For many people, the battle with sugar can be particularly ferocious. It can arise during an afternoon slump at work, first thing in the morning, after every meal, in the middle of a workout — or, worst, in the middle of the night. In a sugar-laden world, it becomes too easy to reach for a quick fix.
Cravings tend to crop up when there’s a sense of depletion. However, if you can pinpoint what you lack (awareness, awareness, awareness), it’s easier to make healthier choices instead of going for something sugar-coated.
Here are a few possibilities for what may be driving those sweet cravings:
For many people, a sugar craving in the form of chocolate could signal a lack of magnesium, a common deficiency according to researcher Susan Yanovski from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Yanovski says that around 80% of people in the U.S. may be deficient in the mineral, which can be tied to irritability, insomnia and high blood pressure. If you feel stressed, chocolate may seem like the answer, but it could be your body yearning for magnesium instead.
While the cacao in chocolate is a rich source of magnesium, the sugar in chocolate could turn frequent consumption into a potential problem since it causes insulin spikes and other issues. Instead of chocolate, reach for non-sugar magnesium sources like nuts, seeds, beans and dark leafy greens.
“If we are to prescribe a diet to improve someone’s health, it’s important that we understand what microbes help control those beneficial effects,” says Jeffrey Gordon biologist and professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
In his research, Gordon found consumption of sugary food can cause gut bacteria to become dependent on it, and cause rejection when healthier foods are introduced. That’s right: Your gut can actively sabotage your attempts to eat better. But the good news is that it can be retrained, according to Gordon.
By bringing in foods that promote healthier bacteria — particularly options with high amounts of probiotics like low-sugar yogurt and other fermented foods — the good bacteria can replace the saboteurs.
Although sleep might be part of resting, consider adding more non-snoozing time into your day instead of seeing bedtime as your only opportunity to get some stress relief.
Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less,” notes that lack of adequate rest can make your body feel depleted in many ways, including nutritionally. This can kick off a need for a “boost” that might come in the form of sugar. While that may provide a temporary surge, it’s very short-lived and can quickly become a habit.
He suggests integrating short rest periods into every day, especially at times when sugar cravings are strong. For instance, instead of that afternoon pick-me-up of sugary snacks, try going for a 15-minute walk outside. Walking is a conscious form of rest, Pang says, because it offers a break from everyday stressors.
Sometimes, sugar cravings can be particularly strong when you have a combination of these factors. For example, you might feel overwhelmed at work, which leads to less-than-ideal food choices that quickly turn into depletion and fatigue.
That kind of chain reaction sets up a condition for cravings. But fortunately, you can easily create healthier habits by taking a moment when the sugar monster appears to consider what you really want instead.