Why We Crave Sugar

Humans are born with a preference for sweet foods; most of us will eat almost anything made with sugar. We especially like sweetened, fatty foods like cakes and ice cream because while sugar enhances the flavor of these foods, fat provides a pleasant texture or "mouth feel." The combination can be irresistible.

For anyone who is able to control the amount of sugary foods in their diets, and enjoy small amounts in the context of an otherwise healthful lifestyle, this is not a problem. But for others, sugar cravings can ultimately lead to weight gain, obesity, and increased risk of developing chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Hooked on the Sweet Stuff

Some people struggle with sugar cravings the way an addict struggles with drug or alcohol addiction; they have to stay away from the sweet stuff altogether, or they will go on a binge and abuse it. Giving in and eating sugary foods may only result in cravings for more. Animal studies support the idea of sugar addiction; lab studies show that animals can form a dependence on sugar; this can result in binging after a period of abstinence.

Other studies have shown that sugar causes the same chemical changes in the brain that occur with addictive substances. That is, eating sugar releases both naturally occurring opiates like endorphins (which produce feelings of well-being and satisfaction), and chemical messengers such as dopamine, which motivate us to seek out and eat food. At the same time, excess sugar can block the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that normally restricts dopamine and prevents us from overeating. For some people, this is a seemingly unstoppable cycle; it's no wonder some people labels themselves "sugar addicts."

"The dopamine effect causes many people to turn to sweets for the emotional satisfaction," adds Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LD, CDE, Chicago-based spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and author of Diabetes Meal Planning and Nutrition for Dummies. That's just one reason why "It’s important to figure out if you are eating because you are really hungry or if you’re responding to other feelings."

The Gut-Brain Connection

Your enteric nervous system, also known as your "gut brain," along with a working community of bacteria that live in your gut (the “gut microbiome") controls the production of enzymes and hormones related to appetite and eating. Messages of craving, hunger, and fullness are communicated from the control center in your gut to your brain, and back again. These signals may help drive our preference toward sweetened foods.

But there are other factors that encourage us to eat lots of sugar, including the social pressure to eat with others as well as emotional problems and stress Researchers are also investigating the role of genes in our individual taste for sugar, and how much of the sweet stuff we actually eat.

What Can You Do?

So what’s a sugar fiend to do? Caving into sugar cravings is usually only a problem if you regularly overeat sugary foods or if you overeat in general. When you are trying to resist a craving, try the following:

  • Try to distract yourself until the urge goes away. For most people, that happens within about 15 minutes. If your cravings are tied to emotional eating, you must confront and resolve the issues underlying your need to eat.
  • Eat three balanced meals a day within four or five hours of each other. If your cravings are due to real hunger, this might reduce your craving's frequency and intensity. If necessary, supplement your meals with planned snacks. If your meals and snacks are balanced, and you’re getting enough carbs and fat in your diet, it will be easier to avoid the abrupt chemical changes in the brain that appear to induce cravings.
  • Plan your meals. "Planning your meals—and sticking to that plan—is an important part of controlling what you eat," Smithson adds. "You can include a small portion of sweets in your meal plan because that’s very different than eating randomly."

Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, reviewed this article.


Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE. E-mail to author January 28, 2016.

Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. "Evidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake." Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews. 2008;32(1): 20-39.

Avena NM, Long KA, Hoebel BG. "Sugar-Dependent Rats Show Enhanced Responding for Sugar After Abstinence: Evidence of a Sugar Deprivation Effect." Physiology & Behavior 2005;84(3):359-362.

Dias AG and El-Sohemy A. "Genetic Variation in TAS1R2 Taste Receptor and Sweet Taste Perception and Sugar Intake." FASEB April 2012;26:633.7

Sandrini S, Aldriwesh M, Airuways M, Freestone P. "Microbial Endocrinology: Host-Bacteria Communication With the Gut Microbiome." J Endocrinology 2015; 225:R21-R34.

Yanovski S. "Sugar and Fat: Cravings and Aversions." JN 2003;133(3): 8355-8375.