Do you ever (or often) feel like your sweet tooth is in the driver’s seat? Have times of day when you just can’t stop thinking of or resist that tempting cookie, doughnut, muffin or piece of candy? It’s tough, especially when sugary treats seem to be all around us.
The problem is, not only do the the anxiety and stress of the temptation feel awful, but generally, so does eating the sugary something. Not just because we punked out on our intention to eat well, but because sugar may feel like a party in your mouth, and even give you an initial burst of energy and euphoria, but in the end, it generally leaves us feeling more tired and less happy. And it leads to a vicious cycle of just wanting more and feeling worse – because technically, it’s as addictive as a lot of drugs. That’s why you may feel powerless in the presence of sugar, beholden to cravings that keep you trapped in this vicious cycle. If it’s any consolation. you’re not alone. I even had my own little fling with sweet, sweet sugar during my medical residency when I turned to quick energy fixes to make it through some seemingly endless overnight shifts. I made the breakup swift and broke the cycle, however, when I quickly packed on some pounds around my middle and noticed my mood being less than stellar. These days, “Dr. Romm, please help me kick this sugar habit,” is one of the most common requests I get. The good news is that, having helped not just myself, but now literally thousands of women break the sugar cycle, I can tell you it’s one or the least painful addictions to overcome – and you can do it, too.
Once you learn the truth about sugar – and the biological reasoning behind why you crave it – I’m confident that you’ll feel more empowered to take control of your health and tune in to what your body really craves. And once you learn about the power sugar can have over your health, you’ll wonder why those little packets don’t bear a warning label (or sugar pushing companies don’t face criminal charges!)
So read on to learn how to break the sugar cycle – and find out what you’re really hungry for.
America on Sugar
There are two primary forms of sugar we can get in our modern diets: naturally occurring and processed. Naturally occurring forms include sugars like fructose which is found in fruits, and lactose is found in milk. Honey, cane sugar, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and agave are also forms of natural sugars. Whole grains and starchy vegetables contain complex forms of sugar in the form of carbohydrates – these more complex forms can be an important form of slow-burning energy, compared to the simple sugars which tend to provide fast fuel.
Processed sugar also comes in numerous forms.The most familiar forms of sugar are the run of the mill white powdered stuff, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and refined flour products, all of which are rampant in the American diet. But sugar also has dozens of chemical forms and names, allowing manufacturers to slip it into foods so that even avid label-readers don't recognize that there's sugar in their food.
Both natural and processed forms can be used as added sugars in sodas, cereals, cookies or bottled juice, are added during processing or preparation. Honey, maple syrup, agave and coconut nectar, while natural forms, can all be added sugars, too. And while certain sweeteners influence our blood sugar more or less than others, at the end of the day, they are all still sugar and are over-consumed as a whole.
We are naturally hardwired to enjoy the taste of sugar. A desire for its sweet taste led our ancient ancestors in search of the berries and starchy tubers they needed for nutrients, and even bee hives to raid for honey for energy. However, when they did get sugar in these forms, it was in extremely small amounts, infrequently, and in completely unprocessed formed.
About forty years ago Americans started getting more added sugar in our diets, but were still consuming on average, only about 235 calories per day from added sugars. This was a heap ton more than our ancestors, but a far cry less than what we’re getting now.
Today, nearly three out of four American adults consume a full 10 percent of their total calories in the form of added sugars, while 10 percent consume 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar. The American Heart Association actually “recommends” that it’s okay to consume up to 6 teaspoons (equal to six packets) of added sugars in a woman’s daily diet. That’s a lot! And most Americans, however, are getting double, triple, or more of that amount.
While most of us couldn’t imagine eating that much sugar, the reality is we are. Oftentimes, we’re drinking it, so we notice our sugar intake even less. For example, recently, I reviewed the food journal of a health conscious patient who does yoga and eats mostly organic foods. One of the ways she tries to avoid sugar is by grabbing a “healthy” smoothie in the middle of her day, sometimes even twice a day, during work hours. Little did she know until we went online together to look at the nutritional information for the smoothie she was drinking, yes, it had fiber and fresh fruit, but it also packed a whopping total of 38 grams of sugar in each 8 oz serving. That’s almost 10 teaspoons of sugar in each smoothie! Cold pressed juices often contain a similar amount. This is about as much as in a can of cola. Soda or juice, it’s still consuming way more sugar than we were meant to for our health.
Sugar goes by countless names. Whether it’s high fructose corn syrup or organic evaporated cane syrup doesn’t matter to your body, metabolically speaking. It’s still sugar: highly inflammatory, quickly metabolized and extremely addictive. No wonder we’re facing an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease!
But it’s also so good, right?
What’s Wrong with Sugar, Anyway?
In small doses, and when consumed as a very small part of a healthy diet, there’s nothing wrong with a little sugar. But I really mean a little. As in once in a blue moon, primarily unprocessed.
The problem is that many of us can’t stop the sweet stuff once we start – and thanks to sneaky food manufacturers, it’s lurking in much of what we eat. As I’ve shown you, it’s even hiding in plain sight in seemingly healthy foods and beverages.
It’s taking a massive toll on our health. Food addictions contribute to a host of medical problems. Obesity is rapidly increasing among kids and teens, and along with its culprits, a western diet and lifestyle, is spreading through the world like a scourge.
For the first time in human history, obesity rates exceed malnutrition around the world, and even those who are of a “normal weight” are 40 percent more likely to suffer from chronic diseases due to metabolic problems and chronic inflammation – all of which can be traced to high rates of sugar consumption. Sugar and refined flour products, which when digested quickly break down into sugar in the body, spike insulin and trigger release of inflammatory cytokines, which lead to the formation of toxic, pro-inflammatory free radicals that damage our cells.
Added sugar, and especially sweetened beverages, has been linked to weight gain and a higher risk for obesity, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and coronary heart disease. It affects everything from your gut flora and your mood to your energy levels and your stress response. Sugar weaves a tangled web throughout our bodies, which explains why it’s so hard to break the cycle of sugar cravings – and why it’s so dangerous.
So how did we get so addiction to sugar? And why do some of us crave it even when our diet is otherwise pretty health? Here are seven reasons we have those cravings – along with the tips that will help you put that sugar back on the shelf.
7 Reasons We Have Sugar Cravings & How to Get Your Control Back
Big Food Manufactures Addiction
Let’s start with the elephant in the room: Is the food industry to blame for obesity and food addiction (and your sugar cravings)? Yes, they are one of the major reasons we want sugar – even when we don’t – and this manufacture of craving has been done quite deliberately to make a profit at our expense. In fact, for decades, we were led to believe that fat was Public Enemy No. 1. As it turns out, it was the sugar industry using its dollars to point its finger at fat, making it look like the villain responsible for obesity and other chronic health problems, while shifting the blame off of sugar.
Big Food is no dummy. Scientists and marketing teams work with multimillion-dollar budgets to provide exactly what our exhausted, over-extended nervous systems are craving. Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, describes the manufacture of food addictions by the food industry elegantly in his book, The End of Overeating, as does Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss in his book Salt, Sugar, Fat.
Learn about the multi-billion dollar industry manufacturing your sugar cravings #takebackyourhealth. @avivaromm
Entire research and development teams at major Big Food companies thrive on creating “non-food junk” with just the right amount of sugar to make us want more (and more and more). When advertising tells you that you can’t eat just one, it’s because the food has been created to make your brain and taste buds feel exactly that way. These foods feed our brain’s pleasure centers leading to cravings. They trigger the very same neurological wiring that is activated in drug addiction! “Non-food junk” is carefully and deliberately designed to manufacture addiction.
If you, like so many women who come to me, have gotten hooked on the sweet stuff, knowing this might leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. Good. Because this is the first step in realizing that your sugar addiction is not your fault or a matter of will or self-discipline. Sugar addiction has been marketed, sold, and package for you.
What You Can Do: Don’t buy in! Vote with your fork by ridding your house of processed foods to fight back and break your sugar cycle. Instead, choose a minimally processed diet of whole foods. A Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to be the healthiest possible way we can eat, and will not only end your sugar cravings, but help you to naturally achieve a healthy weight, blood sugar, and mood, while reducing and reversing inflammation and even preventing dementia.
You’re Stuck in Survival Mode (aka SOS!)
While the food industry is busy creating an environment that is hostile to health by supplying us with a stash of sugar (along with salt and fat, sometimes in one tasty package) at every checkout counter in the country, something deeper is also happening to drive our feeling that we need or want sugar, salt, and fat – and this starts in our most primitive survival centers in the brain and our adrenal glands.
Sugar, salt, and fat are the main substances our bodies need to fuel our stress response system. Under stress, our bodies think these are survival foods. In fact, what we often call comfort foods, to our stressed-out nervous systems may be “survival foods.” When our stress response is activated, a hormone called cortisol, produced in and released by our adrenal glands, causes us to crave fat, sugar, and salt!
You’ve probably heard of the fight-or-flight response. Running away from a saber tooth tiger is a classic example given to describe it. This system starts in the brain in a gland called the hypothalamus, passes through the pituitary gland also in the brain, and culminates in the adrenal glands which sit one atop each kidney. It is our primitive Survival System.
When this system, called the HPA Axis, gets activated because we are exposed to a threat, our sympathetic nervous system goes into red alert and we start pumping out cortisol. This causes our blood sugar to go up so we can get energy to our muscles to run hard and fast, raises blood pressure to protect us from a potentially fatal hemorrhage should that tiger gouge us, and activates our immune system by sending out a bunch of inflammatory chemicals to protect us in case that gouge gets infected. It requires a lot of energy to fuel this response.
In ancient times, we’d outrun that tiger (or the guy running next to us!), make it to safety, and the red alert would be down-graded and our bodies would recover. But in our modern society we’re almost always under sustained psychological stress – hanging out somewhere between orange and red alert much of the time. We pump out massive amounts of blood sugar we don’t use up because we’re not physically running away from the stress – we’re sitting at desks pumping ourselves full of coffee and sugar to keep our energy up! We store extra sugar as abdominal fat because that’s what cortisol tells us to do, and this fat adds not only to our inflammation, but “talks” to our brain through chemical signals that in yet another vicious cycle, make us crave more sugar.
To keep fueling the stress response reactions, you need energy, so you crave more sugar and carbs (aka fast fuel), which continues to be stored as dangerously inflammatory belly fat. (I dive into this topic in depth in my new book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution.)
Interestingly, cortisol also impacts the area of the brain – the prefrontal cortex- that controls willpower, blunting our ability to make certain decisions easily, for example, whether to eat that piece of cake. Blaming yourself for poor willpower isn't the answer. Getting out of stress overdrive is.
What You Can Do: Get and stay out of survival mode by pressing the reset button. This will put an end to your sugar cravings while also keeping you from burning out.
Feel like your sweet tooth is in the driver’s seat? Take back the wheel on your sugar cravings – and your health! @avivaromm
Mixed Messages from Your Microbiome
Unlike in Vegas, what goes on in your gut doesn’t just stay in your gut. Your gut is the epicenter of your enteric nervous system, aka your “belly brain,” which regulates stress, mood and immunity. There are more neurons in your enteric nervous system (100 million!) than in your peripheral nervous system or your spinal cord. When we say “I can feel it in my gut,” we really mean it. So, when your gut is out of whack (the technical term is dysbiosis), in which you can have overgrowth of unfriendly species, loss of helpful species, or both, it can cause a whole host of issues – anxiety, depression, brain fog, weight gain, and, yup, you guessed it, sugar cravings (which can exacerbate those other issues). A number of contributing factors can lead to dysbiosis including (in yet another vicious cycle!) too much sugar and processed foods in the diet, a history of antibiotic overuse, stress, leaky gut syndrome, and lack of fiber and fermented foods in the diet.
Just one sugar-fueled period (say, while you’re on vacation or during a stressful time at work) can derail your gut flora; eating highly processed foods for 10 days to two weeks can reduce your microbiome diversity by 40 percent.
Whether you have a sweet tooth can be a factor of what’s going on in your gut microbial community! Your gut microbiome can trick you into eating certain foods so certain bacteria can survive and thrive. First, it creates cravings for foods that they specifically need for their own growth by making our brain register those foods as more delicious. They also produce toxins that make us feel unwell and alter our mood (by affecting various neurotransmitter levels) until we eat the foods that satisfy them. They hijack the messages going from the gut to the brain along the vagus nerve. So if you’re beating yourself up for your sugar addiction or cookie binges, you might instead think “my microbiome made me eat it.”
What You Can Do: A diet rich in fiber, especially from plenty of leafy green vegetables, complex (slow-burning) carbohydrates and legumes, plus naturally fermented foods, can help restore healthy gut microflora. For some, the addition of a probiotic supplement may also be necessary to get your gut flora back on track and kick the sugar cravings.
You’re on a Blood Sugar Roller Coaster
You know that feeling when you’re on edge – shaky, exhausted, and irritable – then you bite into a cookie or chug a latte, only to feel instantly calmer and grounded? When we eat mostly unhealthy foods (like sugar) or skip meals, our brain sends out an SOS signal. It needs glucose to survive, so it tells the body that sugar is the only thing that will keep you alive. That’s why, when the panic of low blood sugar hits, you urgently feel the need to have something sugary, fatty, or carbohydrate-rich. It’s also why you feel better when you give in. Your survival hormones and neurotransmitters that were making you feel awful level back out where they belong. But that inner calm doesn’t last for long, and the cycle reignites. Within the hour, you’re “hangry” again, foggier than you were before, and you’re probably angry with yourself for eating sugar. You’re back in survival mode, which is why every sweet treat you pass at the grocery store seems to call to you. Your brain choose survival over skinny jeans every time.
Cortisol keeps you on the roller coaster of sugar cravings because of its effects on ghrelin (your hunger hormone), leptin (your satiety hormone), and the reward (addiction) centers of your brain. The combination of these hormones impacts your brain’s reward centers, blunting your taste for healthy foods. Soon, healthy stuff doesn’t taste as good as the sugary options – so you bypass the broccoli for biscotti.
Constant sugar cravings can take a real toll: When your blood sugar and insulin are constantly elevated, the sugar can damage your blood vessels over time, and your pancreas will begin to underperform due to the extra demand, resulting in insulin resistance. This can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
Regularly eating large amounts of sugar detrimentally affects your gut flora, eventually leading to systemic inflammation, leaky gut, and nutrient absorption issues. Proper absorption ensures that every single cell in the body is nourished, so it is vital. When nutrients are malabsorbed, the body becomes undernourished and sick. In addition to the sugar-induced nutritional deficiencies that keep your immune system from its best performance, sugar also prevents proper immune response, so you get sick more often. High sugar consumption is linked to cognitive decline, and some experts refer to Alzheimer’s disease as Type 3 diabetes, due to evidence that chronic inflammation and oxidative damage may be factors in its onset. Keeping your blood sugar steady and getting off the roller coaster can help offset all of these issues.
What You Can Do: Maintain blood sugar balance by making sure that each meal or snack includes a healthy fats and good quality source of protein, and that you don't skip meals or ‘live on sugar.' If you really want something sweet, pair a square of dark chocolate with a few almonds or walnuts to curb the craving while getting a burst of antioxidants and healthy fat. Once you learn to keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day, you’ll find that cravings are a thing of the past.
Exhaustion dulls your senses and erodes your willpower. When you have to devote all your energy to just making it through the day while staying upright, it can feel like you have little self-control left to make smart food choices to keep your blood sugar steady. There are a few ways that fatigue can impact sugar cravings.
Being in chronic survival mode (SOS) can impact your sleep, hormones, weight, immunity, and memory and concentration. It can also cause us to have cravings sugar, fat, and salt – and when we’re in overdrive, not only are we exhausted, but our HPA axis chronically tells us we’re in danger and need more cortisol, which requires more quick fuel in the form of sugary carbs. Stress leads to cravings (you might even have sugar cravings at night), which throws off our natural cortisol balance, which then in turn can impact sleep. Sleep also leads to chronic inflammation, which affects your microbiome and gut health. (Are you starting to see a pattern here? Nothing in the body happens in a vacuum. The causes for cravings are all interrelated, and by targeting one, you may start to find relief from others.)
Lack of sleep itself can impact our sugar cravings, first by interfering with our ability to make good decisions. A 2013 study done at Berkeley and published in Nature Communications used functional MRIs of healthy adults after a healthy night’s sleep and after a relatively sleepless night. They found impairment in the frontal lobe, which oversees making tough decisions, but participants’ reward centers were fired up – and they preferred junk food after skimping on sleep. Tossing and turning makes you hungrier the next day. We need sleep. It’s the ultimate pause at the end of the day, and without it, it’s nearly impossible to stay out of SOS, let alone avoid cravings.
What you can do: Sleep for 7 and make time to recharge! We all need about seven hours of good sleep every night to keep sugar cravings from fatigue at bay. Ample healthy sleep allows you to reset your natural clock and cortisol rhythm, dump the chemical toxins that accumulate in your brain and body all day, and allow your brain sort and file new information, keeps you from seeking fast energy during the day, and gives you the resilience you need to make healthy food choices every day. Further, during the day, you can take ultradian breaks to stay recharged.
We all are creatures of habit. Some of these habits might be good for you, like flossing nightly or going to yoga class every Wednesday night. But others, like noshing while watching your favorite TV show or getting a doughnut every time you have a rough day at the office, are not. When it comes to sugar addiction, habits get wired into the experience of our brain’s reward centers getting triggered. In other words, we’ve trained our brains to associate our desire for sugar with certain habitual behaviors – like watching TV or passing the D&D on the way to work. If your workplace is a sugar landmine, you’ll be halfway through your second snickerdoodle before you realize it.
Further, automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), stressful habitual thoughts about your life, body, success, relationships, or other areas of your life, can also lead to sugar cravings as a biological means of self-comfort. In the short run, the immediate impact of sugar on the brain calms those stressful thoughts. It is why we can temporarily self-medicate anxiety and stress with sugar.
What you can do: Make some simple routine changes. Whether changing your route to work so you don’t pass the D&N, your route to the bathroom at work so you don’t pass your co-workers Hershey’s Kiss bowl, not eating while watching TV, re-training your response to ANTs, shifting life habits can shift you out of the sugar habit. Developing a mindful connection to food that breaks the habit of eating out of boredom and when we’re not really hungry can also help. These five mindful tips can help you learn to love eating again.
You Crave Something More in Your Life
The reward center of our brain is pushy – and it never ceases to remind us it’s there, and we can push our buttons and feel pleasure any time we want. However, as with most things in life, those rewards come with repercussions. Think back to that low blood sugar feeling: You feel like you need to eat now, and the anxiety is so strong! We reach for some combination of sugar, fat, and or salt. Those ingredients calm our anxiety because in the short run they reassure the primitive brain that all is safe. The reward system does what it’s designed to do – deliver pleasure and relief – but then it sets us off on another roller coaster cycle of stress, fatigue, brain fog, and all those other symptoms we want so strongly to avoid.
Beyond blood sugar, cravings can sometimes be emotional or psychological. They can come from an unmet need or desire that’s easier to subdue with food than to deal with. We use food to calm our anxieties, fears, and depression – and we fill in the gaps where we feel “less than.” Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” That very agony of quieting our voice and stuffing our story deep down inside can lead to cravings.
Does this resonate with you? Consider this practice. Spend five minutes in peace and quiet, and ask yourself: “What am I really hungry for?” Really listen to the answer that arises in you, and act upon it. The truth can free you from food cravings and divert your focus to what you really need, instead of the quick fix of a hit of sugar to trigger your reward center. In the long run, those hits of sugar-fueled dopamine will not fulfill you, and you’ll need more sugar, more often to get the same short-lived relief.
What you can do: Learn to recognize emotionally driven eating and learn to give yourself what you need through other ways rather than food. Create an emergency plan – a list of alternatives you can do like call a friend, crank up the music, or take the pup for a walk when the craving strikes. Get moving and find another release for your emotions. – it can help dramatically and once you start to make the shift from emotion-to-eating to emotions-to-something productive, you'll rewire that pattern in your brain. If you battle perfectionism, as so many women do, you might find that you use food as a way to cope. If you want to learn more about how we sometimes suppress our deeper desires with food, read my friend Alexandra Jamieson's book Women, Food, and Desire. And check out Danielle LaPorte's book, The Desire Map to help you take a deeper dive into what your soul is really craving.
How Long Will It Take to Kick Your Cravings?
There is no magic number for how long it will you to overcome your cravings, but I’ve seen women kick them in less than a week. Food cravings are one of the easiest codes to crack when you’re armed with plenty of knowledge and coping strategies. It may seem daunting to take on your cravings, but you’ll quickly be amazed at how effective these tips are. If you cave to a craving (hey, it happens), don’t give up – give yourself some love and get yourself right back on the right track. No blame, no shame – that’s the name of the game!
If your sugar cravings are a mere fling, you may be able to give them the boot faster than if they’ve been a years long tumultuous relationship. And, if your cravings are linked to health issues like dysbiosis or adrenal overdrive (versus habit or boredom), you may also need to address those issues to manage your cravings. If you want to try a structured plan, my book The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution outlines a four-week program that addresses the root causes I’ve outlined here.
If sugar cravings are your middle name, you’ll learn a ton more about this in my new book, The Adrenal Thyroid Revolution, which can help you get out of overwhelm & off the runaway symptom train in less than 28 days.