Sugar cravings are very much a “thing”. They can be exacerbated by various factors including perimenopause, hormonal imbalances, dietary patterns and even your emotional state.

While we all experience the overwhelming urge to eat a cinnamon donut or a Tim Tam from time to time, if you’re experiencing ongoing or overwhelming sugar cravings, this could be a signal that something is “off” in your diet, habits or general health. Luckily, there are several effective ways you can manage and prevent sugar cravings, and support your health in the process.

Causes of Sugar Cravings

Again, sometimes you’ll experience a sudden craving for something sweet. There’s nothing wrong with that! But other times, sugar cravings can be caused by various factors including gut health problems, or blood sugar imbalances. 

  1. Gut health or digestive issues.

Your gut microbiome, or the balance of good and bad bacteria that live in your gut, plays a significant role in your eating behaviour and cravings. You might be surprised to learn that the composition of your gut bacteria can influence the food choices you make, including whether you crave really sweet or fatty foods. Research has shown that an absence of certain bacteria strains – for example after taking a course of antibiotics, or due to poor diet and diet diversity – can lead to binge eating sweet foods in mice. These gut bacteria don’t drive cravings out of a physical need for fuel, energy or nutrients. Instead, when certain bacterial strains are missing from your gut, the bacteria that are present drive a behavioural craving to eat more of these sweet, fatty foods.

These gut bugs often operate by causing you to experience cravings for foods they thrive on, or increasing your cravings for foods which suppress their competing bacteria strains. So your gut microbiome may be acting in conflict with your own desire to eat “healthily” and to resist the urge to indulge in sugary foods. In other instances, your gut bugs can become conditioned to enjoy acquired tastes – so if your gut bacteria are used to you eating lots of sugar regularly, they can come to expect and even crave it.

Your gut bacteria can have a fairly significant impact on dictating the foods you’re eating. Luckily, the composition of your gut microbiome can be changed fairly quickly in as little as 24 hours, with an increased intake of high-fibre, whole foods and reduced consumption of sugary, fatty and refined foods helping to improve the balance between good and bad gut bugs.

  1. Underlying insulin resistance or imbalances in blood glucose levels.

If you have underlying or undiagnosed insulin resistance, your sugar cravings may be the result of low blood glucose levels caused by the increased amount of insulin in your blood. 

Let’s break this down a little… Insulin is a hormone produced by your body to transport glucose from your bloodstream into your body’s cells, so it can be used as energy. With insulin resistance, your body’s cells become less responsive to insulin, meaning your cells no longer get the glucose or energy they need. Instead, glucose begins to build up in your bloodstream, causing high blood sugar levels. Because your production of insulin isn’t as effective anymore, your pancreas begins to produce more and more insulin to try to “fix” the problem, causing high insulin levels too. Over time, the excessive amounts of glucose and insulin in your bloodstream caused by insulin resistance can lead to sugar cravings, as well as other symptoms including fatigue, low energy, weight gain and trouble concentrating.

If an underlying insulin resistance is driving your cravings and you’re regularly giving into these urges and gorging on high-sugar foods, you’re probably stuck in a vicious cycle. Your blood glucose levels spike after you indulge in these sugary foods, therefore worsening your insulin resistance over time, which then increases the intensity of your cravings! To manage your cravings, you need to break the cycle by eating balanced meals with high fibre and lower GI carbohydrates – more on this to come.

  1. Emotional eating. 

Often, it’s emotions or stress that drive sugar cravings – even when you’re unaware of it. There are several ways in which emotions can increase your sugar cravings:

Managing Sugar Cravings

The good news is that you can curb sugar cravings, and prevent them from occurring in the first place. Here are four effective dietary strategies to help you do so.

1.  Eat a high-protein breakfast.

Protein helps to manage sugar cravings in a few ways. Firstly, protein is the most satisfying macronutrient. When you eat enough protein regularly throughout the day, you’ll notice you feel fuller for longer, and you’re less likely to overeat or give in to cravings. This is because protein reduces your body’s production of those pesky hunger hormones we discussed, and increases your production of your fullness hormones, helping you feel satisfied after eating and less likely to reach for a sweet treat to top off your meal.

Studies have also shown that you continue eating until you meet your protein needs for the day. That means, if you’re not reaching your protein requirement until later in the day, your drive to eat will remain high until then, and you’ll likely keep eating and snacking on high-sugar or high-fat foods until you meet your protein goal. Whereas if you eat plenty of protein earlier in the day (starting at breakfast!), you become less likely to overeat as the day progresses. 

Want further proof? A study showed that overweight women who increased their protein consumption from 15% to 30% of their daily energy intake ate far fewer calories throughout the day – even without consciously changing their food intake in any way. Similarly, overweight men who increased their protein intake saw their sugar cravings drop by a massive 60%. So clearly, protein helps you feel satisfied with your food and effectively curbs sugar cravings. 

It’s particularly important to prioritise protein in your breakfast each day, as this has been proven to reduce cravings and prevent overeating later in the day. And don’t just pile all your protein for the day into one meal either – research suggests your body has a threshold at which it can absorb protein efficiently, and if you’re eating above this threshold you’re not getting the maximum benefit from your protein-rich foods. Be sure to include a good source of protein in your breakfast, and aim to include protein in each of your main meals and even snacks where possible.

2. Focus on building balanced and satisfying meals.

Creating balanced but dense meals, including a source of protein, low GI carbohydrates, healthy fat and fibrous salad or veggies is essential to help reduce sugar cravings. By including fat, fibre and protein alongside your source of carbohydrate, your meals have less of an impact on your blood sugar levels when you eat – meaning you won’t experience the same spike in blood glucose levels after a meal which often drives sugar cravings! These nutrients also help you feel fuller and more energised for longer after your meal, so you’ll have less need or desire to turn to something sweet and sugary to provide you with a burst of energy.

Another handy tip is to eat warm meals – especially at whatever time of day you notice your cravings surface most commonly. Warming foods, like soups, stews or casseroles, have been shown to help you feel fuller and more satisfied compared to “cool” meals like salads. Interestingly, some of this is due to perception – you expect warm foods to fill you up more and contain more energy, so your body feels fuller after eating them as a result. Placebo or not, it has a measurable effect on your hunger and cravings! 

Whatever the cause, studies show you’re less likely to overeat or give in to cravings when you’re enjoying warm meals, so if you notice your sugar cravings rear their head after dinner each night, consider switching your go-to dinner meals to something warm and satisfying. 

3. Order matters.

The order in which you eat your food plays a big role in controlling cravings. It’s important to eat anything sweet after your balanced meal, not beforehand! This is because it will have less of an impact on your blood sugar levels following a balanced meal containing fat, fibre and protein. As a result, you’ll be more in control of your food choices and less likely to continue reaching for row after row of the Dairy Milk block, powerless to resist the temptation. Plus, you’re at greater risk of overeating when you’re hungry, so by enjoying a nice, filling meal before your sweet treat, you can help to ensure the portion size of your sugary post-meal dessert is within reason.

Within your balanced meals, also consider the order in which you’re eating your food to further prevent cravings. Ideally, you want to start by eating a source of protein (remember, you’ll continue eating until you meet your body’s protein needs, so if you’re starting off with protein then you’re unlikely to overeat in your mission to hit this target!), followed by fibre – your veggies and salad items – which slowly passes through your body, helping you feel full for longer. Then, you want to enjoy your source of healthy fat to stabilise your blood sugar levels, finally followed by your carbohydrate source or your “something sweet”.

In a way, you’re “cushioning” or preparing your body for sugary foods when you eat in this order, minimising the impact they have on your body and reducing your risk of going overboard when you do enjoy them. It’s so powerful, in fact, that a study found people with obesity and type 2 diabetes who ate veggies and protein before their carbohydrates in a meal had 29%, 37% and 17% lower blood sugar levels at the 30-, 60- and 2 hour-mark after eating. Clearly, eating in this way helps to prevent sugary or high-carb foods from wreaking havoc on blood sugar levels and triggering those unwanted sugar cravings you’re trying to avoid!

4. Consider how you eat.

This one is straightforward: stop inhaling your food as quickly as you can. If you’re eating too fast, and forgetting to savour your meal and mindfully pay attention to the food as you taste, chew and digest it, your risk of overeating is greatly increased. When you eat in this way, you often end up polishing off everything on your plate even if it means you’re overeating. You don’t give your body the chance to recognise it’s satisfied, as it takes at least 20 minutes for your brain to signal to your stomach that you’re full. If you’re shoving your food down as quickly as possible, your brain doesn’t have time to register this information, meaning you’re eating beyond the point you should stop at. Then, before you know it you’re feeling the cravings kick in, and you’re giving into them before your stomach has recognised you’ve already eaten enough.

Instead, practise eating mindfully and slowly. Here are some tips to help:

  • Eat away from all screens and distractions. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but you cannot eat mindfully with a screen in front of you. No TV, no work emails, no scrolling Instagram. These all prevent you from really noticing what you’re eating, engaging with your senses as you taste your food, and slowing yourself down enough to recognise your body’s natural hunger and fullness cues.
  • Chew each bite of food at least 20 times. While you learn how to slow down your speed of eating, it’s important to really make an effort to do this to retrain your brain away from shovelling food into your mouth. Try putting your cutlery down between bites, and taking your time to eat and enjoy your food.
  • Begin noticing and identifying the different flavours and textures of your food. This helps you be present and attentive to whatever you’re eating, and draws your attention and focus to the food you’re eating.
  • Don’t skip meals, or wait until you’re overly hungry to eat. This makes it so much harder to resist overeating or inhaling your food as quickly as possible. Aim to eat regularly, and when you notice your hunger reach a score of around 6-7 out of 10, recognise it’s time for a balanced snack or meal before you reach the point of starving! That’s when you tend to give into sugar cravings the most!

There you have it, sugar cravings are very much a real thing, caused by various different factors. But they’re also manageable and preventable with a few dietary tweaks, changes and considerations. Who would have thought the order in which you eat your food could make such a difference? As always, knowledge is power, so use this new information to make simple and powerful swaps with your food and eating behaviours, and experience the profound impact on your sugar cravings for yourself.

Want more useful strategies and tips to help improve your health and achieve your personal goals? Book a consultation with me now for all the evidence-based tools and information you need to achieve significant, lasting and positive change. Take control of your health and nutrition today.