We’ve all been there: We have a healthy salad for lunch with grilled chicken, raw veggies, and a perfectly-portioned serving of a light, homemade balsamic vinaigrette. “What a great lunch!” we think to ourselves, admiring our commitment to healthy eating.
And then lunch is over… And all we want is a damn chocolate bar.
Wanting something sweet after meals is a trend I notice very frequently when analyzing clients’ food journals, especially women’s. This is hardly surprising given the results of a study in the Journal of Nutrition: 97% of women reported episodes of food cravings versus 68% of men. So the question is: Why are you getting these cravings in the first place, and what can be done about them?
First Thing’s First: What Is It About Sugar That Makes Me Want It So Badly?
The main theory behind sugar cravings is that most people ingest carbs in an attempt to improve their mood. As the Journal of Nutrition writes, “This occurs through increases in the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known to have a positive impact on mood.”
Beta-endorphins are other neurotransmitters our bodies release when we eat something sweet. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that help us deal with physical and emotional pain and are involved whenever you have that “runner’s high” or feel-good sensation after a workout. Essentially, they have a numbing effect on the body. Morphine and other pain medications actually function by binding to the same opiate receptors as beta-endorphins. In other words, the effects of sugar and morphine are chemically similar, which is terrifying to think about!
Basically, we crave sugar because it makes us feel good, chemically-speaking. And let’s not forget the emotional connection we attach to sweets; “I’ve been working so hard I deserve this cookie!” is just one of the many justifications we make when indulging.
Other Reasons You’re Craving Sugar
Besides the fact that sugar just makes us feel good, here are some other reasons why you’re reaching for that candy bar after lunch:
A few months ago, I noticed that I would get these insane cravings for grapes out of the blue. Upon analyzing this craving further, I realized I was honestly just thirsty. And given that grapes are 81% water, they did a great job of satiating that thirst! Most people are chronically dehydrated, so your body may be itching to have foods (especially carbohydrates) simply because they can contain high amounts of water.
MY TIP: If a craving strikes, chug a bottle of water and see how you feel. You might be surprised at how quickly that craving goes away!
2. Your meals are insanely unsatisfying.
Sometimes people will take extreme measures when they’re trying to lose weight like having extremely bland and restrictive meals like egg white omelettes with just vegetables. The truth is, our brains need glucose to function, which comes from carbohydrates. You need stabilizing carbs in order to feel good, otherwise your blood sugar levels will dip super low and you’ll wind up craving super sweet foods.
MY TIP: If you want to lose weight, you’re not going to succeed by eating like a bunny all day. You need complex, stabilizing carbs like whole grains, quinoa, or pearl barley—and you need to like what you’re eating!
3. You’re suffering from an overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut.
Within our intestinal tract resides both good and bad bacteria. The good kind—found in probiotics—help us break down food, absorb nutrients, produce nutrients themselves, improve constipation, decrease bloating, and are responsible for a bunch of other benefits. The bad guys, on the other hand, ferment and produce toxic by-products that can enter our bloodstream, leading to fatigue, brain fog, and—you guessed it—sugar cravings! Why? Well, these bad boys live off of sugar. They love the stuff. When you have an overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut, you essentially have a ton of microorganisms begging you to eat sugar so they can be happy.
MY TIP: Build up your army of good bacteria so they can get rid of the bad guys by enjoying foods rich in probiotics like yogurt and kefir or fermented foods like kimchee, sauerkraut, and kombucha tea. And of course, the best way to get rid of these bad guys is to stop eating sugar so much.
4. You’re tired.
Remember those beta-endorphins we mentioned earlier? Well, they rise during sleep. This means that the more you sleep, the better you’ll be able to handle physical or emotional pain chemically-speaking. Sleep less and the opposite happens—you feel less able to cope and crave sweets, which allow for the release of beta-endorphins.
5. Your adrenal glands are totally shot.
Your adrenal glands—situated right on top of your kidneys—are in charge of pumping out stress hormones like cortisol. When you’re stressed out, they also tell the liver to convert glycogen (stored glucose) into glucose so that you don’t pass out. If you’ve been under a state of extreme stress for quite some time, however—as most North Americans are—your adrenal glands are likely totally exhausted and unable to keep up with what your body is demanding from it. In other words, your blood sugar levels are constantly low and you crave something that will give you the quickest source of energy: sugar.
Okay, So What Do You About It?
Aim for at least 2L of water per day (equal to four bottles). And remember: If you’re drinking a lot of coffee or tea, you need to offset that by drinking even more water!
2. Eat meals that you actually enjoy.
Don’t say no to all carbs because you’re trying to lose weight; that will only result in low blood sugar levels and additional sugar cravings. Add stabilizing complex carbohydrates to your meals like quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, whole wheat pasta, or 100% whole wheat bread. They break down nice and slowly and give you a slow-releasing, stable source of energy unlike sugars and sweets, which cause rapid spikes and falls in blood sugar levels.
3. Have some protein and healthy fats with your snacks and meals.
Protein takes a long time to break down in your stomach, while fats do not lead to a rise in insulin levels and are very satisfying. Have an apple with nuts and seeds for example as a way of getting carbs, protein, and fat into one snack.
4. Eat foods high in tryptophan.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin—that “feel good” neurotransmitter we talked about earlier. Essential amino acids are not produced by your body, meaning the only way to get them is through food. Foods high in tryptophan include: pumpkin seeds, soy beans, mozzarella cheese (and other cheeses), lamb, beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, uncooked oats, and whole eggs.
5. Trick yourself.
If you’re really craving something sweet after your meal, try a healthy option like a cup of fruity, herbal tea sweetened with honey, a medjool date, or a small square of natural dark chocolate made with 80% cocoa or higher. You can also have a stick of sweet sugar-free gum. I’ve even seen a Starburst flavour at grocery stores! And if you do decide to have something sweet like this, really savour it! Don’t just throw it in your mouth without thinking; truly enjoy it so you can milk that sweet taste as much as possible!
6. Help out the good guys.
Replenish and build up the good bacteria in your gut by taking probiotic supplements or eating prebiotics and probiotics. Onions, bananas, Jerusalem artichokes (found at Nature’s Emporium), garlic, asparagus, leeks, beans, and high-fibre foods are great sources of prebiotics, which feed the probiotics. Sources of probiotics include plain yogurt, plain kefir (fermented milk), kimchee, sauerkraut, and other fermented fruits and vegetables like pickles.
The Bottom Line
Nothing sabotages a diet more than having a super healthy meal that’s washed down with a couple Timbits, a Kit Kat bar, and a bag of chips. Sometimes your sugar cravings are due to chemical imbalances in your body; other times, you might be munching on Smarties out of sheer boredom or because you just aren’t really thinking. In that case, it’s helpful to bring consciousness back into eating. Remind yourself that it’s not your stomach talking, it’s your mind—and you have complete control over that!
You Tell Me!
What techniques do you use when a sugar craving strikes? Let me know in the comments below!