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Do You Crave Sugar When You're Not Even Hungry?

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Updated May 28, 2014

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Lisa asks, "I seem to crave sugar when I'm not even hungry. I'll have a nice salad with greens, salmon pieces, and vegetables on it, then a few minutes later I'll want something sweet. I usually eat nutritious foods most of the time. It's when I'm not hungry that I seem to crave sweets.

All of my family likes sweets, and I've tried to avoid them. If I do eat sweets, I usually will have some dates or a Clif Bar, but sometimes I'll just eat a huge bowl of ice cream or cookies, or a whole pan of brownies.

Why do you think I crave sweets and what are some solutions to stop craving them?"

I can think of two possible reasons why you crave sugar. Eating desserts may be a family tradition  --  or maybe your brain wants serotonin.

Serotonin is a brain chemical that makes you feel content and happy. Eating sugar can increase the absorption of an amino acid called tryptophan, which helps your body make serotonin, so it's possible that eating something sweet may make you feel happy.

The opposite might be true too -- avoiding sweets may make you feel crabby.

The Problem of Too Much Sugar

Sugar has calories, but no additional nutritional value and the calories can add up fast. Many sweet treats also contain unhealthy amounts of saturated and trans-fats.

Is some sugar acceptable? Sure, in moderation. Choosemyplate.gov allows you to have a few discretionary calories each day. However, if you are overweight or obese, you may need to decrease your total calorie consumption, which will also decrease your discretionary calorie allowance.

Beating Your Sugar Cravings

An occasional high-calorie sweet treat probably won't hurt you, but it shouldn't become a daily habit. Here's some advice:

  • Get some exercise. You may feel better if you go for a walk or get some other type of exercise. Exercise will stimulate brain chemicals that will improve your mood.
  • Sugar cravings may lessen if you decrease the number of calories you eat each day, so if you are eating too many calories, cut back.
  • Don't tempt yourself by keeping high-calorie sweets in the house.
  • Don't skip meals, which can make cravings worse.
  • Keep your meals simple. The more side dishes and flavors you include in your meals, the more likely you are to overeat.
  • Choose healthy side dishes with a sweet flavor, such as sweet potatoes.

Perhaps if you satisfy your taste buds' need for sweet flavor during your meal, you won't fall for a big dessert afterward. Add one of these sweet and nutritious side dishes to your meal:

Another option is to choose main dishes with a sweet flavor. Make sure to use recipes that aren't overloaded with added sugar and fat. Try these deliciously sweet ideas:

If you really want a little dessert or a sweet treat, choose low-fat desserts that use fruit as the main ingredient. The sweetener should only be a minor ingredient:

Sources:

Benton D, Donohoe RT. "The effects of nutrients on mood." Public Health Nutr. 1999 Sep;2(3A):403-9.

Benton D. "Carbohydrate ingestion, blood glucose and mood." Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2002 May;26(3):293-308

Christensen L, Pettijohn L. "Mood and carbohydrate cravings." Appetite. 2001 Apr;36(2):137-45.

Docherty JP, Sack DA, Roffman M, Finch M, Komorowski JR. "A double-blind, placebo-controlled, exploratory trial of chromium picolinate in atypical depression: effect on carbohydrate craving." J Psychiatr Pract. 2005 Sep;11(5):302-14.

Hetherington MM, Foster R, Newman T, Anderson AS, Norton G. "Understanding variety: tasting different foods delays satiation." Physiol Behav. 2006 Feb 28;87(2):263-71. Epub 2006 Jan 6.

Kampov-Polevoy AB, Alterman A, Khalitov E. "Sweet preference predicts mood altering effect of and impaired control over eating sweet foods." Eat Behav. 2006 Aug;7(3):181-7. Epub 2005 Oct 17.

Malik VS, Schulze MB, Hu FB. "Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review." Am J Clin Nutr. 2006 Aug;84(2):274-88.

Martin CK, O'Neil PM, Pawlow L. "Changes in food cravings during low-calorie and very-low-calorie diets." Obesity (Silver Spring). 2006 Jan;14(1):115-21.

 

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