The psychology of sugar cravings

December 28, 2022
By Aditi Khurana,

Understand the psychology of sugar cravings

Cookies, shakes, and waffle cones with ice cream! Is your mouth watering? Are you craving dessert? Why? What happens in your brain that makes this sugary stuff so hard to resist?

Sugar products aligned together

Sugar is a general term used to describe a class of molecules called carbohydrates, and is found in a wide variety of foods and drinks. Psychology is the study of the human mind and behaviour. Psychology includes the study of conscious and unconscious phenomena, including feelings and thoughts. However, a combination of physiological and economic factors contribute to why people so frequently overeat the ‘sweet stuff’ today. 

Another reason the sugar’s draw is so strong is that one must please the brain’s reward system. This reward system produces the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine when exposed to sugar. When you eat sugar, dopamine neurons in the VTA are activated and head toward the nucleus. Dopamine in that area then increases, strengthening the brain pathways that make you want to do it all over again. In simple terms, when sugar hits your tongue it makes you crave more. Food that contains sugar activates the sweet taste receptors that are a part of the taste buds on the tongue. These receptors send a signal to the brain stem, and it forks off into many areas of the forebrain, one of which is the cerebral cortex. Different sections of the cerebral cortex process distinct tastes: bitter, salty, umami, and sweet. From here, the signal activates the reward system which is a complicated network but helps answer a single sub-conscious question: Should I do that again or should I eat more? Hence there is a strong connection between Sugar and Mood. People who eat processed foods like sweetened desserts, fried foods, and processed meats are more likely to be diagnosed with depression than people who mainly rely on unprocessed, whole foods.

But sugar is everywhere, from drinks and sauces to soups and sandwiches. Identify places where sugar hides in your diet and develop strategies to gradually reduce it. Your palate will adjust as you eliminate sugar, and you will need less sugar to satisfy your cravings. Hence, piling your plates with more plants will keep depression at bay.

So here are a few ways to break the sugar craving cycle. These habits can help overcome craving :

  • Limit exposure: Do not try to satisfy a food craving with just a taste of something; it will likely backfire by serving as a cue to eat more or reinforcing a previously established habit. 
  • Give it time: when people cut way back on carbs (including sugar), cravings dissipate within weeks. Exactly how long it takes will vary from person to person. 
  • Break the association: If you always crave a sweet snack mid-afternoon, try taking a walk at that time. Because the body needs to decondition itself so that your brain no longer links that moment in your day with sugar. 
  • Strive for a balanced diet: Eating ample fiber, protein, and healthy fat increases satiety, keeps blood sugar levels stable and reduces sugar cravings.

Read the food labels: Food manufacturers frequently add sugar to savoury foods like marinara sauce, canned soup, and even bread to boost flavour satisfaction. Flip over any box, bag, or jar when buying. If added sugar is one of the first five ingredients, return the product to the shelf.

How to read food label

Now is the time! Join us for the #SmitSaysQuit month and take the first step towards your sugar detox journey.

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