If you usually have a hankering for something sweet after meals, find it hard to pass up dessert, or rely on sugar-filled coffee drinks for an afternoon pick-me-up, you’re not alone. A study found that 86 percent of people who had food cravings thought about high-calorie foods — specifically, those containing chocolate.
The good news: Reaching for healthy foods high in nutrients like protein and fiber can help stave off unhealthy hankerings.
Here are some of the foods that can help keep cravings for sugar at bay:
- Nuts, such as pistachios
- Seeds, such as sesame and chia
- Pulses, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas
Below, find a full list with the scientific reasons they may be effective. Plus, learn more about what may be behind your sugar cravings in the first place.
Side Effects of Eating Too Much Sugar
While sugar may be satisfying to the taste buds and the soul, the constant spikes in blood sugar and crashes that follow a binge can set off a host of effects, including fatigue, irritability, and anxious thoughts, among others, according to Sanford Health.
Blood sugar highs and lows can also perpetuate sugar cravings. “When you’re consuming sugar, then you end up getting onto this whole roller coaster ride of blood sugar dysregulation, and that in and of itself can perpetuate physical stress, which then causes you to have more sugar cravings,” says Dana Elia, RDN, a doctor of clinical nutrition and owner of Fusion Integrative Health and Wellness in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Added sugar, which Americans tend to eat too much of, can be particularly insidious for health. According to a 2016 study, consuming too much can increase the risk for obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cognitive decline, and certain types of cancer.
The 2020–2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting added sugar intake to a maximum of 10 percent of your daily calories. This is the equivalent of 200 calories, or 12 teaspoons (tsp), if you’re eating 2,000 calories per day. One can of Coke contains almost 10 tsp of sugar, for example.
Which Factors Are Causing You to Crave Sugar?
Sugar cravings can strike seemingly at random, and more than one culprit may be responsible. Here are some of the potential causes:
Thirst can often look like hunger or a food craving, Dr. Elia says. Indeed, research has found that people responded “inappropriately” to hunger and thirst cues 62 percent of the time. For example, they were thirsty, not hungry, but ate anyway.
Poor Diet Quality
Diet quality can also play a role in triggering sugar cravings. For example, consuming a higher ratio of carbohydrates to protein and healthy fats, or consuming white, refined carbohydrates like those in processed foods, can increase hunger and sugar cravings, according to Elia. “If you’re craving something else within 90 minutes or two hours after a meal, you want to revisit: What did you just eat, and what was it missing?” she says.
Gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of the microbes in the gut, or an overgrowth of yeast, for example, can lead to sugar cravings, according to one article. An earlier study suggested that probiotics, prebiotics, and improving eating habits can alter the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut and lessen food cravings, though more studies are needed.
“If you’re eating highly processed carbohydrates, standard American poor-quality proteins, and a lot of saturated, processed, poor-quality fats, that’s going to have some pretty devastating effects on the diversity and the healthfulness of the amount of beneficial bacteria in your gut, which can really drive some sugar cravings,” Elia says.
For women, cravings for sugar can be in part a result of hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and estradiol (or oestradiol). Per the Endocrine Society, estradiol levels increase during the menstrual cycle to mature and release an egg and thicken the uterus lining to allow the fertilized egg to implant.
Research has found that estradiol can be associated with an increase in food cravings. A study published in The FASEB Journal found that women with higher estradiol during the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle, or the time after ovulation, consumed carbohydrate-rich foods and had an increase in sugar cravings. “That’s why you’ll hear women come to report that they suddenly have this intake or this uptake of a craving for chocolate during their menstrual cycle,” Elia says.
Finally, stress is another cause of sugar cravings. A study found that chronic stress had a significant direct effect on food cravings, and food cravings in turn had a significant effect on body mass index (BMI) when indulged.
When levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, increase, consuming sugar can provide a hit of dopamine, a neurotransmitter often dubbed “the happy hormone.” Yet, as Elia previously explained, when consumed in excess, sugar can throw blood sugar out of whack, increasing stress and setting off a vicious cycle.
Magnesium deficiency is specifically worth paying attention to. According to one study, up to 50 percent of people may have a magnesium deficiency, which other prior research in elderly people links to an increased risk of insomnia. Meanwhile, an article published in Nutrients noted that magnesium deficiency is associated with increased stress, anxiety, and depression — mental health effects that can in turn impede quality slumber.
Without adequate quality sleep, we’re more likely to eat more calories and crave quick energy in the form of simple sugars, says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a nutrition and diabetes expert based in Franklin, New Jersey.
Another reason magnesium deficiency can drive sugar cravings is that the mineral helps convert food into energy, Palinski-Wade says. “So anything that’s leaving you feeling more lethargic and fatigued, naturally your body craves those quick energy sources, which tend to be those sugary foods,” she says.
RELATED: How Stress Affects Your Body
Foods That Can Help Prevent Cravings for Sugar
Don’t let cravings for sugar stand in the way of your health goals. This list of 20 foods will help to satisfy your hunger, regulate your blood sugar, and help keep sugar cravings at bay.