The Science of Sugar Cravings


Do you crave a sweet treat after every meal or at the same time every day?

Sugar cravings are common and can often be explained by simple things, like the side effects from certain foods in your diet or a bad habit that has reprogrammed your brain.

But some sugar cravings can be a result of an underlying nutrient deficiency.

So next time you reach for something sweet after breakfast or lollies from the corner store near work, stop and consider the psychological and biological reasons that may be underlying.

What’s happening in your brain

Several areas in your brain play a significant role in the crave sensations. The hippocampus, located in your temporal lobe, is responsible for forging short-term and long-term memories and plays a significant role in reward-seeking behaviour.

For example the hippocampus enables you to remember the taste of dark chocolate versus milk chocolate.

In each hemisphere of your brain, there is a caudate nucleus, which influences reward-seeking behaviour, but is also responsible for forming new habits – both good and bad – like snacking the minute you walk through the door after work. These habits are more like a conditioned response, meaning, even after a half day of work you have the urge to snack.

The habits formed by the caudate nucleus are hard, not impossible, to break.

The insula, also in each hemisphere of the brain, produces emotions in response to a sensory experience. The best corporate company marketing preys on the insula – the best example I can think of is McDonalds.

Although your brain can be a challenge to your willpower, there can be foods in your diet that trigger your longing for sugary foods. One dietary culprit is low protein intake. Because protein and fats slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream, when you don’t consume enough of them your blood sugar can rise and fall at an abnormal rate. The result? Your body craves the quick energy hit you’ll get from sugar.

It’s also the same reason you can crave sugar on a high carbohydrate diet.

Simple carbohydrates enter the bloodstream fast, raising blood sugar, then subsequently raise your insulin levels. Without fiber, protein, or fat in your food, simple carbohydrates alone won’t leave you full or satisfied, and soon you’ll be wanting more of them.

Maybe not surprisingly, when cutting carbohydrates from your diet your body tends to crave the quick energy it’s accustomed to, so most of us experience a ravaging sugar craving the first few days on a low or no-carbohydrate diet.

Once our systems learn to fuel best without simple carbs, the craving dissipates.

Artificial sweeteners were invented to take the place of sugar for a lower-calorie option, but research suggests you will experience the same cravings, or even eat more food and total calories, when consuming this alternative, ultimately leaving you potentially worse off in the end.

Bad habits promoting food cravings

Your sleep habits might be causing food cravings too. Research has shown that even one night of poor sleep can decrease the upper brain function of the cerebrum – the part of the brain responsible for complex judgments and decisions – resulting in next-day junk food cravings.

In a study that compared those who had a good quality night of sleep to those who didn’t, the poor sleepers craved junk foods totalling 600+ calories.

Why? Your internal clock plays a significant role in managing the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which promote and suppress food intake. Chronic abnormal sleep or sleep deprivation can be severely detrimental to your waistline when you give into those cravings, which is another reason why shift work can be catastrophic on your overall eating habits.

Clinical issues you should check on

Stress affects your cortisol levels, a hormone that when elevated will alter your circulating levels of glucose and insulin. Stress affects hunger and cravings in people differently, but your body will quickly use its energy stores while in overdrive.

Depression or a bad mood can mentally and physically affect cravings too.

Sugar consumption increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, memory, and social behavior. Because sugar boosts serotonin, so you’ll feel happier temporarily, so your brain craves this happy chemical again and again.

Another reason for your sweet tooth may be mineral deficiencies.

We used to think that if your body is craving a particular food or taste, then you must be deficient in it. While that’s not entirely wrong, like sometimes in the case of salty foods and a sodium deficiency, the craving for sweet, sugary foods might be explained by specific mineral imbalances in the body.

An iron deficiency will zap your energy, leaving you feeling fatigued and weak, and it can also be a reason for your cravings; i.e. your body will crave quick energy to perk itself up.

Calcium, zinc, chromium, and magnesium imbalances can manifest themselves as sugar cravings too.

These crucial minerals help maintain hydration status, which can make you crave sugar when you might actually just be thirsty. Together, these minerals are involved in hundreds of processes in your body, from carbohydrate metabolism to producing and regulating the hormones and enzymes that control the way you think, move, and feel.

Without sufficient consumption, absorption, and storage of these minerals, you might be experiencing abnormal reactions to the thought, sight, or smell of something sweet.

So what can you do? Consider these seven quick tips for success while you plan long-term changes to minimise your sugar cravings:

  • Test your cortisol and melatonin fluctuations with an at-home sleep test.
  • Recognise bad habits. Have an alternative the moment you get a craving; it could be doing 10 jumping jacks or drinking a glass of water.
  • Incorporate more proteins or fats into your diet. Avoid snacks/meals that are made up of all carbohydrates. And reduce artificial sweetener intake.
  • Get sufficient, better quality, and consistent sleep. Be diligent about going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.
  • Seek serotonin from other sources. Try green tea, walnuts, eggs, cheese, or increasing your exercise routine to boost your serotonin level.
  • Reach for foods or supplements with a high-bioavailability of chromium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium.