Think back to the good ol’ days when you were just a kid. Was there any better feeling than licking a lollipop after a visit to the doctor’s office? What about crushing your entire Halloween candy loot on the same night you got it? Sugar is and always has been awesome. Many adults don’t have the tolerance to eat as much candy after puberty hits, but certain variables still drive them to reach for candy bars over apples.
To find out why people are always craving sugar, we spoke with board-certified nutritionist Sunny Brigham, registered dietician Jill Nussinow, “Beating Sugar Addiction for Dummies” author Dan DeFigio, To The Pointe Nutrition owner Rachel Fine, wellness coach and world champion powerlifter Robert Herbst, nutritional therapy practitioner Catherine Crow, diet and nutrition expert Carolyn Dean, certified nutritionist Christina Tsiripidou, Maple Holistics personal trainer and health and wellness expert Caleb Backe, nutrition doctor Barry Sears, Keto cookbook author JR Fletcher, NYC Surgical Associates general surgeon Christopher Hollingsworth and director of dietetics and nutritional Science at GenoPalate Matt Edwards.
Each expert gave us insight into why our bodies feel like they need sugary foods over healthier fare, and it’s not only because sugary treats are delicious (though we fact-checked this and duh, it’s true). From jetlag and digestion issues to lack of intimacy and hormone triggers, read on to find 19 surprising reasons why you’re always craving sugar.
Board-certified clinical nutritionist Sunny Brigham explains that dopamine (a “feel good” hormone) gives us a somewhat addictive high, similar to one we’d get while skydiving or partaking in other exciting activities that get our blood pumping. Sugar gives us the same feeling because it also triggers the brain to release dopamine. It gives us that drug-like stimulation, so we keep coming back for more.
Brigham also says that stress drives cravings toward unhealthy foods. When we’re stressed, we burn through our bodies’ stored energy. “We convert our stores into usable energy, but if we aren’t being active in that moment of stress, we can’t restore that unused energy and we turn it into fat,” she said. When the energy stores are empty, the body wants foods that break down quickly for more energy stores, and sugar or refined carbs — which break down to sugar — do just that.
Registered dietician Jill Nussinow says sugar cravings start when babies begin breastfeeding because there’s sugar in mother’s milk. “We need it for survival at that point and it helps keep us nourished,” she said. “However, the sugar in mother’s milk is not even close to the refined sugar that is added to processed foods,” which contains sugars without the minerals you’d find in natural sugars.
Dan DeFigio, author of “Beating Sugar Addiction for Dummies,” says sugar gives us an energy boost. It enters the bloodstream “lightning quick” (compared to protein or fat) and gives us a spike in blood sugar, which in turn causes an increase in insulin production. This causes both fat storage and an inevitable sugar crash shortly thereafter.
Registered dietician and owner of To The Pointe Nutrition counseling firm Rachel Fine suggests that society is the problem. “Aside from America’s fear of fat, sugar is likely the most ‘restricted’ among dieters,” she said. “Restrictions don’t work, and deprivation is a set up for downfall.” In order to crave sugar less, Fine says people need to start accepting some of their most “forbidden foods.” Once you give yourself permission to enjoy them, you might not desire sugar as often.
Personal trainer, weight loss and wellness coach and world champion powerlifter Robert Herbst says we often crave sugar when we’re jetlagged or aren’t getting enough sleep. The brain runs on glycogen, which is the metabolized form of carbohydrates. When the brain doesn’t get enough rest, it goes into overdrive and burns more glycogen. It tells the body, “get me carbs,” and makes a person crave sweets and fast food. “We have seen this when someone is working late, doesn’t get enough sleep and orders fast food to keep going,” Herbst said. “The person eats calorie-dense junk calories, and to make matters worse, is inactive. This leads to obesity.”
Nutritional therapy practitioner Catherine Crow says sugar is easy to digest, but she’s not talking about high-fructose corn syrup, sugar substitutes, agave or altered “fake” sugars. Crow is a fan of natural sugars in fully ripened fruits because the disaccharide (a double sugar molecule) is broken down into fructose and glucose (single sugar molecules), which are easy to digest. “This makes sugar an especially excellent carbohydrate of choice for those with digestive difficulties, since the more complex the carbohydrate, the more digestive strength required,” she said. “The same is true for the single sugars in honey and simple syrup (made from white sugar).”
Your body might not actually be trying to trick you. Crow says it could actually be telling you how to “survive and thrive,” and therefore you may want to stop ignoring those cravings. She quotes Dr. Ray Peat, who said, “Any craving is a good starting point because we have several biological mechanisms for correcting specific nutritional deficiencies. When something is interfering with your ability to use sugar, you crave it because if you don’t eat it, you will waste protein to make it.”
According to stress management, diet and nutrition expert Carolyn Dean, sugar blocks the absorption of vital minerals including calcium and magnesium. Surprisingly, Dean says this actually causes sugar cravings. Magnesium is important to more than 700 enzyme actions. It helps curb cravings, control digestion, and facilitate absorption and the utilization of proteins, fats and carbs. Without it, one might experience a loss in concentration, focus and attention; cognitive impairment; agitation and restlessness; headaches; tiredness; hunger; anxiety; and obesity.
Christina Tsiripidou is a certified nutritionist with cognitive behavioral therapy training. She says that most of the time, sugar cravings are a result of an emotional imbalance or an accumulation of unexpressed emotions. Some of her clients have expressed that the lack of a partner and intimacy have made them crave sugar.
Maple Holistics personal trainer and health and wellness expert Caleb Backe explains that when we’re dehydrated, our bodies think we’re hungry and look for an energy boost. This makes us more likely to seek out sugary foods to get our “hunger” levels back up when we should actually just drink a glass of water instead.
Dr. Sears also simply says sugar makes bitter foods more palatable. He uses tomato paste as an example, adding that sugar is cheap and convenient — two additional attractive qualities.
Keto cookbook author JR Fletcher says that when the flora — the friendly bacteria in our intestines — are disturbed, they end up consuming all the sugar from the carbohydrates and other foods we eat. To maintain the balance in our body, we crave more sugar. Fletcher says the situation only worsens when we eat more because the more we eat, the more the bacteria will eat. Taking probiotics will increase the flora growth and restore its normal function.
Salt contains a significant amount of sodium, and Fletcher says your cravings for sugar increase when you add more sodium to your diet. It’s your body’s mechanism to maintain blood glucose levels, so it’s important that you choose natural sources of salt so that you’ll want more natural sugars.
According to Fletcher, when fat is removed from food, manufacturers often add something else to increase the taste. These are mostly artificial sweeteners or flavors, which have less nutritional value and make the body demand more carbs, proteins and vitamins. To provide what the body wants, Fletcher says we crave sugar.
NYC Surgical Associates general surgeon Christopher Hollingsworth says that lack of exercise can bring on excessive sugar cravings. Exercise keeps our brains and bodies oxygenated and energized. It also releases the hormones that provide us with feelings of wellbeing. Without regular activity to provide those functions, Hollingsworth says sweets can easily become a quick fix for both the energy and good mood you’re missing.
According to registered dietician and director of dietetics and nutritional Science at GenoPalate Matt Edwards, we may crave sugar because of our genes. “The field of nutrigenomics has found several genes that correlate with specific taste preferences,” he said. “Someone with the impact genotype or arrangement of genes on the FGF21 gene may show a genetic predisposition towards sweet foods.” Edwards explains that being able to understand your genetics in relationship to humans’ natural desire to prefer sweet tastes can provide insight into choices you make when it comes to food, as well as allowing yourself to defend your cravings. Just because a ton of sugar isn’t good for you, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have sugar at all! To make sure you’re getting the perfect balance, check out these surprising signs you’re eating too much sugar.
More From The Daily Meal