If you've ever felt like you're addicted to sugar, you're not alone. Sugar is so addictive that when you drastically cut down on your sugar intake, you can experience withdrawal symptoms and start to crave it even more. That's why it's important not to try to cut out sugar all at once, and to know what to eat when craving sugar.
How did sugar become such a big part of the American diet?
Although it is ubiquitous now, sugar was once a luxury that only the rich could afford. Now, however, lower-income Americans consume it the most, with the average American consuming 77 grams per day, or 60 pounds of added sugar per year, according to the American Heart Association. Children consume even more of the sweet stuff — 81 grams per day, or 65 pounds per year.
To understand how Americans came to consume so much sugar, you have to go back to World War II. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, sugar was used to make everything from antiseptics to explosives. Housewives were encouraged to use the syrup from leftover canned fruit to sweeten cakes. Sugar sales skyrocketed when the war ended, and it became a main ingredient in everything from cereal to pasta sauce.
Today, processed foods are cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, which means it can be cost-prohibitive for someone who doesn't have a lot of money to spend to avoid sugar actively.
Why do our bodies crave sugar?
There are a few factors at play that can cause sugar cravings. One is that sugar stimulates dopamine, which is known as the "feel-good hormone" or "pleasure chemical." Dopamine is released during pleasurable situations, but it plays a role in addiction as well. Eating sugar also releases serotonin, another feel-good hormone. Our bodies start to associate eating sugar with being happy and needing to continue to eat sugar to stay happy, which can turn into a vicious cycle of pleasure seeking that can have serious consequences for our health if we're not careful.
Part of our sugar cravings can also be attributed to our environment. We may encounter ads for sugar-laden products and immediately experience sugar cravings, even if we're not actually hungry. We also tend to associate sugar with different emotional events. For example, after a breakup, we may binge on chocolate or ice cream, and we celebrate birthdays and anniversaries with cake and other sweets. By associating sugar with events like these, we may start to create habits that encourage our body's sugar cravings.
Sometimes, however, our bodies misinterpret signals that our brains are sending us. For instance, when the body is thirsty, it can begin to send signals that it's craving something, and we may mistake this for a sugar craving. In other cases, we might need an energy boost, so we turn to a candy bar for a quick fix. We could also be lacking certain nutrients, such as magnesium. Incidentally, one of the first signs of a magnesium deficiency is fatigue, so if you're craving sugar because you're feeling fatigued, you may want to try reaching for magnesium-rich foods instead, such as spinach, nuts or seeds.
What other foods satisfy sugar cravings?
If you're wondering what to eat when craving sugar, there are a few swaps you can make when a craving hits. One alternative is fruit. Not only is fruit naturally sweet, but it's a healthier alternative than a chocolate bar. You might want to go for fruits that have a slightly higher sugar content like grapes or mangoes to make sure you don't end up reaching for junk food to get your sugar fix. Dates are also a good choice, and they're as nutritious as they are sweet. They're a good source of fiber, iron and potassium too.
You could also switch out milk chocolate for dark chocolate. Although it has more of a bitter taste since it has less sugar, dark chocolate contains polyphenols, which are plant compounds that have antioxidative and anti-inflammatory effects. Like milk chocolate, however, be sure to eat it in moderation.
Eating more protein can also help curb sugar cravings. Depending on how protein-rich your choice is, the protein can slow down sugar absorption and prevent your glucose levels from spiking, which can help reduce sugar cravings. Avocados can be a good choice in this case since they're not only high in protein but also in (healthy) fat.
You don't have to cut sugar out of your diet entirely. You can still consume it in moderation, but be aware that there may be hidden sugar in the foods you might least suspect, so it's important to read labels before you buy anything. Making a few healthy swaps can make a big difference in the amount of sugar you consume.