your serotonin – Exercise helps release feel-good endorphins in the brain, so that the brain doesn’t need to seek serotonin & dopamine through sugar. Green tea, walnuts, eggs, cheese and poultry are good food sources of serotonin boosting compounds.
Do a gut test to rule our candida - The 2 tests we most commonly use are the GI-MAP and OAT. These are both very comprehensive and give a good overview of whats happening in the gut. You can find more info on these test HERE
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.Written by Scotti Mclarren - BSc Nutritional therapy
The Nutri-360 practice is a nutrition and functional medicine practice based in Switzerland with consultations in Geneva and virtually for international clients
Note: The above is for information purposes only and should not replace any guidance given by your Dr. Please consult with your Dr before making any changes to your diet or adding in supplements