The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a healthy eating pattern that limits added sugars to less than 10% of daily calories (about 50 g or twelve teaspoons).1 The American Heart Association further reduces this daily limit for women to 100 calories, 25 g, or six teaspoons of added sugar. The limit is 150 calories, 36 g or nine teaspoons of added sugar for men.2
Adult Americans are eating 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day.3 This equates to 57 pounds of extra sugar per year! Indeed, we can’t stop eating sugar.
There are many reasons for the excess sugar in your diet. Perhaps you are eating an improper balance of macronutrients which leads you to crave more simple carbohydrates like sugar. You may be consuming hidden sugar in daily foods. You might eat more sugary foods when stressed, emotional, or lacking sleep.
Let’s discuss some of the science behind sugar cravings and realistic solutions to reduce the added sugar in your life.
Why Do I Crave Sugar?
Suppose you have been consuming excess sugar intake or possibly hidden sources of sugar for years. In that case, you may be unknowingly reconditioning your brain to crave more sugar.
A review article including over 300 studies summarized how individuals respond to chronic sugar intake and its effect on emotions and behavior. They found that long-term sugar consumption changes how the brain responds in times of stress or strong emotions resulting in less impulse control and a reduced ability to resist high-fat and high-sugar foods.4
Additionally, sugar can provide a pleasurable response amid daily stress, which keeps the cycle of sugar cravings active.
The authors provide several solutions, including a combination of medications that reduce sugar intake, diet and exercise changes, a strong emphasis on breakfast consumption, and wearable technology to provide feedback and promote individual ownership of health.4
Furthermore, consuming high glycemic index carbohydrates (including sugary foods) causes a quick spike in blood glucose and insulin levels. Researchers hypothesize that this response is similar to addictive substances leading to intense and repeated “uncontrollable” sugar cravings.5
Continued excess sugar intake leads us to want more and more sugar and have less self-control. Here are four ways to stop the cycle.
4 Ways to Stop Sugar Cravings
Consider these four tips to reduce sugar cravings:
Get the Proper Macronutrient Mix
Consuming only low-fiber or sugary foods will likely lead to an energy crash and leave you craving more food (sugar) within 1 to 2 hours.
Pairing sugary foods with protein, fiber, and fat will reduce glucose and insulin spikes and keep you full for several hours. Protein, fiber, and fat stabilize glucose and insulin levels preventing recurrent spikes all day long.
For example, if you plan to have a sugary latte, pair it with berries and scrambled eggs and sautéed vegetables for breakfast, or if you have a granola bar, try adding meat and cheese. When you eat a snack, combine a piece of fruit with some protein, like a cheese stick or peanut butter, to prevent cravings.
Ideally, reducing the added sugar is best, but pairing sugar with other nutrients will help reduce your cravings too!
Strive for the 85/15 Balance
Often, we follow the “all or nothing” mentality. This motto is not helpful. Restrictive diets lead to overeating of “off-limits” foods and are not sustainable. Limiting yourself to no sugar at all is not realistic or enjoyable.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognize that added sugars help with food preservation, texture, baking, cooking, and improving the taste of some less flavorful nutritious foods.1
Most of the calories (85%) a person needs daily should come from nutrient-rich food groups like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, dairy or dairy alternatives, and protein. The other 15% of the calories (about 250 to 350 calories) can be reserved for discretionary calories like added sugars or fats.1
This flexibility will enable you to socialize with friends and family, choose to eat at a restaurant, or bake cookies in moderation. Adopt the 85/15 balance for long term sustainable eating.
Find Your Hidden Sugar Sources
Take some time to look at the nutrition labels of the foods in your house or while grocery shopping. Hidden sugars are often added to different foods.
Thankfully, the food label requires total sugars and any added sugars to be stated.6 Total sugars include those naturally present in foods like milk and fruit. Most people do not overeat sugar in these forms so health experts recommend only looking at added sugars.
Added sugars are additional sugar forms that are added to the food (examples: honey, corn syrup, malt, sorbitol, fructose). The label will list the percent daily value (%DV) of added sugars. The %DV is based on a limit of 50 g of added sugar daily. A food with 20%DV or more is considered a high source of added sugars.6
Yogurt is an excellent snack because of its protein content and naturally occurring sugars. However, brands add large amounts of sugar to sweeten it unnecessarily. The total sugars for a regular 6-ounce container of yogurt are 19 g, with 13 g added sugar (26%DV). This tells us there are only 3 g of naturally occurring sugar in this yogurt but a lot of added sugar.
There are many tasty yogurts with less than 5 g of added sugar. Experiment with lower sugar options as you examine and eliminate your hidden sugar sources. Companies are reducing the added sugar for health-conscious customers.
Identify Your Triggers
Lastly, it may be an emotional or sleep-deprived decision to eat sugary foods and beverages. Research indicates that sugar provides a positive brain response.4 Negative emotions and lack of sleep can fuel the desire to “feel better” with some sugar.
Evaluate when you tend to crave sugar. Knowing yourself and your triggers can help you prepare for those high-risk situations. Eating a higher protein and fiber breakfast and lunch will reduce the likelihood of consuming excess sugar in the evening after a hard or emotional day. Keeping a log or taking notes on your phone of times when you struggle with sugar can help you pinpoint your triggers.
Nourish is Here to Help
Navigating healthy eating behaviors can be complicated. Give yourself grace and realize it may take expert advice to reduce your sugar intake healthfully and consistently.
A registered dietitian is a trained health professional who can help you decipher your sugar cravings and help you change your relationship with food amid daily stresses. Book your appointment today.
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