13 reasons you might crave sweets from a non-diet dietitian who cares about your relationship with food
We’re addicted to sugar. Sugar is addictive. I can’t keep this stuff in the house because I have no self-control. I might as well finish the whole container of cookies, so I can get a fresh start on Monday. Don’t even bring those over here for me to see, or I’ll eat all of them.
Our culture loves to demonize sugar and claim that it is addictive. I don’t subscribe to this way of thinking and do not support the use of fear mongering. There are many reasons we might constantly crave sweets that have nothing to do with addictive pathways in the brain. Most are because of normal responses from our body. Let’s get into it.
1 - You aren’t eating enough total calories
Y’all remember homeostasis from science class? It’s how the body regulates processes to maintain stability aka keep us alive. If you aren’t meeting your calorie/energy requirements, the body may compensate by seeking out high-energy foods aka sweets that tend to be high in sugar and fat to help meet those needs.
2 - You aren’t eating enough carbohydrates
Side note: It’s not ideal to use protein as an energy source because that means the body breaks down muscle. We know that declining muscle mass may lead to muscle wasting, mobility problems, and decreased immune function as we age. Whether you’re in your 30s, 40s, 50s, or beyond, we’re all aging, so this matters!
Carbohydrates are the brain’s preferred source of energy. Nerd stat - the brain is approximately 2% of the total weight of the body, but it uses approximately 20% of all the energy made from glucose, a carbohydrate (1).
“But the brain can use ketones as a fuel source.” This is true and the basis of the keto diet, BUT I’m not even going to dignify this diet because it’s not sustainable and more likely to worsen your relationship with food (plus many other issues I have with it).
3 - You go long periods of time without eating
It’s difficult to meet your energy/calorie needs in a day if you don't eat for long periods of time. As discussed above, if you aren’t meeting your calorie needs, your body will probably seek out high-energy foods to help make up for that.
Restricting food for long periods of time will also make you more likely to binge when you do have access to food. We’ll talk more below about the restrict binge cycle.
Swings in your blood sugar can impact your emotions and decision-making, so you may feel foggy and not make ideal choices around food.
4 - You’re in a restrict binge cycle
By themselves or in combinations, the three examples above can put you into what’s called a restrict binge cycle. If you’re greatly limiting what and when you eat (intentionally or unintentionally), you are likely to end up binging on food. Then, you may feel shame, like you “fell off the wagon”, or that you need to try harder or eat healthier, so you end up back at restricting, and the cycle continues. Does this sound familiar to you?
5 - You aren’t satisfied by the food you’re eating
If you don’t feel satisfied after a meal, you might reach for other things to eat. I’m guessing you can remember an experience like this. You try to sub something that's low-calorie, low-fat, or a “healthified” version of a dessert that doesn’t actually satisfy you and then keep looking for satisfaction which leads to overeating.
6 - You live in a food environment where you are constantly exposed to food marketing
We constantly receive marketing for food via tv, social media, online, etc. Of course, if you see a commercial for some new dessert or buy one get one free deal, you’re more likely to crave those things.
Cravings aren’t inherently bad, but when you pair marketing with the way our culture demonizes sugar and sweets (will discuss this below), it creates an internal conflict about whether sweet foods are good or bad, and it’s confusing to our brains.
7 - You have a negative view of sweets or put them on a pedestal/separate them from other food groups
You call sugar addicting.
You call certain foods a “guilty” pleasure.
You classify them as “bad” or a “cheat”. Again, viewing something as forbidden is going to add an allure to it and make you hyper focused on it.
You use them as a reward. I have a lot of feelings around this, especially when using it with kids. Do not recommend.
8 - You have specific food rules around sweets
You avoid keeping sweets in your house. You say things like, “I can’t keep x,y,z in my house because I’ll eat it all right away. I have no self-control.” It’s basic psychology - you are going to want something more if you think you shouldn’t have it or it’s forbidden.
You choose only low-fat or low-calorie options. I’m not saying these options aren’t enjoyable, but often, they leave you feeling less satisfied than you were hoping. As discussed above, this can send you into a cycle of seeking other foods until you feel satisfied.
You only allow yourself a certain amount or portion size. If you have a predetermined amount you can have, you aren’t honoring what your body wants or needs at that time. Maybe the portion size is too much some days or not satisfying enough for others.
You only have them for special occasions or a certain number of times a week, month, etc. Again, having strict and inflexible rules generally backfires. Unlimited access removes the allure and it just becomes food.
9 - You use sweets as a coping mechanism for difficult emotions or situations
I’ll start by saying that it’s okay and normal for food to bring us comfort, joy, and other positive emotions. We celebrate with food, we bond over food, we show love with food, and this is all natural to humans. What matters is the frequency and severity of the emotional eating.
Get curious about what situations, thinking patterns, etc. are linked with emotional eating. Are there certain times of day this comes up? Certain situations at work or home? Specific emotions like grief or exhaustion that start the spiral for you? Once you can better identify your patterns, you can start replacing eating with other coping skills that will help you feel better long term.
Also, note that during times your fight or flight response is activated, short term or long term, your body prefers quick energy (carbs) in case the body needs to jump into action to survive - the classic getting chased by a lion example applies here - which means you’re likely to turn to high carb foods.
10 - Your sleep is garbage
Not getting enough sleep or getting poor quality sleep impacts hormones that help regulate our hunger and satiety (2). With poor sleep:
Ghrelin is increased = increased appetite
Leptin is decreased = decreased satiety
If your appetite is higher and it takes more to be satisfied, you’re likely to crave and potentially overeat high sugar and fat foods.
Side note: This is just one example of how sleep impacts nutrition and health. I cannot emphasize the importance of sleep enough. It’s the foundation to everything, and focusing on this is better than all of the other wellness bullshit out there.
11 - You aren’t present when you do eat sweets
Due to the chaotic pace of our culture, many of us move through life on autopilot and don’t experience true presence very often. Generally, our attention is divided between two or more things at a time - the limit does not exist here. Eating while driving, working, watching tv, reading, having a toddler screaming in your face, etc. makes it difficult to be present. You probably won’t experience the full satisfaction you might otherwise, which makes you want the dessert more often to try and reach that feeling.
If you’re in a period of life where you’re experiencing high stress, anxiety, depression, etc., it’s likely you may dissociate which makes you unable to be present in your body. Mindfulness practices and getting back into your body with things like meditation, yoga, walking, or other exercises can help with this.
12 - You rely on willpower to avoid sweets instead of trusting your body
If willpower worked when it came to nutrition and health, we wouldn’t have a billion dollar diet industry and constant misinformation being spewed on social media to help people lose weight and “be healthy”.
If you give yourself unlimited access to sweets, you’ll probably binge and overeat at the beginning. That's true. Then you may start to notice you don't feel your best and/or those foods start to lose the allure when you know you can have it whenever you want. If you developed true trust with your body, the amount and frequency you'd consume would eventually normalize.
We see intuitive eating and body trust in small children because they haven't internalized diet culture yet and generally eat what tastes and feels good to them. An example: you put dessert with the meal every night at dinner, so it's not so special Some nights they may eat the dessert first or last, eat only a few bites, or not eat any at all AND still eat other things on their plates. If you do have kids, know that they are paying attention and learning from you. How you talk about and interact with food has an enormous impact on their relationship with food as they grow.
13 - You just like to eat things that taste good
It is okay to eat sugar/carbs and enjoy sweet foods that bring you joy.
A Recap For You
Eat enough food.
Please eat carbs.
Eat food regularly.
Restrict less and you'll likely binge less.
Eat foods that are satisfying to you.
Reject fear mongering around food.
How you think and talk about food matters.
Take a look at strict food rules you might have.
Get curious about difficult emotions and patterns of using food as a way to cope.
Take sleep seriously.
Fuck willpower - learn to trust yourself and your body.
It’s normal to enjoy and crave things that taste good to you.
If you’re ready to:
Feel more confident in the decisions you make about food and your health
Have a more neutral and respectful relationship with your body
Spend your valuable energy on things you enjoy rather than stressing about food
… then my personalized nutrition coaching package is for you. Through February 2024, I'm offering $100 off the package. Click here to find out more.
This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of health conditions, or a client/provider relationship. Always consult with your healthcare provider.