Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie. And sometimes a cookie seems like the only thing on the planet that will prevent you from losing your temper and your mind. When a sugar craving hits, it’s hard to think of anything else that could take precedence over the soothing scrumptiousness of a sweet treat. Everyone — even the most disciplined celebrity lifestyle gurus — craves sugar at some point or another. But why do some people have a major sweet tooth while others could easily pass on dessert? It turns out sugar cravings are a lot more complicated than just a taste preference — there are a ton of factors that influence our taste for the sweet stuff, what it does to our bodies and brains, and what it actually takes to curb sugar cravings.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
Ever notice that when you’re desperately seeking a snack to fill a very specific flavor need, you’re hardly ever scouring the fridge for celery? There are more than a few reasons why rich sweets seem to always fit the flavor bill — here are just a few:
Cramming for a test or prepping for a big job interview? The odds are pretty good that your desk is scattered with candy wrappers. Demanding situations can often trigger sugar cravings, and there’s some science to back up why we yearn for sweets when we’re under pressure. One small study found that sugar consumption seemed to quiet the brain’s stress signals, presumably priming people to reach for sweets during trying times. In the two-week experiment, 19 women drank three beverages a day sweetened with either real sugar or aspartame, an artificial sweetener. MRI scans revealed that sugar — and not aspartame — interrupted the normal stress response and limited the production of cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone.
2. Lack of Sleep
Trying to fake your way through the day after a bad night of sleep is arguably one of the worst parts of adulting. And if you’ve ever felt compelled to remedy a rough morning with the biggest pastry you can find, you’ve experienced the sleep-sugar connection firsthand. One study found that a lack of sleep can certainly intensify sugar cravings and that trying to maintain a healthy diet and weight is more difficult without some solid Zs. The study, conducted by researchers from King’s College in London, analyzed 42 healthy adults and divided them into two groups: one practiced good sleep habits and were counseled to tack on an extra 1.5 hours each night, and the other was instructed to continue with their regular routines. Over one week, researchers found that the group that increased their sleep hours consumed less sugar following a solid night’s rest.
3. Premenstrual Syndrome
Fluctuating hormones can be held responsible for a lot of unpleasant symptoms (hello mood swings), and sugar cravings are definitely on the list. And the same shifts in estrogen and progesterone that can play a role in period-related emotional rollercoasters can also impact food cravings, due to their influence on the neurotransmitter, serotonin. That feel-good brain chemical naturally dips just before menstruation, and research has shown that eating carbohydrate-rich, sugary foods can spike it up, offering a temporary mood boost. So there’s a reason you feel like stocking up on Ben & Jerry’s before that time of the month.
4. Quitting Smoking
If you recently stomped out your last cigarette, congrats! Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States, so you just did yourself the biggest health favor imaginable. But if you’ve grown accustomed to taking drags at every free moment, you might suddenly feel inclined to replace that habit with another. Nicotine is a known appetite suppressant, so not only can quitting cigs leave your hands empty and primed to pick up snacks, but it can also make you much more aware of your growling stomach, and the temptation to quiet it with sweet stuff can feel particularly intense.
What Can Excess Sugar Do To Your Body?
So yes, sugar can excite your taste buds, quell hunger pangs, and make your brain feel blissed out. But over time and with excessive sugar intake, all those short-term benefits can come with some major long-term health drawbacks. Here are a few of the major ones:
1. Increased Risk of Depression
It may seem counterintuitive since a surge of sugar can boost your mood, but a consistent nutrient-poor diet that’s high in sugar has been linked to a higher risk of depression. Researchers in London found that people who consumed processed foods like sweetened desserts, deli meats, and fried foods were more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who ate a diet rich in unprocessed, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and fish
2. Increased Anxiety
By now you know that stress can make you crave sweets, but the connection is a two-way street: consuming too many sugary treats has been linked to higher levels of anxiety — at least in rats, which raises the question of whether this same effect occurs in humans. One study found that rats that binged on sugar and then fasted displayed symptoms of anxiety while another study found that rats that ate sucrose (i.e. table sugar) were more likely to experience anxiety than rats that ate a more nutritious sweet food: honey. While we don’t know if sugar has the same effect in humans, it’s a good idea to avoid a sugar-heavy diet if you are prone to anxiety (and who isn’t?).
3. Possible Cancer Connection
There is still so much that’s unknown about how and why cancers develop in some people and not others, and while there’s no strong evidence for a direct link between sugar consumption and cancer, it’s worth knowing that some research indicates a possible link between sugar intake and an increased cancer risk. Sugary beverages specifically may be associated with cancer, according to a study published in the BMJ: researchers found that consuming even a small glass of 100-percent fruit juice or soda a day has been linked to an 18 percent increased risk of cancer and a 22 percent increase in breast cancer. In 2016, a mouse study — which again, may or may not have implications for humans — found that the high amount of sugar in the typical Western diet may increase the risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lungs. And a 2017 study shed more light on a phenomenon called the Warburg effect, which describes how cancer cells rapidly break down sugars and stimulate tumor growth. While again, these studies and others don’t prove direct causation, it’s important to be aware of the potential connection.
How to Actually Curb Sugar Cravings
It’s perfectly normal and natural to long for sweets every now and then, but if you’re trying to cut back on your sugar intake and make healthier choices, there are a few simple strategies that may help you reach your goals (and stop reaching for the cookies):
1. Take a Walk
The next time a sugar craving hits, take a walk outside, hit the gym, or grab a buddy and sign up for a fun workout class. Studies have shown that even a brisk, 15-minute walk is more effective at reducing food cravings than sitting passively, so get moving and see if your sugar lust dies down.
2. Take Stress Reduction Seriously
“Self care” may be the token phrase of 2019, but carving out time for your own rest and relaxation really is important — and it may even help curb cravings. If you know you desperately seek out sweets when you’re stressed, get ahead of the issue by taming tension in other ways before it gets out of control. Regular yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, and massage sessions can all be effective ways to find Zen.
3. Eat a Hearty Breakfast
If you’ve been skipping your morning meal in an effort to be “healthy,” you may have noticed that the office doughnuts become positively irresistible by noon. Consuming more protein for breakfast (or consuming just about anything with some good-for-you ingredients) might help curb sugar cravings, according to a study published in the Nutrition Journal. Researchers studied how a morning meal impacted cravings in overweight or obese teens who typically skipped breakfast. They found that eating breakfast resulted in fewer cravings for sweet or savory foods, while those who ate a high protein breakfast had even fewer cravings for savory foods.