We've all experienced those afternoon sugar cravings. The clock hits 2 p.m. and your body is in the mood for something sweet. But are these cravings normal? Or is your body just trying to tell you something? Here, two experts explain what your sugar cravings really mean.
What causes sugar cravings
First, let's get one thing straight: everyone gets these cravings.
"They are nothing to feel guilty about and are perfectly normal," Liz Powell, a registered dietitian at Vancouver's Yaletown Nutrition, told HuffPost Canada via email. "Carbohydrates, which are broken down into sugars, are a source of energy for the cells in our body. It is perfectly natural for our bodies to crave sugars, especially in periods where we are lacking energy or adequate fuel to go about our day."
"I don't believe it to be unreasonable that, at any given time, someone might desire something sweet regardless of whether their dietary pattern or exercise regime was being carried out at a very good level," he told HuffPost Canada in an email. "For many of us sweetness is a highly attractive feature of food, so why wouldn't we [crave it]?"
Reasons you crave sugar
You're not getting enough sleep: "A lack of sleep can certainly alter the way someone's mind and body are functioning at the physiological level," said De Santis. When you don't get enough sleep, your body produces more ghrelin, a hormone that tells your body when it needs to eat. As a result, your body thinks it's hungry and your cravings increase.
When you're tired, your body might also crave sugar as a way to wake yourself up and get more energy, which explains why it's so common for people to need a sugar fix mid-afternoon.
You're stressed: Some people use sugary foods as a way to comfort themselves in times of stress, Powell noted. While this can provide quick relief, it can also result in poor eating habits or irregular eating patterns.
"These behaviours can [then] result in low mood, fatigue, irritability due to a lack of inadequate energy and nutrient intake throughout the day," she explained. "Developing individual ways to manage stress, such as taking time for yourself, may help to reduce the temptation to use food to make us feel better on a regular basis."
You just worked out: Exercise can help fight your desire for desserts, according to WebMD, because it makes you feel better and want to eat healthy. But if you crave sugar after a sweaty gym session, that's OK too. Your body is just telling you that it needs to refill on calories.
You're dehydrated: Just because you're craving sweets after a workout doesn't mean you should give in to them, as you might just be thirsty. Dehydration can cause you to feel hungry, according to Health.com.
"Unless you are training twice in a day, or your exercise is very intense, there is no real need for a snack or recovery meal," Kate Comeau, a Dietitians of Canada spokesperson, told Global News about sugar cravings after exercise.
You're limiting sugar intake too much: "Over-restricting ourselves from having certain foods may only result in us wanting them more," Powell warned. "When you tell yourself that you cannot have a specific food because you've labelled it as 'unhealthy,' it can lead to a feeling of restriction and obsession over wanting that item, and we will continue to crave it until we give in."
Your diet is off: "We don't always desire to eat only because of hunger, but not being properly satisfied after a meal could obviously lead to a desire to want to eat more shortly after," De Santis said. If you are fueling your body properly throughout the day with balanced meals, you'll have fewer cravings, Powell added.
You use artificial sweeteners: Sorry to break it to you, but using artificial sweeteners can make you crave sugar even more. "[They] are much sweeter per volume than regular table sugar. The benefit of this is that we can use a fraction of the amount to achieve the same sweetness level," Powell said. "The downside is that our taste buds continue to be overstimulated by this level of sweetness, which can make less sweet, more nutritious foods, such as fruit, less appealing."
You use sugar as a reward: Dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is released in the brain when we consume sugar, which is why eating sweets can feel so rewarding. However, using sweets as a way to reward yourself isn't always a good idea.
"Frequent and overconsumption of highly sugary foods may, over time, dull the reward response we get from them, requiring us to consume more of them to feel that same level of mood-boosting reward," Powell explained.
You have a bad habit: A 2017 study found that sugar is more addictive than cocaine. While this is still up for debate in the medical community, it is possible for humans to "develop addictive eating patterns," Powell said.
Tom Sanders, a retired professor of nutrition and dietetics at King's College London, agrees. "While it is true that a liking for sweet things can be habit-forming, it is not addictive like opiates or cocaine," Sanders told The Guardian last year. "Individuals do not get withdrawal symptoms when they cut sugar intake."
So, if you find yourself constantly craving sweets, it might be time to kick the habit.
Why do I crave sugar at night?
If you crave sugar at night or in the morning, that's normal, too, according to De Santis.
"Natural variations in hunger and hormone levels between day and night are normal," he said. "Individual variation in habits, in my experience, also plays a role. Some people don't do a great job of managing their hunger throughout the day, and 'cravings' hit them in the evening as a result."
What to eat when craving sweets
When your sweet tooth can't be contained, try eating naturally sweet foods to curb your cravings, De Santis said. Fruit, frozen fruit and smoothies are a few good options, or "foods that may be sweetened but are also nutrient dense," such as sweetened Greek yogurt, he added.
Powell agreed, and recommended the following sweet, nutrient-dense snack options:
Frozen banana slices dipped in dark chocolate
Fruit salad with mint
Black bean avocado brownies
Frozen strawberries dipped in yogurt
Chia seed pudding topped with honey and berries
Homemade apple cinnamon oat muffins
Baked pears topped with walnuts and maple syrup
Grilled peaches with yogurt
Greek yogurt with berries
Dates and almonds
How to control sugar cravings
Eating balanced meals and staying hydrated are the two simplest ways to combat sugar cravings.
"Try to balance your meals by including a protein, complex carbohydrate, vegetable or fruit, and a healthy fat if possible," Powell said. "Skipping meals or having unbalanced meals will only result in your body asking for more food (and energy!) later on to make up for it."
WATCH: Tips for fighting sugar cravings. Story continues below video.
"Having regular meals throughout the day will also prevent you from getting overly hungry," she added. "When we are very hungry, we will often crave a quick source of energy, like sugary foods."
Other ways to control your sweet tooth:
Listen to your body: If you know the cause of your cravings — whether it's stress, a lack of sleep or a bad habit — then you'll know what your body really needs when you get a strong desire for treats, Powell said.
Control your environment: Pay attention to the foods you stock in your kitchen, De Santis advised. "[That] can go a long way to dictating the food choices you make 'most of the time,' which I think most professionals would agree is what matters most," he said.
Plan your snacks: Bring a banana to work, for example. This will help you manage your sugar intake throughout the day, De Santis said.
More from HuffPost Canada:
Gradually cut down on treats: You can retrain your tastebuds, according to WebMD, by cutting down on sugary treats over time. The less sugar you consume, the less you'll feel the need for it.
Don't put any foods off limits: "Food is a huge source of pleasure in our lives and having a list of foods we cannot have only results in us wanting those 'bad' foods more often," Powell said. "By knowing that no foods are off limits, we take away the power we've given to these items and we no longer crave them as often."
Know that having cravings isn't bad: "In the context of a generally healthy balanced diet, there is little to no detriment to your health to be had from enjoying your favourite sweet foods when you are really in the mood for them," De Santis said.
Speak to your doctor or registered dietitian if you find yourself having an unhealthy relationship with food, Powell added. This includes restricting yourself from eating or if you find yourself overeating even when you're not hungry.
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