Sugar cravings: Not a matter of willpower

Written by Dannielle Illingworth | 17 November, 2021

acai bowl with fruit and nuts arranged on the table

Sugar cravings are something most of us can attest to experiencing at some point — and for some of us, the cravings become a daily battle of willpower and restriction.

I know for myself, throughout my late teens and early twenties, I felt completely out of control with my sugar cravings. No matter how hard I tried to stop eating sugar-rich, sweet foods — I always gave in eventually.

I always thought it was a matter of having more willpower and controlling my food intake more. But it wasn’t. And willpower never worked for my clients either. After completing my Naturopathy degree and working with women experiencing the same sugar craving battles as I was, I came to this conclusion:

Sugar cravings are not the issue. They are a symptom of other issues, and when you work with those underlying causes you can avoid the cravings altogether. No willpower is needed.

So what are the causes and underlying factors contributing to sugar cravings? I’m glad you asked. Let’s go through them now:

Low energy

Sugar gives you a temporary boost of energy, so when you’re feeling flat, sugar cravings can hit. The issue is that your energy levels dive lower again once the sugar has worn off, so it becomes a vicious cycle. Addressing why you’re low in energy is crucial to overcoming sugar cravings.

Lack of sleep

Studies have shown that a lack of sleep leads to craving high-calorie foods, including high-sugar foods. Prioritise sleep — both the amount of time you’re asleep and the quality of your sleep. And put your phone down! Try apps that set limits on your phone time each day and at night.

Low mood

Sugar boosts your serotonin levels, which is a brain chemical that contributes to feelings of happiness. So if you’re struggling with a low mood, you might be craving sugar to give you a temporary “feel good” hit. Over time, you’ll need more and more sugar to achieve the same amount of serotonin boost, so it’s not a helpful habit. Regular exercise is a great way to naturally boost serotonin levels without sugar.

Blood sugar imbalances

When your blood sugar is out of whack, you’ll crave sugar to get through the lows. The best advice I can give, on a general level, is to include protein and healthy fats throughout your day — ideally at each meal and snack. Protein and healthy fats help to regulate your blood sugar levels and can ward off sugar cravings.

Restricting carbohydrates

If you restrict your carbs too low, your body will try to compensate. Your body needs carbohydrates to thrive and will search for them in the densest form — usually refined sugars. Include low-GI carbs like root vegetables, brown rice, oats, and quinoa in your day to give your body the carbs it needs.

Emotional eating

If you grew up being soothed by sweets (a lollipop after your needles at the doctor's office, or an ice cream when you scraped your knee), then you might develop an emotional attachment to sweet foods that leads to emotional eating. Or you might have grown up watching an adult in your life use food as comfort for themselves, and you’ve learned that habit subconsciously. Dealing with your emotions around food and sweets is key here.

Stress

When you’re stressed, your body produces cortisol. And cortisol increases cravings for sweet foods. So yes, stress = sugar cravings! You can’t use willpower to get rid of those cravings, you’ve gotta address the stress that’s causing them.

Low magnesium

Low magnesium levels have been linked to increased sugar cravings, so if you suspect you might be low in magnesium (muscle tension, twitches, headaches, etc) then address the deficiency to help your cravings go away. Avocado, salmon, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and legumes are great sources of magnesium.

Addiction

Sugar is addictive. Research has shown over and over again that sugar intake lights up the same parts of the brain as cocaine, and some research even suggests that sugar is equally as addictive as cocaine. If you’ve addressed all of the above, and you’re not sure what else to do — consider that you may have an addition to sugar. There are lots of different ways to work through addiction, but I’d highly suggest seeking professional support. Working with someone who is experienced in addition will be a much quicker, smoother path to overcoming the addiction than doing it alone.


Dannielle Illingworth

Dannielle Illingworth is a kinesiologist, naturopath + author. Whether it’s in business, relationships, weight loss, career, health, or just general happiness – Danni helps her clients identify and let go of any fears, limiting beliefs + memories that are holding them back from what they truly desire. You can find out more at her website or follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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