Why You're Craving Sweets - Ask a Nutritionist

January 4, 2024

It can be tough to resist those sugar cravings - especially around the holiday season. Join Brandy in this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist to learn all about where these cravings come from, how to address and understand them, and healthier, more balanced alternative foods for when you still want to scratch that sugary itch.

Listen below, or subscribe to our podcasts through Apple Podcast or Spotify.

Join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook Community!

This private group moderated by Nutritional Weight & Wellness nutritionists and nutrition educators provides our Dishing Up Nutrition podcast and radio show listeners with a safe, supportive community to ask questions, share ideas, get inspired, and access special Dishing Up Nutrition bonus content.

Podcast Powered by Podbean

Print Transcript


BRANDY: Welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast, brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. My name is Brandy Buro, and I'm a Licensed and Registered Dietitian here at Nutritional Weight and Wellness. We are so excited to be celebrating 20 years on air, discussing the connection between what you eat and how you feel, all while sharing practical, real-life solutions to help you live a healthier life through balanced nutrition.

So I want to thank all of you for your support over all of these years. Let’s get started with today's topic, which was a question that came in from our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners. So our question today is, “Do you have better alternatives for sweets cravings?”

I thought this was a great question to explore, especially as we are nearing the end of the holiday season. I'm sure many of our listeners out there have been challenged by the temptation of holiday treats basically at every turn. And now we're all kind of trying to refocus on our health and wellness goals and ditch the sugar.

Potential reasons for sugar cravings

Cravings for sweets and sugar can be really complicated. There are so many possible reasons why someone might experience a sugar craving. So I figured rather than simply giving you a list of healthier food options when you have a sweet craving, I thought we could review some of the potential root causes of why we might experience a sugar craving, and think about the strategies we can use to prevent those sugar cravings.

I just think it's a more sustainable way to approach this versus just finding a substitute that's a little healthier. So I'm going to talk about some of the biochemical causes of sugar cravings, and also touch on the role that habit and routine can play, and to wrap it all up, I'm still going to give you some ideas for foods and recipes that can scratch that itch of wanting a little something sweet. Because I think we all want something a little sweet sometimes. There's nothing wrong with that.

Importance of blood sugar balance to reduce cravings

So first, let's talk about the biochemistry of cravings. When I'm working one on one with clients that are struggling with cravings, the very first thing I do is talk about blood sugar balance. Blood sugar imbalances, especially low blood sugar, are a common cause of sugar cravings.

So something that can easily cause low blood sugar is skipping meals or undereating. And if your blood sugar is too low, you're going to be driven to eat some sugar to try to bring that blood sugar back up to a normal level. And sweets and sugar will do that very, very quickly. So cravings for sweets, especially in the afternoon and the evening, can usually be traced back to undereating earlier in the day.

For example, this happens a lot with people that skip breakfast or people that are very busy during the day and they just forget to eat lunch. So that is going to lead to a low blood sugar. And low blood sugar is very stressful on your body. Your body prefers it if your blood sugar is maintained within a pretty tight range.

So part of its safety mechanism is to trigger a craving or trigger hunger so that you are driven to go find something with sugar in it so that your blood sugar can come back up to a normal level. And honestly, when you have a low blood sugar those processed carbohydrates and sweet, sugary foods, they're almost impossible to resist. So that's one common reason of sugar cravings.

On the flip side, eating too many processed carbs and sugar, from the get go, especially things like cereal, muffins, sugar sweetened drinks like soda and those fancy coffee drinks, they can all derail your blood sugar and eventually lead to cravings for more sugar.

So all those foods I just mentioned will spike your blood sugar at first, but it usually leads to a blood sugar crash, also known as low blood sugar. And once again, you are subconsciously driven to eat more sugar to bring that blood sugar back up to a normal range. So low blood sugar and those dramatic swings in blood sugar are a really common recipe for sugar cravings.

Eat in balance to stabilize blood sugar

But thankfully, this whole thing is pretty simple to address through a balanced eating plan. So we want to try to stabilize blood sugar first. And we do that by eating often enough. We're talking a meal or a snack every three or four hours. And we want those meals and snacks to have a good balance of macronutrients.

So we want to start with a good source of protein, like eggs, fish, some meat, add in some natural fat, like butter, avocados, nuts, and then we can incorporate some real food carbohydrates, like vegetables and fruit, something with some fiber in there. So do this along with avoiding the added sugar, avoiding those processed carbohydrates, and you will be amazed at how effective it is in erasing most of your cravings.

Some cravings, however, are a little pesky. There are some cravings that persist even beyond good blood sugar control. But there are other biochemical reasons that you might be dealing with cravings. So let's talk about some of the other root causes of cravings.

Poor gut health can be linked to cravings

Poor gut health. Your gut health involves many different factors. It involves the balance of bacteria that live along the digestive tract. It involves the integrity of your intestinal lining or the tissue that makes up that digestive tract and the acidity of your stomach.

And all of these factors can get thrown off balance pretty easily throughout different things we encounter throughout life. Medications, particularly, antibiotics, pain medications, acid blockers, those are all pretty rough on your digestive tract.

Processed foods, alcohol, various food sensitivities, they can all damage your gut health. But when any part of the gut is compromised, it can set you up for cravings. Particularly the balance of that beneficial bacteria. If those good bacteria get wiped out, maybe from toxins in food or alcohol or antibiotics, the harmful bacteria can start to grow and dominate that balance.

And it's these harmful bacteria and pathogens that often thrive on sugar. And that is something that can lead to a subconscious desire to consume more sweets and more processed carbohydrates. Because you are literally feeding that bacteria.

Another aspect of gut health that's related to cravings is the role our gut plays in making serotonin and dopamine, those feel good neurotransmitters. A lot of people don't know this, but 90 percent of our serotonin and about 50 percent of our dopamine is produced in the gut. And both of those things, play a pretty big role in our moods, our mental health, and our eating behaviors.

So if your gut health is suffering and your ability to make serotonin and dopamine is compromised, you could find yourself searching for some sugar to get a little sugar high. That sugar high that you've probably experienced after eating something sweet is a true phenomenon. Sugar actually stimulates very similar areas of the brain that serotonin and dopamine affect. So those sugar or carbohydrate cravings could be a subconscious search to get a little dopamine or serotonin boost.

And I just want to note here that our gut's ability to make neurotransmitters relies on our ability to digest and absorb protein. Because protein is what provides the building blocks for those neurotransmitters. As you can see, there's a lot going on in the gut, and there's a lot of connections there with how it might impact or trigger sugar cravings.

If you suspect that your gut health is compromised, this is where I would recommend that you seek the guidance of a registered dietitian. Healing your gut can be a really involved process, and there really is no one size fits all approach to doing that. Every single person has a unique issue or concern, and the route to healing can be very different based on that person's history and their lifestyle.

Dehydration: another common reason for sugar cravings

Another common reason for sugar cravings is dehydration. Thirst can often be confused for hunger, and that could drive us to search for, usually it's going to be a processed carbohydrate. So if you are experiencing a strong craving, maybe just try drinking a glass of water first. Wait 10, 15 minutes, see how you feel. So we recommend that you drink about half your body weight in ounces every day of water.

For example, a person that weighs about 170 pounds should be drinking about 85 ounces of water every day. Simple, free thing to do to try to squash those cravings.

Poor sleep can trigger cravings

So one other thing that I want to talk about is poor sleep. Lack of sleep and poor quality of sleep is a pretty big trigger for cravings. And there's a lot of great research on this topic. We know that when you shortchange yourself on sleep, the next day you're just naturally going to be hungrier, and you're going to be hungrier for processed foods.

It's not going to be the broccoli that you're reaching for. You're probably going to be reaching more for takeout, or the crackers, or the chips. I'm sure some of you have experienced this. I know personally I feel like a bottomless pit after a night of bad sleep. And this is happening due to a couple of reasons. First of all, sleep impairs your body's ability to manage your blood sugar. You are slightly insulin resistant following a night of bad sleep.

So this basically means that you are not efficiently using the sugar that's in your blood for energy. So you're going to feel hungrier because you're going to need some nutrients to give yourself energy. Poor sleep and lack of sleep can also cause an imbalance in the hormones that help us feel hungry or that help us feel satiated.

So when you are sleep deprived, the hormone that makes you feel hungry increases. That hormone is called ghrelin. And the hormone that helps you feel satiated, helps signal fullness, actually decreases; that hormone is called leptin. Not fair, but that is what's happening. So, think about your own sleep patterns.

Could you use a little support there? Are you getting at least 7, 8 hours of sleep every night? Is it good quality sleep? Or are you tossing and turning and waking up every couple of hours? So think about that. Could it be related to your own cravings?

So to recap, we have just reviewed some of the most common biochemical root causes of sugar cravings. We've talked about low blood sugars, poor gut health, dehydration, and poor sleep.

The habit and routine aspect to cravings

But I want to touch on one other aspect of cravings: habit and routine. Because I do think that some cravings could be because you're just used to doing something, or it's part of the environment, or it's part of your culture, and it's just wrapped into your day-to-day life. Think about your own cravings. Could that be your story?

Are you somebody that always has a sweet treat after meals? Or do you always have a dessert after dinner? Are you somebody that calls themselves a sweets person or somebody with a sweet tooth? I think that's really influential in your day-to-day behaviors.

Maybe there's a candy jar at work and you grab a little handful of M&M's every time you walk by. Or, maybe you just grew up that way. Maybe, at least this was the story in my family. My grandma always had a little dessert tray of donuts and cookies; little Pop Tarts on the table after breakfast. So that's how I used to start my day, most days, with a little dessert after breakfast.

Or sometimes it's these rituals or traditions that have just been part of our lives for so long, or maybe even part of certain places. There's a particular gas station on my way to Duluth that for the longest time I just could not drive by without stopping in for a cinnamon roll.

So, think about that and try to understand your cravings in relation to the habits and routines and environment. We have to ask ourselves, is it more related to that or is there like some biochemical underpinnings to your cravings? And then we have to decide, is it better to find an alternative to those sweets, a different food to fill that gap, or is it more sustainable to break that cycle completely? Either cut it out, be really intentional about that, or replace it with a completely different habit, something that's more supportive to your health and wellness.

For example, if you are somebody that always has a sweet treat after dinner, maybe instead you could replace that with a new ritual or a new practice where those sweets would have taken up space. Maybe instead, you go for a walk after dinner. Or you have a nice cup of herbal tea after dinner. Oftentimes, a lot of my clients are snacking and the cravings creep in when they're on the couch watching TV. And they're just bored. They want something to do with their hands.

So one thing you could try is keep your hands busy with something else. Maybe pick up a craft. Maybe some crocheting or some knitting. Or do a puzzle or something. Keep those hands busy. Or maybe take TV out of the equation completely and read a book after dinner.

Beyond those day to day habits, I think it's important to also think of new ways to celebrate or new rituals around how you treat yourself for a job well done, or maybe getting through a tough day. Instead of celebrating with food, maybe treat yourself to a trip to the museum or go to a movie. Maybe plan like a game night or a craft night with your friends.

I know for me personally, one of my favorite things to do after a challenging day or even just to celebrate the end of a week, I'll just go on a really long leisurely walk. You know that feels good. That's something that works for me. But I think in the end in order to change those old habits and create new habits You really need to adjust your perspective.

Sometimes it does mean that you're creating a completely new identity and rewriting that script that you have around sweets and cravings and what your relationship is to them. And eventually your behavior is going to follow. Your behavior is going to reflect that identity. So instead of being that person with a sweet tooth, or the office chocoholic, maybe you are now the person that packs snacks to work and doesn't even think about the candy dish anymore.

Or maybe you are that person that makes a lovely cup of tea after dinner or goes on a nice walk after lunch every day; just a few ideas of how you can tweak your perspective and rewrite that script. So hopefully reviewing some of the root causes of cravings has helped you understand the nature of your own cravings a little better, and has given you some strategies to help prevent those cravings in the first place.

Healthy “sweets” alternatives

That being said, I understand that you still got to scratch that itch sometimes. You still do want something a little sweet. So here are a few of my favorite alternatives. and sweets for those specific occasions. So my favorite is very simple, but it's simply some fruit, also known as nature's candy, with just a little bit of natural fat.

I do recommend that you pair your fruit with a little bit of fat, because that fat is going to help you feel a little more satiated, and it can prevent that blood sugar rollercoaster that we talked about earlier. Some of my favorite combinations of fruit and fat are the classic apple with peanut butter; very simple, very delicious. It's easy to put together.

Berries and cream would be another example of that. Lately what I've been doing at home for a little dessert at night is half of a banana with a tablespoon of peanut butter, natural peanut butter, and just a sprinkling of some unsweetened coconut flakes.

Every now and then I'll put literally like two or three dark chocolate chips on top and that's very satisfying and it tastes like a dessert to me. Something else I've been doing lately because pears are in season, is I'll slice up about a half a cup of pears and sauté those in either butter or coconut oil with a little cinnamon; add on some crushed pecans. And that is very satisfying.

So another variation of this idea of fruit with some natural fat is a homemade sorbet and that's also a pretty simple thing to make. You just get your blender out, add some frozen fruit, something like strawberries or mango, maybe with a little chunk of banana. And add some heavy whipping cream or canned coconut milk. Blend that up and it is just like a soft serve ice cream or a sorbet. Very delicious.

We actually have a couple recipes on our website if you want to play around with that a little bit. And speaking of our website, there are a few other recipes on our website that I think fit the bill for something a little sweet. They're all made from real food ingredients, they're not processed, and they contain either no sugar or a very low amount of added sugar.

So one of my favorites would be a simple protein shake. So this would be a balanced option that has your protein, your healthy fat, and a little bit of carbohydrates. But it tastes like a milkshake to me. So a couple of my favorite recipes on weightandwellness.com is the chocolate covered berry smoothie and the pina colada smoothie. And there's even like a hot chocolate smoothie that you can check out if you want something a little warmer, a little cozier for these winter months.

Another one of my favorite recipes is a chia seed pudding. This is very easy to put together. It's basically, mixing some chia seeds with some canned coconut milk, maybe a little vanilla. I like to throw in some berries and some protein powder. It just sits for a few hours, and then it turns into kind of like a tapioca pudding texture; feels like a dessert, and it's completely balanced. So it would be a great afternoon snack.

The peanut butter protein balls are also very popular. To me, it tastes kind of like a peanut butter cup. So all of these recipes that I just mentioned are something that I would consider balanced, meaning that they have that combination of protein, real food carbohydrates, and natural fat. So all of these would work really well as a balanced snack.

Eat natural fat to reduce sugar cravings

One last suggestion I have for sugar cravings is a simple serving of natural fat. Because fat can stimulate the release of leptin. Remember, leptin is that hormone that signals fullness. So if you're experiencing a craving, just a little bit of fat can kind of dull the noise a little bit.

So you could have a couple tablespoons of nut butter or a quarter cup of nuts. There's also a recipe for something called chocolate fat bombs on our website that are actually very, very tasty. So it's a combination of coconut oil, some nut butter, and some of our chocolate Key Greens and Fruits; almost tastes like a little chocolate truffle.

So there you have it. Those are some real food alternatives to sweets when the sugar cravings come along. Hopefully you've come away with some strategies to prevent those cravings and some good ideas for some real food sweets alternatives on the occasion that you need something a little sweet.

So thank you so much for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist”. If you have a question that you want us to answer, please join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community.

Join Our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook Group

This is a private group that's moderated by our nutritionists and our nutrition educators, and it provides you with a safe and supportive community to ask questions and share ideas. So once you're a member of that community, join the conversation and share your questions with us. We truly look forward to hearing from you. Well, that's it for today. Thank you so much for listening, and have a great day.​

Print Transcript

Back To Top