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

Dear Mark: Sugar Cravings

Dear 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 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
  2. 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
  3. 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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  5. 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
  6. 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. wrote on July 15th, 2012
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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

      Kate wrote on September 2nd, 2013
  11. 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
  12. 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

    Kate wrote on September 2nd, 2013
  13. 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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