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Why Do I Have A Sweet Tooth?

Jun 24, 2023

We discuss the science behind your sweet tooth - why you’re craving sugar, how to identify different sugars in food, and the best ways to curb your cravings.

Chocolate or cookies, ice cream or cake - many of us at some point have experienced a sugar craving. It’s so common, we even have an expression for it - we call it having a “sweet tooth.” 

But left unchecked, that sweet tooth can be detrimental to your health. Excessive sugar consumption is linked to a number of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. So today, let’s break down what causes sugar cravings, so you can learn to manage your sweet tooth and take better control of your nutrition.

The science behind your sweet tooth

What makes you crave sugary foods and drinks? The answer might be more complex than you expect. 

There are many different reasons we can find ourselves wanting to eat something sweet. A sugar craving might be a result of an imbalance in one of our internal systems, such as a nutritional deficiency or a hormonal fluctuation. It can also be a result of external factors, like stress, emotional changes, or even specific memories. Oftentimes when we crave sugar, we’re really seeking something else, like an energy or emotional boost.

Reasons you might be craving sugar

Here are some of the most common reasons you may experience a craving for sugar.

1. You have a nutritional deficiency.

Sometimes we think we want sugar, but our bodies are actually reacting to a different kind of nutritional deficiency. For example, fats and proteins help our bodies control the release of sugar into our bloodstream; if we don't eat enough protein and fat, our blood sugar can rise and fall abnormally, leaving us craving sugar. Eating a lot of starchy foods can also make our blood sugar spike and crash.

2. You’re experiencing hormonal fluctuations.

Sugar cravings can also occur due to hormonal fluctuations. Estradiol and progesterone, hormones associated with the menstrual cycle, have been linked to increased consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods and sugar.

3. You’re stressed.

Stress can influence our body’s cravings for food. In particular, the stress hormone cortisol has been linked to sugar cravings. Stress also affects the hormone ghrelin, which helps control our appetite. In other words, when you’re feeling stressed, you may both crave sugar and have a harder time not giving in to that craving.

4. You’re dehydrated.

Proper hydration helps your body function at its best - and it can help you curb sugar cravings, too. When we’re dehydrated, it becomes more difficult for our bodies to metabolize glucose for energy. This can make us feel like we need an energy boost in the form of a sugary pick-me-up.

5. You’re not getting enough sleep.

People who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to report cravings for junk foods, like those high in sugar. And giving in to those cravings can in turn negatively impact the quality of your rest, creating a cycle of poor sleep and increased sugar cravings.

6. You have a habit-driven craving for sugar.

Sometimes we’re not consuming sugar because of a specific craving, but because we’ve conditioned ourselves to do so. Over time, behavioral patterns like what we eat and when can influence how we feel about food. For example, you might eat ice cream two Fridays in a row, and find yourself craving it again on the third Friday. In effect, you may crave sugar because you’ve trained yourself to crave it.

7. You have an emotional or psychological tie to sugar.

Even if you don’t make a habit of eating sugary foods, you may still find yourself tied to sugar in other ways. We can become emotionally or psychologically dependent on certain foods because of how they make us feel while we eat them, or the memories they bring to mind. For instance, you might associate a certain kind of cookie with your grandmother. When you find yourself craving your grandmother’s cookies, it may be less about getting a sugar fix and more about wanting to feel close to her.

8. You’re genetically predisposed to crave more sugar.

Recent research indicates some people may be genetically more inclined to crave sugary foods. A study of mice found that animals with the Prkar2a gene consumed more sugar and were less physically active than mice without the gene. While further study on the relationship between our genes and sugar cravings is needed, we know our genes influence key factors like appetite regulation, insulin management, and addiction.

9. You’re already eating a lot of sugar.

Eating sugary foods can cause an influx of dopamine to hit our brains. This chemical makes us feel good. Then, when we stop eating sugar and the spike of dopamine falls, we “crash” and start craving it again. The release of dopamine combined with habitual sugar consumption can leave us feeling “addicted” to sugar. 

Your sweet tooth might be a result of one or more of these factors, and it might change over time. By making ourselves more aware of the reasons we might crave sugar, we can begin to make nutritional and lifestyle changes that help curb our cravings.

Spotting secret sugars

To take control of our diets and curb our sweet tooth, it’s important to understand the different forms sugar can take, and how we can identify them in our food. So next, let’s look at how to identify sugars by their different aliases, and how to spot them on food labels.

Other names for sugar

There are dozens of different ways to describe food sugars, but here are some of the most common ones you may see on food labels. Look for:

  • Words ending in -ose, mainly sucrose, glucose, and fructose. You may also see D-ribose, maltose, dextrose, lactose, and galactose.
  • High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and other syrups, like carob syrup, golden syrup, maple syrup, and rice syrup.
  • Agave, honey, and molasses. 
  • Fruit juice/fruit juice concentrate and nectar. 
  • Cane sugar and other sugar variations, including granulated sugar, brown sugar, castor sugar, demerara sugar, raw sugar, and muscovado sugar.

You can find these alternative names for sugar listed in the ingredients section of a food label. It’s important to read labels carefully to understand what kind of sugar is in your food, as different types of sugars can influence your health in different ways. For instance, drinking beverages sweetened with HFCS is associated with obesity and increased risk of colorectal cancer.

However, spotting sugar in an ingredient list doesn’t help you understand how much sugar is actually in your food. So next, let’s look at how we can understand the quantity of sugar in our food.

Sugar on food labels

The US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently updated the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods and drinks. These labels can help you understand what kind of sugar is in your food, as well as the quantity of sugar in what you’re consuming.

Total Sugars vs. Added Sugars

On a Nutrition Facts label, you can find sugar content listed under the “Total Carbohydrate” headline. This section will list a food’s Total Sugars, as well as its Added Sugars. 

Total Sugars include those naturally present in foods like milk and fruit. Added Sugars refer to those added during the processing of the food. These may include sucrose or dextrose, sweeteners like table sugar, syrups, or honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit juices or other ingredients added to modify flavor.

You’ll see that the FDA also includes a Daily Value percentage next to the Added Sugars section. A 5% or less value means the food is considered a low source of Added Sugars, whereas a 20% or higher value is considered a high source. However, it’s important to remember that the Daily Value percentages on food labels are based on a specific caloric intake (2,000 calories/day). So, if you consume more or less calories in a day, the Added Sugars in food will make up a different daily percentage for your diet.

In general, high levels of Added Sugars are found in soda, baked goods, and packaged desserts and sweets. 

Other sugar-related food labels

Beyond looking directly at the Nutrition Facts label to assess a food’s sugar content, you may see claims about sugar on a food’s packaging or in its marketing materials. Here are a few phrases you might come across and what they really mean.

  • “Sugar free” - Foods can be labeled “sugar free” when they contain less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. (Note that this doesn’t mean all “sugar free” foods contain zero sugar!)
  • “No sugar added” - Foods can be labeled “no sugar added” when no sugar (or sugar-containing ingredient) is added during processing. These foods may still contain natural sugars - check the Nutrition Facts label to see how much.
  • “Reduced sugar”- Alternate versions of foods (like “diet” or “light” versions, or “new recipe” versions) can be labeled “reduced sugar” when they contain at least 25% less sugar per serving than the regular/original version of the food.

Once again, understanding the type of sugar in your food is important too. Many foods and drinks labeled “sugar free” contain high levels of artificial sweeteners, which are associated with cardiovascular disease and increased risk of cancer. We recommend avoiding “sugar free” and “diet” versions of foods and drinks for this reason.

When we cook for ourselves with raw ingredients, we have more control over how much sugar is in our food. But when we purchase pre-made or processed foods, we have to rely on food labels to make informed choices about what we eat.

Beat your sweet tooth

So, how can you beat your sweet tooth, stop your sugar cravings, and improve your overall nutrition? Here are a few things to try when you’re craving something sweet.

  • Take a quick walk. If your sugar craving is actually your body asking to be re-energized, this will help. 

  • Drink a glass of water. You might be dehydrated rather than hungry. 
  • Eat a healthy snack. If you’re hungry or in need of an energy boost, grab a snack rich in protein and healthy fats, such as nuts or avocados, that will keep you feeling full for longer.
  •  Eat enough protein and healthy fats. Re-examine your previous meals of the day. Were your meals high in starch (breads, pastas, rice, chips)? High-starch foods can leave you feeling hungry quicker in the day. Increase healthy fats, vegetables, and protein in your meals to help prevent sugar cravings.
  • Take a nap. Did you get enough sleep last night? If you’re feeling tired, a nap can help you feel energized and ready to take on the day, without the need for a sugary pick-me-up.
  •  Listen to relaxing music or meditate. Relieving stress could alleviate the need for an emotional or psychological craving for sugar.
  • Avoid refined sugars & artificial sweeteners. Instead of pastries or packaged cookies, try satisfying your sweet tooth with some fruit or cocoa flavanols. Remember to read food labels to spot artificial sweeteners and high levels of Added Sugars, which can make you want more sugar.
  • Give in (once in a while). For most people, it’s okay to indulge in something sugary once in a while. Just make sure you understand why you’re craving sugar, so your treat doesn’t become a habit! 

Remember, your sugar craving might be a result of a number of different factors. Try a few of these methods to see what works for you! The more you take the time to mindfully react to your craving and assess what your body truly needs, the easier it will become for you to recognize the true source of your cravings in the future.

Craving more nutrition tips?

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