Sugar Cravings Could Mean Something Deeper — a Dietitian Says to Ask These 5 Questions

If cookies call to you, you can't pass a bakery without buying a pastry, or dinner isn't complete without a little something sweet, you may characterize yourself as having a sweet tooth. But sometimes those sugar cravings can feel overwhelming if you think about treats all the time, or your cravings can feel out of control or insatiable to the point where you overeat sugar and feel sick. But registered dietitian nutritionist Jessica Jones, MS, RD, CDE and cofounder of Food Heaven explained to POPSUGAR that sugar cravings aren't necessarily a bad thing, and can actually give you insight into what your body may be needing or missing.

What Do Sugar Cravings Mean?

"Cravings have become such a demonized concept in our culture," Jones said. You're made to feel guilty for having cravings, or taught to "resist the temptation." You may think you're "good" for not indulging in your cravings, and think you're "bad" if you do (by the way, Jones recommends avoiding this black-and-white thinking around food). Or you may think you have a sugar addiction or that you "can't be trusted around sweets." Society makes us think we need to ward off temptations instead of exploring where those cravings may be coming from.

If you're having constant sugar cravings, Jones said to ask yourself these five questions:

  1. Have you cut out any foods or food groups? Have you vowed to never eat ice cream again, or have you cut out carbs recently? From her personal experience and from what she sees in clients, the biggest trigger for craving a certain food is when you're restricting that particular food — you'll tend to crave it even more. If there are any changes to your diet or foods you stopped eating, explore why you're not eating those foods and if you notice a correlation between cutting out those foods and your increased cravings. Diminishing those cravings could be as simple as allowing yourself to have those foods.
  2. Are you eating enough? Jones notices that clients who skip meals, eat extra small portions, or who don't eat enough calories "have more episodes of deprivation eating." When you undereat, your body turns up the hunger hormone, ghrelin, driving you to consume food, and your body is smart — it looks for the quickest, easiest form of energy it can get. She finds that her clients who undereat in the beginning of the day will tend to have deprivation episodes later in the day. "They may interpret that as emotional eating, but it's not; it's deprivation eating from not eating their energy requirements," Jones explained.
  3. Are you getting three food groups at most meals? Jones explained that it's important to eat all three micronutrients — carbs, protein, and fat — as well as nonstarchy vegetables at most meals when possible in order to feel satiated. If you're only eating a plain veggie-packed salad for lunch, while it's high in fiber and nutrients, it doesn't fill you up the way carbs, protein, and healthy fats do. Not meeting your macronutrient needs can trigger sugar cravings and deprivation eating.
  4. Are you super stressed? Stress can have a huge impact on eating habits, sometimes causing a lack of appetite, but most times, increasing cravings. It also makes it harder to have time to go grocery shopping, to cook your own meals, or to eat when you want. If you automatically reach for something sweet in response to stress, it's hard to break that habit. So find ways to diminish your chronic stress or explore stress management techniques like taking a walk, journal writing, yoga, meditation, or talking to a therapist.⁠
  5. Are you sleeping enough? Jones explained that sleep deprivation can absolutely increase sugar cravings. Most people need seven to nine hours a night, and lack of sleep can affect the levels of leptin, the hunger-regulating hormone that helps your body realize it's full. It can also affect ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates appetite. Finding ways to support your healthy sleep routine can diminish sugar cravings that are triggered by sleep deprivation.

While your sugar craving could be triggered by one of the above reasons, sugar cravings could also just be a craving, with no underlining potential issue going on. Jones said sugar cravings aren't inherently a negative thing; it's just that they're demonized in our culture.

So even after exploring your answers to these questions, Jones said it's 100 percent OK to indulge in your craving. It's often less stressful to just enjoy it and then move on instead of debating whether you should or not. Treats can be a part of an overall healthy diet because all foods can fit⁠ into our lifestyle. "Don't overthink it! Cravings are a part of life, and sometimes it's just fun to indulge," Jones said.