The Connection Between Sugar and Stress

By Melanie Beasley, RD, LD
September 12, 2022



Have you ever heard the word sugar and then thought, “If I eat sugar, it creates stress in my body!” I am going to take a leap and guess that is not your first thought. Most of us are simply wanting the sweet taste of a treat. However, sugar equals stress and pain for the body. In fact, eating high amounts of sugar can create all kinds of health problems. Let’s dig a little deeper into what actually happens when we over consume sugar.

A common day of eating that leads to stress

Let’s say you stop by the coffee shop on your way to work in the morning. You order a 16oz pumpkin spice latte and enjoy your coffee as you drive into work. What you may not realize is you are drinking 52 grams of carbohydrates, which turns into 13 teaspoons of sugar in your blood stream!

Now it’s mid-morning and you are incredibly hungry, maybe even a little irritable or perhaps not focusing like you could. You need something to pep you up fast, so what do you grab? A bagel in the break room that a co-worker brought in and head back to your desk.

The bagel has 44 grams of carbohydrates, so your mid-morning snack turns into 11 teaspoons of sugar in your blood stream. 11 TEASPOONS!! You are now on another sugar high and, in a short time, you will crash and your blood sugar will be low. And again you will be looking for a quick fix. Sugar and processed carbs to the rescue! It’s easy to reach for the candy bar or the box of crackers that leads to another sugar spike.

Now it’s lunch time and you didn’t make time to pack a lunch, so you look for a sandwich shop and pick up a 12-inch sandwich, with some chips and a soda totaling 244 grams of carbohydrates all of which become 61 teaspoons of sugar in your blood stream. 61 TEASPOONS!! You have now eaten 340 grams of carbohydrates that your body turned into 85 teaspoons of sugar, and it is only 1:00pm!  What is the impact on your body? 

Why high-sugar eating makes you stressed

When you consume high amounts of sugar on a daily basis, you are going to find yourself on a blood sugar roller coaster and, when you get on that ride, you realize quickly it makes you stressed. A high-sugar meal or beverage picks you up, but in no time you’re crashing down again.

What are the consequences? You may find yourself losing sleep. (Insomnia is a symptom of unmanaged blood sugar.)

You may make yourself some popcorn for an evening snack and wake at 2:00am, wide awake. Why? Your high blood sugar fell from your high-sugar snack and now you are experiencing low blood sugar which will wake you up.

Over time, lack of sleep will impact your daily activities. You may struggle to get through a day, focus at work, or take care of your family in the evenings and you end up feeling stressed.

Do you experience anxiety or depression? When you are riding high with spiked blood sugar, you eventually crash. For some people when they have low blood sugar, their anxiety increases or their depression intensifies and it sends them looking for more carbohydrates because their brain needs to feel better. Sugar gives you a fast calm, but it doesn’t last and when the calm goes away, you’re stressed again.

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Excess sugar = inflammation

Another consequence of eating foods high in sugar is that excess sugar causes inflammation and can lead to chronic and/or serious health problems. When your diet is high in sugar, that creates inflammation in your body and you may experience more aches and pains.

Have you ever thought that your aching joints could feel better with less sugar in your diet? Sugar acts like sandpaper on your joints, so less sugar means less sandpaper and less pain.  

What about those of you who feel like you can’t remember things the way you used to? Sugar creates inflammation in your brain too. You may lose focus, can’t remember why you went into a room, or forget where you parked your car at the grocery store. Less sugar means less inflammation in your brain and more mental clarity.  

What about Type 2 diabetes? This is created by too much sugar in your daily diet which increases the amount of insulin in your body, a hormone produced by the pancreas.

Over time, the cells that take in glucose become desensitized and the pancreas pumps out more insulin to get cells to respond, which leaves excess glucose floating in the bloodstream—not where it should be. It is estimated that 37 million Americans are dealing with Type 2 diabetes.

Another indicator of too much sugar is obesity. One third of American adults are clinically obese. Eating excess amounts of sugar packs on the pounds because sugar does not fill you up, like protein and healthy fats do, so you want more and more.

Put an end to the sugar-stress cycle  

How can you decrease sugar in your diet and experience less stress and inflammation? You can start today by getting rid of the processed foods in your kitchen cabinets and desk drawers at work, and replace them with real foods. At every meal and snack make sure you’re eating animal protein, vegetables, small amounts of fruit, and healthy fats.  

Eating three meals a day and two to three snacks per day is key to ending your sugar cravings. For most folks, eating every three to four hours is a good guideline. This will balance your blood sugar throughout the day and keep the inflammation that sugar creates, out of your life.

So what might that look like over the course of a day?

Maybe for breakfast you heat up a couple slices of the Nutritional Weight & Wellness egg bake you made over the weekend. This is a perfect mix of protein (egg and sausage), carb (veggies), and fat (coconut milk) and is versatile enough you can mix different meats and veggies to keep it interesting each week. Maybe you still stop for a coffee on the way to work, but this time you order a black coffee or cold brew with heavy cream (or coconut milk if you’re dairy sensitive) and put in a few of your own stevia flavor drops if you like a little extra flavor.

For lunch, maybe you packed some leftover chili topped with sour cream or avocado. If you didn’t have time to make a lunch, perhaps instead of the sandwich, chips, and soda, you find a spot near work that makes a good salad with all the veggies and you make sure it has chicken or steak for your protein. You also add in a little sparkling water to give you that bubbly fix.

Then in the afternoon when you start feeling a little peckish, you grab the meat stick, sugar snap peas, and clementine you threw in your desk drawer. Hits the spot and gives you the energy to make it through the end of the work day!

For dinner, maybe you quickly sauté ground pork (protein), a coleslaw mix with onion and garlic (carbs), and top it with slivered almonds and toasted sesame oil (fat) to make an Egg Roll In A Bowl (being sure to make a little extra to pack for your lunch tomorrow!) Then to round out the day, before bed you have some Pumpkin Custard as a snack to help you sleep through the night (and give you that pumpkin fix!). Or to keep it low key, you throw some berries in a bowl topped with heavy cream or full-fat coconut milk. Yum!

Get support in creating a real food menu plan in our 12-week Nutrition 4 Weight Loss class series, which comes with a 90 minute consultation.

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Reduce your stress with the help of real food

To recap, eating sugar can cause a stress response in your body when your blood sugar rockets upwards and then drops afterwards. This roller coaster of blood sugars can create feelings of anxiety, depression, insomnia, lack of focus, low energy, memory issues, and inflammation. The best thing to do for your stress levels and your blood sugar is to eat real food in balance often throughout the day – focus on the big three macronutrients: quality protein, healthy fats, and whole food carbohydrates! This triple threat will put you in a more resilient state of being.

If this is a new concept for you (or maybe you know sugar has a hold on you!), start by looking at how much sugar is in your diet right now. After some self-reflection, pick one meal or snack to start with that you know you can make changes to. Swap processed foods for real foods without sugar. Instead of crackers have sliced cucumbers. Instead of candy have some blueberries. You are not only getting off the blood sugar roller coaster, but you are nourishing your body. Now that is a stress reliever!

For more information on sugar and stress, check out these resources:

About the author

Melanie is a licensed dietitian at Nutritional Weight & Wellness. In 2005, two weeks after having invasive back surgery, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Then just eight months later she was diagnosed with multiple food allergies that included dairy, gluten, wheat, chocolate and Brazil nuts. After changing her diet to remove her allergy triggers and more, Melanie was able to stop taking three prescription medications and feel better than she had in years. As a nutritionist, she finds true joy from sharing that knowledge with others. Melanie has a Bachelors in Science of Food and Nutrition from the dietetics program at the University of Missouri Columbia.

View all posts by Melanie Beasley, RD, LD

I am stuck in a craving sugar nightmare
September 15, 2022 at 8:56 am


Hi Linda,

We'd love to help you! Please reach out to set up an individual counseling appointment so we can customize a plan for you. 

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