Why Stress Causes Sugar Cravings—and How to Fight It
Understanding the connection can help you change your eating habits.
You get into a fight with your friend and suddenly you simply need a sweet treat. You get an urgent work email and immediately head towards the office candy bowl. Or you’re feeling sad, so you sit down in front of a favorite movie with a pint of ice cream.
We’ve all been there: craving sugar for psychological reasons that have nothing to do with hunger. It’s called “stress eating” for a reason. When you experience persistent stress, your adrenal glands release cortisol, which increases both appetite and motivation. Together, that makes you more likely to eat even when you don’t need it. Understanding how stress affects sugar cravings helps you recognize the signs, so you can can say “no” the next time a craving strikes.
Sugar and Stress Eating
For our ancestors, stress made them eat more, and that was a good thing. When humans were just trying to survive, eating sweets in the form of fruit meant better nutrition. Today, our stress responses are triggered almost constantly, by work, family commitments, or even the ever-present noise of city living. And the extra food is no longer a good thing: Research shows that chronic stress is linked to craving sweet and fatty foods, which contributes to the development of obesity and the host of ill health effects that accompany excess weight.
When you eat sugar, your brain releases feel-good chemicals and its reward system is activated, just as it is by drug use. In fact, sugar addiction can be just as powerful as cocaine addiction. Research suggests that “the brain reward circuitry may be a key player in stress-induced food intake,” says a 2007 study published in Physiology & Behavior.
The bad news is that your body is programmed to want sugar when you’re feeling stressed. The good news it that by recognizing the reason for your craving, you can make better choices.
Reframe Your Cravings
It’s hard to make cravings go away completely, though if you cut back on your sugar intake, they will diminish as your body becomes accustomed to your new low-sugar lifestyle. Here are five tips to help you kick cravings:
- Acknowledge the craving. Recognize that your body is craving sugar, but doesn’t really need it. Once you learn to distinguish between true hunger and cravings, you can take the proper steps to fight the cravings.
- Feed hunger with healthy options. If you’re truly hungry, have a balanced meal or snack with veggies, good fats, and protein, which has been shown to help stabilize blood-sugar levels.
- Fight cravings with a lozenge. Sweet Defeat lozenges contain extracts from the plant Gymnema sylvestre and have been shown to reduce sugar cravings. The lozenge also temporarily blocks the ability to taste sweetness, so treats aren’t satisfying: the sugar doesn’t activate the brain’s reward cycle.
- Take a walk. Remember how sugar releases those feel-good chemicals in your brain? Well, so does exercise, so that’s a great alternative to indulging in sweets. Research shows that taking a brisk walk can help reduce sugar cravings.
- Plan for a treat. Cravings cause us to behave impulsively. Rather than eating a sugary treat when a craving hits, make yourself a deal: If you still want it in two hours, or tomorrow, then you can have it. Research shows that this if-then bargaining can help reduce unhealthy food consumption.
Cravings can be hard to resist, but when they hit it’s important to remember that you are ultimately the one in control.
Taking Control of Your Life
I’m Steve Borgman, the owner of this blog.
I hope you enjoyed the above article.
If you’d like coaching and/or counseling to take control of your life, feel free to contact me for a free 15 minute strategy session.
Steve Borgman, LCPC, is a cognitive behavioral therapist and currently owns a private practice in Barrington, IL. To find out more about Steve, check Counseling and Psychotherapy in Barrington, IL.