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Sugar Cravings: What They Mean and How to Kick Them

Do you believe the common saying, “Fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar makes you fat!”? Accepting this to be true doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve figured it all out. You can think of sugar as the worst, most addictive drug yet still crave it on a daily basis.

Sometimes, knowledge is power, and if you learn about why our bodies tend to crave sugar, what these cravings mean, and if it’s truly addictive, you might just figure out how to satisfy or resist sugar cravings once and for all. So, let’s get to the knowledge.

Do Sugar Cravings Mean Something Else?

Different types of frosted doughnuts

Have you ever seen one of those “If you’re craving this, you’re missing that” graphics? If you’re craving chocolate, you might be missing magnesium, etcetera. Some people cling to this idea, but what does science say?

With few exceptions, the science doesn’t support the claim that sugar cravings are linked to nutrient needs.

Several arguments that refute this common anecdote:

1. Cravings by Gender

Different colored hands one large pink hand with female logo and blue hand with male logo

Unfortunately for women, research shows they are up to two times more likely to struggle with cravings than their male counterparts. Women are also blessed with sugar cravings more often than men, who typically crave more savory foods.

The nutrient theory falls apart here when you consider that the nutrient linked to chocolate is magnesium and the nutrients associated with savory foods are protein or sodium. There’s no evidence that each gender is more likely to suffer from the respective nutrient deficiencies.

2. Pregnancy Paradox

Woman eating doughnut with cup of coffee when pregnant

One theory about cravings and nutrients is that pregnant people might experience more sugar cravings due to the additional nutrients required for growing a new human.

This theory isn’t supported by science either because, in general, pregnant people crave foods high in carbs and fats. If the body were signaling for more nutrients, it would only make sense to present cravings for nutrient-rich foods.

In addition, sugar cravings present themselves more frequently in the second half of a pregnancy, which means the increase in caloric needs is less drastic and severe.

3. Foods the Cause Cravings

Different types of food laid out in a circle made of dishes

The last argument has to do with the foods that are typically craved and ties into the pregnancy theory. In general, if the body were trying to encourage the consumption of more nutrients, the cravings would be for nutrient-dense foods.

Typically, that’s not the case. We associate sugar cravings and cravings in general with foods high in carbs, fats, and empty calories. Additionally, the specificity of cravings indicates that they’re not nutrient-related.

Almost by definition, cravings are intense feelings of desire for a specific food. They’re discriminatory and, for the most part, cannot be satisfied by anything other than the specific food.

Is Sugar Actually Addictive?

Single Cube of sugar

So, if it’s not about nutrient deficiencies, what is it? We must be physically addicted to sugar then, right? This is another common anecdote, but in this case, there is some truth to it.

Sugar does, indeed, light up the brain in the same way drugs like cocaine and nicotine do. The centers that ignite pleasure when we succumb to a sugar craving are the brain’s reward system. It feels good, so we want to do it again and again.

There is no solid proof in humans that we actually get physically addicted to sugar. However, studies with rats indicate there is a likely possibility of the addiction and withdrawal cycle.

Are Sugar Cravings just a Habit?

Whether or not sugar is truly addictive within the brain, it’s obvious to those of us with an intense sweet tooth that, if nothing else, it’s certainly a habit. A hard habit to break, at that. As creatures of habit, we tend to associate sweet treats with certain activities, and if we eat them enough, certain times of the day.

For example, if you have movie theatre candy every time you go for a visit, you’re going to have the sugar craving every time you anticipate going for a movie. If you always have an afternoon cookie, you’re going to experience cravings at that time. What is going on in the brain when we experience these cravings?

What’s Happening in the Body when we Crave Sugar?

Various parts of the brain are involved in sugar cravings. The main areas are:

  • the hippocampus
  • the caudate nucleus 
Ice cream cone with strawberry, vanilla, and mint chocolate chip

The hippocampus plays a critical role in the memory process, where it creates both short-term and long-term memories. This area is also important for reward-seeking behavior, a mechanism that began as an evolutionary means to carry on our genes (things that feel good lead to more likely survival and reproduction; think sex and eating food for early humans).

Additionally, within each brain hemisphere, we find the caudate nucleus. This area is also involved in reward-seeking behavior—it’s always looking for the next rush of dopamine. Besides that, the caudate nuclei are responsible for forming habits (whether bad or good).

Habits formed by these areas of the brain become more like conditioned responses—think salivating at the dinner bell for Pavlov’s dogs. These conditioned habits are very challenging to break, though not impossible.

Could Your Diet be to Blame for your Cravings?

Close up view of person trying to button jeans

While all these processes can contribute to the cycle of cravings and how hard they are to resist, and there’s not much evidence to support that they’re related to nutrient deficiencies. However, there is another factor that could be involved that we have yet to explore: your diet.

It’s not so much about micronutrients as it is about the macros. If you’re failing to meet your body’s protein needs, blood sugar levels are sporadic. The abnormal rising and falling of blood glucose leads to cravings for quick energy. What’s the fastest way to increase energy from glucose? Sugar!

Something similar happens when you regularly consume too many simple carbohydrates. These carbs are quickly converted to blood glucose, which naturally causes a rise in insulin levels. Easy come, easy go, and the blood sugar drops, leaving you wanting more.

How to Kick a Craving

With these things in mind, a simple solution is to ensure you’re eating a well-balanced diet and consuming enough protein while limiting excess sugars and empty carbohydrates.

There are several ways you can make sure you’re getting enough protein:

  • protein bars
  • protein powders
  • including a protein source in every meal and snack

Protein Bar Recommendations

Grenade Carb Killa Protein Bars Supplement Superstore

Protein bars are a convenient way to get more protein in your diet, but you have to be careful of added sugars and excessive carbohydrates. Our most popular protein bars are Carb Killa High Protein Bars by Grenade. They’re available in a variety of flavours to help you satisfy even the most intense sugar craving!

At the end of the day, sugar cravings happen in the brain and result from our habits, brains, and diets. There’s little evidence to support the idea that cravings are directly related to nutrient deficiencies.

Still, instead they could be caused by eating too little protein or too many empty carbs. Protein bars and other protein supplements are one way to help satisfy tricky cravings, along with prioritizing a regular, balanced diet!

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