Experiencing pesky sugar cravings? You’re not alone! A Registered Dietitian shares what may be causing your sugar cravings and four balanced ways that you can stop them. Hint: You don’t necessarily have to cut sugar altogether!

Disclaimer: This post was developed in partnership with the Canadian Sugar Institute, however all opinions are genuine and my own.

graphic that says "sugar cravings" what causes them and how to stop them"

What is a Craving?

A food craving is an intense urge to eat a specific food. Often times, cravings may be for energy-dense, high sugar, high-fat, or salty food. But if you’ve ever been on a week long vacation where you didn’t eat many fruits or veggies, cravings can also be for nutritious food like salads.

While they can occur any time of the day, food cravings occur in the late afternoon and evening time (I’ll share why this could be later on).

Cravings differ from general hunger in that cravings often require a specific food to be satisfied, while hunger doesn’t necessarily. Hunger and food cravings can co-occur, but being hungry is not necessarily a prerequisite for food cravings.

cinnamon sugar donuts on a wooden serving board

What Causes Sugar Cravings?

As I mentioned, one of the common foods people find themselves craving are sweets or foods high in sugars. And to some extent, we’re hardwired to seek sugars, which are a type of carbohydrate. This is because glucose (a type of sugar molecule) is the human brain and body’s preferred source of fuel.

That being said, there may be other specific reasons why you often feel a sugar craving coming on in the afternoon or evening after supper. Let’s explore some of these causes of sugar cravings together:

Not Eating Enough

The first reason that you may experience strong cravings for sugar is that you’re not eating enough to meet your caloric requirements. Whether you’re consistently not eating enough (say, you’re on a calorie-restricted diet), or you eat a meal that’s lacking in calories to sustain you, you may experience more cravings for something sweet.

This is because your body is asking you for energy, and quick energy at that. This may be in the form of quick-digesting carbohydrates from sugary foods, or energy (calorie)-dense foods that your body knows will do the trick.

Dieting and/or Restricting Sugar

As the old saying goes “you want what you can’t have”. It’s true!

It’s a bit of a mental game. When you deliberately restrict or deprive yourself of sugar (or things like sweets, desserts, and candy), you tend to want it more. It becomes this shiny, intangible object that suddenly you’re always thinking about.

So if you’re restricting sugar or vowing to cut out carbs entirely, you may notice an uptick in cravings for those exact things.

salad with chopped lettuce, sliced tomatoes, chopped red onion, sliced avocado, corn niblets, shredded cheddar cheese, and sliced chicken tenders

Not Eating the Right Foods

When it comes to feeling full and satisfied after eating, we want to eat a combination of the “right foods”. In other words, the goal is to build a balanced meal.

One of the key things we want to include is a good source of protein, as well as dietary fibre. It’s important to include fibre and protein in our meals because they help to fill us up and keep us full, and they also help to keep blood sugar levels stable.

Often times, if we eat a meal that’s low in protein and/or fibre and high in carbohydrates, we may experience that quick rise in blood sugar levels followed by a quick drop. This is often when we’re left craving more sugar or carbohydrate-rich foods.

Sleep Deprivation

Not getting enough sleep is another cause of sugar cravings. As I mentioned, glucose (sugar) is the body’s preferred source of fuel.

When we’re sleep deprived and tired, the body recognizes that as a need for more fuel. So what does it signal us to do? Eat!

When we’re low on sleep, the body secretes more of the hunger hormone ghrelin and less of the hunger hormone leptin in order to obtain more energy. And because glucose is that primary source of energy, carbohydrates and sugar are often what we’re left craving.

chocolate, strawberries, maple syrup, vanilla, and yogurt in separate bowls

How to Stop Sugar Cravings:

Now that we’ve addressed things that cause them, let’s look at some ways to curb sugar cravings:

  • Eat enough food: It’s important to eat enough calories to meet your unique requirements. Severe calorie restriction through dieting tends to backfire. This often results in increased cravings, binge eating, and re-gaining the weight you lost in the first place. Don’t skip meals, and work on listening to your body’s cues, rather than suppressing them.
  • Find balance with sugar: Restriction and deprivation are not the answer! A key piece of healthy living is finding a balance that allows you to enjoy the foods you love and feel great. Having dessert when you want it and not depriving yourself is important for maintaining a healthy relationship with food.
  • Seek balanced meals and snacks: Aim to include protein, fibre, and carbohydrates at meals and snacks! This will help to steady your blood sugar, and therefore your cravings and hunger.
  • Get enough sleep! Being well-rested will help to regulate your hunger and help to lower that increased carbohydrate and sugar-seeking behaviour.

Something to Keep in Mind:

Sometimes cravings strike. This is a part of being human and having the ability to enjoy food.

If you’re experiencing a sugar craving every once in a while, I wouldn’t fret. The best thing you can do is find a way to honour that craving that works for you, and move on without stress.

If intense sugar cravings are happening more frequently than you’d like, try some the tips I’ve listed here. I’d also recommend working one-on-one with a Registered Dietitian for support.

dietitian sitting at a desk typing on her computer

Connect with Hannah Magee, RD!

Did you like this post or learn something new? Do you have any questions? Please let me know by leaving a comment below! And feel free to share this post with a friend who would be interested to read it!

Disclaimer: This post was developed in partnership with the Canadian Sugar Institute, however all opinions are genuine and my own.