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What Causes Sugar Cravings? Is it Ever Ok To Eat Sweets?

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As a registered dietitian, I know that sugar, sweets and desserts can cause a lot of confusion and anxiety for my clients. They often wonder: what causes sugar cravings, and is it ever ok to actually eat desserts?

And what about weight loss goals – are sweets off the table? Let’s look first at what causes sugar cravings.

What causes sugar cravings?

There is a surprising number of factors that can go into our body’s cravings for sugar. 

What causes sugar cravings?

Some examples of what causes sugar cravings are simpler things like having been too long since you’ve had a meal or filling snack, to being stressed or even not sleeping enough. 

Did you know that if you’re not well-rested, your stress hormones go up the next day, signaling your body to want sweets? 

And on top of that, we are dealing with a lot of stress, anxiety and other unpleasant emotions. More than ever, these days.  For many of my clients, eating in response to these thoughts or feelings became a learned, automatic response in an attempt to feel better.  

If we experience a stressful event, thought or emotion, our bodies go into fight or flight mode, making adrenaline and cortisol. Stress hormones help to keep your body safe, on the chance you need to quickly escape physical danger.  They also increase our anxiety and can affect our appetite; they’re preparing our muscles to be able to get the heck out of danger. 

The tricky thing is that your body doesn’t know the difference between stress caused by physical danger, say, escaping a hungry tiger, and emotional stress, like a looming work deadline or a global pandemic. 

It usually surprises my clients how many factors are at play with our food choices on a day to day basis.  Practicing mindfulness techniques, on a regular basis,  can help you build a window of tolerance – so you are less easily going into the fight, flight, freeze mode.  Mindfulness skills  also help you focus your mind in the present moment, and access the wiser parts of your brain.  The more mindful you can become of your urges in response to specific thoughts or emotions, the more effective you can become on thinking through what your options are (instead of succumbing to the craving).

(psst: they’re not mutually exclusive!)

Should you ever eat sweets?

Should you deny yourself sweets?

Short answer: no.

Food offers us value far beyond the calories, vitamins and minerals. Food also gives us comfort, an opportunity to celebrate and lends a connection to our family traditions and cultural values.  

Foods that you crave (in this case, sweets) may serve as attempts to connect you to a memory in the past.  You may be attempting to recapture a feeling that the food represents.  

Let me ask you this: what feelings come up for you if you were told you should never eat sweets again?

Whether this is self-imposed or externally directed from a health guru; ask yourself how does it feel knowing that you can’t have something that you really want?  For most of us: this feels scary, hard and makes the pull of sweets more desirable.  Avoiding your sweet “trigger foods”  is likely to promote overeating and perpetuate the binge-restrict cycle.

What causes sugar cravings

Can you give yourself permission to eat sweets?

Food can feel really complicated. One of the things that is the most fun for me in my work as a Registered Dietitian is to bring joy back to eating. 

It is unfortunate how many of the messages that my clients get about food: dieting is all or nothing, eating cannot be joyful, and weight loss excludes eating sweets in small quantities.

I am happy to free my clients from those self-sabotaging thoughts.  The truth is, you can work towards your goal weight and enjoy your eating. Including desserts some of the time and in the “right” portions. 

Sound good?

How to eat sweets (but not too much)?

Well, this may take some trial and error. Like any new skill, it takes practice – that is completely normal!

I recommend giving yourself permission to eat a sweet when you are not in a fight, flight, or freeze frame of mind. Eating sweets in that frame of mind is not going to feel enjoyable and may spiral to overeating followed by guilt.  

Instead, choose a time when your feelings and thoughts don’t have the best of you. You’ll have the opportunity to stop, savor and enjoy the sweet treat. 

Then, pick one of the sweets that appeals to you, and comes in a way that feels manageable.  Buying a large gallon of your favorite ice cream is probably not the best way.  Instead, find healthier alternatives to the sweets you love.  While you don’t always need to eat the healthier version, it’s important to practice having healthier sweets in amounts that you can live with.  I can help here! 

Here are a few tips for enjoying sweets without having them control you

  1. Be strategic about what sweet you really want and pick one to start.  This can include researching ahead of time a healthier, preferably pre-portioned variety and becoming aware of the calories in advance.  I’ll never forget the client who learned after the fact that she consumed 600 kcals on the low carb cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory.  Generally, 100-200 kcals is a reasonable amount and approximately <20% of the Daily Value for added sugar and fat.  
  1. Choose a time to have it wisely.  Being tired and/or emotionally vulnerable is not the time to experiment with having sweets.  This requires paying attention to your reasons for wanting the sweet.  If you discover your emotional mind is active, don’t eat!  The goal is to use mindfulness (focusing your mind in the present moment) to either take hold of your emotional mind and/or tend to what you really need (outside of the Oreo cookie).
  1. Set up your food environment to minimize over consumption.  Consider the adage, “out of sight, out of mind.”   Additionally, don’t purchase sweets you anticipate may be harder for you to portion (i.e. large chocolate bar, a whole cake or large bag of popcorn).  Instead, figure out what varieties are best to have or not have in your home.  For example, if kettle corn appeals to you, purchase the smaller portioned bags versus the larger one available from Costco.
  1. Be present and take your time and savor what you are eating.  Improving your relationship with food includes learning to enjoy more what you are eating without incessant shame.  This may involve not eating in front of the TV or screen.
  1. Tune into your taste buds when eating.  Our taste buds send signals to our brain telling us how much we like a food, influenced by our past experiences with that food.  We can work towards paying attention to the actual food we are tasting versus the “memory” of the food.  Acknowledge, that you are human and it is normal for your palate, mind, and body to want sweets from time to time.  Your job is to learn how to moderate this so it doesn’t remain a coping mechanism.

If you have an eating disorder or have a lot of anxiety around incorporating sweets, I recommend working with a dietitian or therapist to help. 

Is it better to just avoid sweets?

If the above steps are feeling complicated, know that I understand. Our relationships with food are complicated and making new connections and relationships take time and practice. 

Although it may seem simpler to skip sweets altogether, this doesn’t bode well for a sustainable, flexible approach to food and eating.What helps us to manage both our physical health goals as well as our emotional needs is to remove the mystique and shame around eating sweets. 

Learning to slow down, relax and experience pleasure from your food brings joy and depth to our daily lives. And the fun part is: this doesn’t need to just be about sweets!  

From enjoying the tender sweetness of the first strawberries from your local farmers’ market in the spring to inhaling the first lovely aroma from your morning coffee, enjoying the foods and drinks you have throughout the day can make life more fun, less stressful and offers a pause in the daily grind.

What causes sugar cravings and weight loss

Hold on: what about weight loss?

For many of my clients, giving yourself permission to eat (and actually enjoy) sweets feels like giving up on your weight loss goals. Good news: it isn’t the same thing. 

Working with a registered dietitian can help you to have a more constructive, enjoyable relationship with food. As a registered dietitian, I can help you develop the skills and tools you need both to continue with your health goals and get back to enjoying what you’re eating and drinking. Even sweets!

What causes sugar cravings? Stress, deprivation, not sleeping enough and not having the right tools to move through stressful situations as smoothly as possible. 

Let’s chat!

If you are ready for evidence-based guidance on incorporating some of your fear foods (whether sugary or not), book your call today. I can’t wait to meet with you.