Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
28 Jan

Dear Mark: Sugar Cravings

sugarDear Mark,

I do pretty well in the fitness department, love my veggies and get plenty of protein. My problem is that I can’t seem to shake my sugar cravings. Suggestions?

I get some version of this question on a fairly regular basis. A common theory says that we evolved to crave sweet tastes in order to seek out healthy fruits to diversify our diets. The problem comes in the current age when our inclination is bombarded with the likes of Coco Puffs, Snickers and pudding packs.

Research has found (surprise, surprise) that sugar has addictive properties complete with a serotonin rise and crash as well as some cranky withdrawal symptoms. And high fructose corn syrup? I could write a monolithic rant on the stuff. Though it’s multiple times sweeter than processed sugar, high fructose corn syrup doesn’t trip the satiety signal in our brains like sugar does. It’s the bottomless pit of sugars.

The goal, then, is to feed your body’s real needs. We did a piece on hunger a few weeks ago that talked about the body’s physical instinct to fulfill all its five tastes, sweet being one. Try working in some fruit (preferably a low glycemic option like berries) with each meal. Additionally, use spices like cinnamon, coriander or nutmeg as well as splashes of lemon, lime or pomegranate juices to add naturally sweet flavor to your foods. Additionally, cinnamon, nuts and a chromium picolinate supplement all help stabilize blood sugar, which can help keep those dip-related cravings at bay.

Keep in mind also that sugar cravings can signal that you aren’t feeding your body properly in other ways. Lack of sleep, stress, dehydration, caffeine crashes and plain hunger go hand in hand with sugar cravings. Research has even shown that a deficiency in alpha-linolenic acid (those handy little omega-3s) can dull a person’s perception of sweetness, encouraging him/her to crave more sugar to satisfy the natural taste. You gotta love those ALAs!

Another suggestion I have for battling the sugar beast: learn to enjoy your food more. Cravings often have psychological dimensions. Just two familiar words: comfort food. Step up your game a bit to make your meals even more flavorful and satisfying, and don’t eat on the run. Also, come up with some healthy indulgences like a great tasting herbal tea around midmorning or some strawberries with mascarpone cheese to get you through an afternoon slump.

In addition to plenty of rest, hydration and solid nutrition, exercise is absolutely essential in combating serious and chronic cravings. As I mentioned above, sugar raises serotonin levels, and that boost can easily figure into cravings. But guess what? Exercise raises serotonin as well. If you can, plan your workouts around the time of day when cravings tend to hit. If the cravings descend in the middle of the afternoon (as is common for many people) and can’t get away from work, find an excuse to step away and run up a few flight of stairs for your mission (real or concocted).

Uwe Hermann Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

How to Cheat

The Best Low Carb Fruits (and Worst)

DietHack: How to Manage Your Food Cravings

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  1. I’m so glad this came up! There’s something about this I’ve been wondering for a while: is it sugar itself (in all its many forms) that we crave/causes all the trouble or is it sweetness in general?

    I’ve completely cut out sugar from my food intake–honey and agave nectar and barley malt as well–but I do use a few drops of stevia occasionally in plain yogurt or with straight cocoa powder. And I do eat fruit regularly, mostly berries, bananas, and apples. I had to fight long and hard to beat my sweet tooth but have recalibrated my sense of taste and no longer crave sugar. (Unless I have sugar, in which case it just makes me want more. Eeeeeevil! Hence my complete avoidance of it.)

    So the question is: is using a non-sugar sweetener undermining those taste-recalibration/just-say-no-to-sugar efforts?

    This site has been a favorite of mine for some time now. Keep up the great work, Mark!

    yunkstahn wrote on January 28th, 2008
  2. Incorporating berries with meals is really good advice. It has helped my girlfriend (a recovering sugar junkie) tremendously.
    T.

    http://www.feelgoodeating.blogspot.com

    tatsujin wrote on January 28th, 2008
  3. yunkstahn,

    Sorry…it’s the sweetness we crave. So replacing sugar with Stevia still feeds some part of that craving and prolongs the agony. That’s one reason why people who drink lots of diet sodas still gain weight (the body gets the hint of sweetness, but when it doesn’t recognize the calories, it overcompenstaes by wanting more actual calories).

    In my world, I have “relearned” to crave the taste of fat more than the taste of sugar. When I’m hungry, a handful of nuts will satisfy me whereas I might have wanted carbs as a snack in the past. Give it a try.

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 28th, 2008
    • I am sorry. I don’t think you know what you are talking about. Stevia does not cause craving unlike other sweetners

      gfeg wrote on June 11th, 2011
      • Stevia can cause craving , because even the thinking of sugar can trigger insuline release ( vagal response) unfortunately it is very complex

        Denise hendrickx wrote on May 30th, 2012
  4. Mark,
    I’ve noticed I crave meat more so then fats.
    The fats (like nuts) satisfy me longer though.
    It seem my body works through the meat/protein a lot quicker.

    Thanks again for your great vitamins! They are truly unbelievable.

    Marc

    tatsujin wrote on January 28th, 2008
  5. So replacing sugar with Stevia still feeds some part of that craving and prolongs the agony.

    Stevia itself is agony. I never found it palatable, save for a pinch to lessen the bitterness of black coffee.

    Sonagi wrote on January 28th, 2008
    • Yep! If it’s not real, no deal….if it’s white, it’s not right……

      Jo-Anne wrote on April 15th, 2012
  6. Thanks for answering my question! I do only use a few drops of stevia in my morning yogurt but will try to use less and less. (Nonfat plain, soon switching over to the full-fat variety, likely goatsmilk rather than cow. I grew up on skim milk and nonfat yogurt, so even 2% dairy makes my knees buckle with butterfat bliss. I’m processed-”foods” free and have recently gone completely grains-free, so whole dairy–in moderation–seems a logical next step. Chalk up another paleo diet convert!)

    I’m with you on the fat cravings–that’s definitely replaced the sugar urge for me. Nuts. Can’t get enough of ‘em. I eat far too many walnuts at morning snacktime and a jar of almond butter does not last long in my fridge. Perhaps this is a problem too? Or does the fat-is-awesome plan achieve its awesomeness as long as it’s in tandem with the carbohydrates-are-for-suckers plan?

    Sorry for the tangent. But yes, sugar is a sneaky drug, and I feel much better for having ditched it.

    Thanks again, everyone.

    J.

    yunkstahn wrote on January 28th, 2008
  7. I know someone who drinks a diet coke sunup till sundown, has always done this and never loses an ounce. But, she’s not changing her eating habits.

    Personally, the more vegetables, fruits, nuts, poultry and fish i eat, the more of that is what i enjoy eating into my daily diet. But, once in a while, “not” often, i do eat a small bite of
    70-85% dark chocolate. I do NOT crave sugary sweets. Veggies is my “favorite” snack!

    Donna wrote on January 29th, 2008
  8. J.,

    The “fat is awesome” plan does still depend on low carbs. When you increase carbs, you increase insulin, so a diet that has appreciable amounts of fat AND carbs means that insulin is driving not only the carbs, but the fats into storage. Fats are awesome when they are 1) healthy (not trans or hydrogenated) and 2) calorically equivalent to the eliminated carbs. That means that the jar of almond butter can still be a problem if it represents an extra 600 calories a day you wouldn’t have otherwise consumed. Of course, protein is always first and foremost in my book.

    Mark Sisson wrote on January 29th, 2008
  9. I have been fighting my sugar craving for years. This is the first time that I have been without sweets and chocolates for a month at a stretch. I have written how I have controlled my sugar craving in my blog. Once I learnt to change my thoughts from the chocolates and sweets to some other subject, I could easily forget my sugar craving.

    Sonal
    http://winwithpersonality.com

    Sonal wrote on October 25th, 2008
  10. There is a herb that I use that helps my sugar cravings. It’s called “Gymnema”. If you get the liquid, you can put it in a bit of water and gargle with it. It temporarily (20-30 minutes) makes you not barely able to taste sugar. I only use it if I know that I am going to be seriously tempted.

    Signy wrote on September 10th, 2009
  11. I’m sugar sensitive: One bite of sugar gives me cravings where I just want more and more and more and end up bingeing on sugar. Honey, refined sugar, agave: the source isn’t the issue but the need for a “sweet hit.” The only solution for me was abstinence. I learned how to accept my body’s limits and give up sugar for good – gaining the health and wholeness I needed. I share my story at http://www.firstourselves.com, where you can download my free ebook about how I kicked my sugar habit, Overcome Sugar Addiction, which has been downloaded by thousands of readers. You can also take my kick sugar course and find similar freedom. You can break free. If I can do it, anyone can. To your health and wholeness, Karly

    Karly Randolph Pitman wrote on November 4th, 2009
  12. Mark mentions a chromium picolinate to regulate blood sugar levels in his post. He doesn’t give any more info on it though. Has anyone had any experience with this supplement. Does it make a noticeable difference?

    thxs

    Tin Tin wrote on November 25th, 2009
  13. Great article as it applies to so many people. I have found that when you give the body what it needs to express health and are eating multiple meals during a day and plan appropriately to make it work in your schedule, the cravings will go down after 3-4 days. Planning is so important, when you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

    In response to the person asking about Chromium and cravings, I have not seen research specific to cravings, but there is more positive research than there is negative on chromium improving symptoms and bloodwork in diabetic patients. The fluctuations that come along with poor sugar control could lead to ups and downs with cravings as Mark talks about with the hormonal influences. Chromium could then indirectly affect cravings, but you’re not going to see it in a research study.

    Mark, I was just recently introduced to your work, look forward to more!

    Alexander Rinehart, MSACN wrote on December 14th, 2009
  14. I gave up sugar over two months ago and can’t believe how my life has changed for the better…I have more energy. My husband is not a sugar addict and sometimes wants to cook with brown sugar..I have reached the point where when I open the cupboard and see the box of brown sugar it no longer calls to me.
    Dr. Oz said that sugar is an acquired taste…hard for me to believe that most people would at first find sugar unappealing and then eventually start liking it..is he wrong?

    I also learned that sugar addiction is genetic…and remembered from my childhood that my Dad had his night table drawer filled with boxes of candy…I also grew up with soda in the house.
    I am 71 years old and finally changed my life by controlling this addiction.

    Judy Geller wrote on March 13th, 2010
  15. Mark,
    So I’m looking through the net and trying to figure out the fun question of sugar cravings. You seem to be knowledgeable, and I read your post along with the comments.

    I read on another site that sugar cravings go hand in hand with fiber. Is it possible to crave sugar because there is not enough fiber in my body?

    Thanks!
    Sarah.

    Sarah wrote on May 4th, 2010
  16. I think this is a more appropriate use of sugar.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BV0RL7vK44E

    Ike wrote on May 6th, 2010
  17. Interesting and fantastic stuff you have here. Keep posting! I’m constantly looking to read on that issue.

    Coralie Garreh wrote on July 26th, 2010
  18. Maybe the cravings come from stress. Try to do something relaxing, sometimes just a simple walk in a beautiful park makes the cravings disappear.

    Laura wrote on August 21st, 2010
  19. The only way I can kick sugar cravings is to only eat meat and spices. No salt, vegetables, and especially fruit. Not even fresh herbs. Not even a raspberry.

    It’s like I have to choose between a balanced meat and veg diet or being psychologically healthy and not obsessing about sugar. Lately, I’ve just been eating the meat, because obsessing about sugar and not eating it is completely exhausting.

    Swint wrote on September 9th, 2010
  20. Hi Mark,

    what’s your take on pumpkins, sweet potatoes and dried dates as I love them. Need to shake them off?
    Much thanks!!

    kim wrote on September 23rd, 2010
  21. When I first started out eating primal, my sugar cravings were just outragious.
    Within the first 3 months I had to give in and chow down on mexican pastries (they don’t have HFCS just plain old crappy white sugar).
    Those cravings kept on going strong until about 6 months into Primal…and finally seemed to taper off. By that time I could satisfy the moderate sugar cravings with just fruit.
    It takes the brain quite some time to adjust to a new diet.

    I’ve added Azomite (red mineral clay) to my primal eating habits and the salt/sugar cravings are completely gone.
    Mineral deficiency might have a lot to do with cravings.

    And for all the girls get this:
    Since adding the mineral clay I have NO cravings the days leading up to my menstruation. I feel so free :-)

    Suvetar wrote on April 14th, 2011
    • This is so interesting , How did you use the clay? Where can we buy it?

      D.H. wrote on May 30th, 2012
  22. I eliminated sugar (and sugar substitutes) for 3 or 4 years and transformed my life. I stopped even catching colds. I have not been to a doctor in all that time. It is miraculous.
    Recently I tried one chocolate and at once the intense addiction feelings returned.

    It is certainly possible to lose the desire for it and much better for you.

    EnglishRose wrote on June 11th, 2011
  23. I am only in my second week of going primal. Before I only ate lean chicken. But now I seem to crave red meat or fatty meat all the time! Thankfully the forums have explained to me that this is perfectly normal, especially now with the cold autumn weather outside.

    Jessica wrote on September 11th, 2011
  24. I gave up sweetened foods (candy, cakes, etc) for 9 months. For those 9 months (actually 8, after getting over the addiction), I lost weight, didn’t struggle with eating. The holidays rolled around and I listened to the “just one can’t hurt” folks. Now I have put back on 5 lbs and am struggling with the sugar addiction yet again. So now I am going back to a more paleo diet and shutting my ears to these folks.

    Laurie wrote on November 26th, 2011
  25. I decided to take a step into the Primal diet lately. Today marks the end of the second day. My family has ordered a pizza for dinner, and are making sweets for the holidays. I crave them very badly! Pizza, cinnamon rolls, chocolate smores. Normally I would just indulge in them, but now that I’ve taken grains out of my diet, I want them even more.I settled on eating a salad with a few apple chunks in it for now, but how long will it take for these intense cravings to go away?

    Dave wrote on December 23rd, 2011
  26. I found that after eating a meal with a decent amount of fat – pork belly, for example – I didn’t crave sweets or chocolate for hours afterwards. Two slices of pork belly for breakfast would set me up for well into the afternoon, and I had no cravings at all – and this from someone who would constantly crave chocolate throughout the morning. Something for your readers to try if they too struggle with cravings.

    Rip wrote on January 16th, 2012
    • I realised the same thing…..I add extra butter when I scramble my eggs for breakfast and I find I can last well past lunch time and truth be told I sometimes forget to have lunch…..not good I know…

      Jo-Anne wrote on April 15th, 2012
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  28. I like to combat my sweets cravings with freeze dried fruit. They’re delicious and super easy to eat (no mess, no peeling, no juices dripping).

    Trader Joe’s has a good selection. The strawberries are darn good and the raspberries are almost like Sour Patch Kids! You can also find the stuff online too, but I haven’t ordered from any sites.

    Derrek wrote on February 24th, 2012
  29. I had completely forgotten that I wrote to you 2 years ago when I had been off sugar for about 2 months…well, it is 2 years later and my life is so much better. I am 73 years old and have an amazing amount of energy. I give talks on my experience with sugar addiction so that people can recognize if they have this addiction, and what they can do about it. Another plus for giving up sweets and eating healthy is that I was taken off cholesterol meds because my numbers were perfect. I still have to be aware of what sweets I may occasionally eat; for instance I can occasionally eat corn muffins; but discovered that I cannot eat ice cream…but I do not feel deprived. This is the best thing that happened to me.
    Good luck to other people who recover from this addiction.

    Judy Geller wrote on March 10th, 2012
    • Hi Judy!
      Thanks for your story!
      can you tell me how you did it ? I’m for about the 10 th time trying to stick to the low carb but fall always off the wagon. Every advice is welcome
      D.H.

      D.H. wrote on July 15th, 2012
  30. People’s biochemistry differs. I like many others are literally sugar addicts in much the same way as alcoholic and cocaine addicts. We cannot have any chcocolate or sweets as even just that first one leads us back into eating more and more of it. Aspartame in diet coke and the like is no good either as sugar substitutes which are fake, not natural and bad for you anyway (much worse than sugar in many ways) and it just primes your pump for wanting sugar.

    Sites like radiantrecovery help sugar addicts move away from their abuse of sugar. I find fruit is my path off it but I also abuse fruit as the fructose gives me the high. However it is harder to over indulge on oranges or blue berries. Dried fruit is even worse. I can easily eat 800 calories of it at a time of raisins and get a hot sugar high.

    I tried raw cacao for a while but it gets you running like very strong coffee and works on teh bit of the brain that “speed” apparently works on and it’s a bad bad feeling and additional addiction. I would melt it and dip fruit into it. So do if you are addictive avoid cacao too. Obviously caffeine as well. I was also addicted to diet coke 10 cans a day. Some of us just have that addicted brain chemistry, often inherited, often from an alcoholic parent.

    Where does that leave us? follow the advice above. When coming off sugar have lots of large healthy meals with lots of fat and protein and veg (very hard for those of us with weight to lose). Perhaps use fruit to transition off sugar but watch the quantities.

    EnglishRose wrote on April 16th, 2012
    • Often the food we crave is at the same time the food we’re allergic to. So the allergy creates the addiction. having Ig testing can be valuable

      D.H. wrote on August 17th, 2012
  31. The addictive substance is fructose. Cut it out and the cravings will stop.

    Sugar is made of sucrose. Sucrose once ingested readily breaks up to exactly half glucose and half fructose. Cut sugar out and you are on a good track.

    Glucose is not addictive and it is the energy fuel for the body. You can eat it and not crave it. Fructose is addictive and it also gets very quickly metabolised to fat in the liver.

    Glucose is not as sweet as fructose to the addicted. However, use it or something like stevia sweetener to help with the withdrawal symptoms & cravings you will get as soon as you stop eating fructose.

    aris wrote on April 26th, 2012
  32. Hi Mark,

    That link that you have about the addictiveness on sugar is linking to a paper on dietary fatty acid. The only mention of sugar is in reference to subjects that had ALA deficiency, who required more sugar to perceive the same sweetness. Is this an error?

    Pony wrote on August 9th, 2012
  33. Mark,

    I’ve seen a lot of articles in regard to people’s sweet tooth issues. I was wondering what your thoughts on breast milk and the cause of the human want for sweet treats. Breast milk is sickening sweet, so sweet that I’ve only added cocoa to make popsicles for my young ones.

    I myself crave more savory items when I want to snack and very few sweets. My background is Asian and White. My husband is white and he has a tremendous sweet tooth.

    We are currently trying your 21-day transformation, which, I was already eating very similarly to your plan anyway. I’ve been having a hard time losing fat on your diet. I’ve lost a lot of muscle with the downgrade of workout intensity. I normally do about 30 mins of calisthenics with plyometrics 3-5 days a week and an intense cardio session of 30 mins as well.

    My husband on the other hand has lost about 7-8lbs in 12 days of the program.

    Any suggestions?

    I have also broken out in an intensely itchy rash just under my nose that blisters up,crusts over, then peels away leaving the skin bright red and stinging which quickly turns to the intense itchy as the cycle starts again. I had this in my early 20′s and thought it was due to green coffee dust. I was tested for green coffee dust allergy with was positive, but roasted coffee I was not allergic to. It finally cleared and at 35 its the first appearance it’s had and it’s at least 10 times worse.

    Thank you so much for this website and the support you and education you give people to live a healthier and more satisfying life.

    Heather wrote on April 27th, 2013
    • You might try a yeast free diet – no fruit. Read “Body Ecology Diet” or candidarecovery.com

      Kate wrote on September 2nd, 2013
  34. When I crave sugar I eat Trader Joes 70% dark chocolate, which is surprisingly low in carbs while tasting very sweet. The 80-90% dark chocolates are only slightly lower in carbs and do not satisfy my sweet desire as much.

    Brandon wrote on July 24th, 2013
  35. It’s a shame you didn’t mention the VERY PREVALENT issue of systemic yeast/candida which can cause incredible cravings. Yeast overgrowth as a result of antibiotics, birth control pills and stress is an enormous epidemic problem that not many people know about. I never curbed the cravings until I killed the yeast. Read “Body Ecology Diet” or candidarecovery.com

    Kate wrote on September 2nd, 2013
  36. I have to follow a low oxalate diet as well as primal, which pretty much takes out all the sweeter spices, most fruit, and the comfort squashes.. I am desperate to overcome my sugar addiction, it seems like I have tried everything the last five years, and still I only go a few weeks and then I binge out. I am not overweight, but I have a chronic pain illness, the weird thing is sugar actually takes away my pain! I think its because sugar is a DRUG. I feel so lost, only eating a few veges (cannot have high oxalate ones) and meat and fats does not keep me satisfied or ward off cravings.

    Melissa wrote on December 10th, 2013

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