What are sugar cravings?

Wrapped up in emotion and that inimitable feel-good factor – cakes, biscuits and chocolate sometimes just seem to shout ‘eat me.’ If this sounds familiar then you’re not alone, food cravings and especially those for sugary carbs are common, especially among women. Fluctuations in hormones including oestrogen, progesterone and insulin can trigger a sugar urge. This is why many women experience cravings just before their period or during the shifting hormonal levels typical of perimenopause.


For others, a low mood can make them feel like they are hard-wired to eat sugar and that’s no surprise when you realise that carb intake is closely associated with the release of the feel-good brain chemical, serotonin. Another reason for your sugar ‘need’ could be an imbalance in your blood sugar (glucose) levels. This may be caused by not eating enough or eating high-sugar foods that have set you on a roller coaster of blood sugar highs and lows. Other factors that may trigger sugar cravings include stress, certain medications and health conditions.

Read 10 things you should know before giving up sugar and why is sugar bad for me? Also find out how to spot hidden sugars and all you need to know about sugar substitutes, like aspartame.

Woman enjoying pieces of chocolate brownie

Why are sugar cravings hard to fix?

How you beat sugar cravings really depends on what causes them – perhaps your meals aren’t satisfying enough, you’ve established a daily ‘need’ for a sugary treat or you just want a little boost in the lead-up to your period.

Breaking habits that make you feel good is challenging. That’s because pleasurable activities trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine which strengthens your sense of reward and enjoyment. So give yourself a break and don’t be disheartened if you come across one or two hiccups.

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10 ways to beat sugar cravings

1. Make meals matter

Low levels of protein and fat combined with high levels of fast-releasing (white) carbs in meals and snacks may cause blood sugar levels to fluctuate. This means that not long after eating, your body will be craving more quick energy in the form of sugary, fast-releasing foods.

What to do:

  • Add a little protein to sweet snacks. For example, enjoy a handful of plain nuts with a piece of fruit, this helps stabilise the release of energy.
  • Choose wholegrain versions of carbs like pasta, rice and bread – the fibre content in these foods helps steady the release of energy and keeps you fuller for longer.
  • Make sure your meals are balanced with adequate amounts of protein such as meat, fish, eggs, beans or pulses, and good fats from nuts, seeds, avocado and olives.

2. Satisfy sweetness

A great way to satisfy your craving is to add sweeter-tasting whole foods to your diet.

What to do:

  • Include vegetables like sweet potatoes, pumpkin or parsnip to your diet. Unlike white potatoes, sweet potatoes count as one of your five-a-day and are rich in fibre and protective compounds called polyphenols. These are both protective and help promote a healthy gut.
  • With a subtly sweet taste, nuts like almonds, make a great addition to porridge and smoothies as their mellow flavour helps replace sweeter-tasting ingredients.

3. Know your nutritional needs

Certain vitamins and minerals are needed to help you balance your blood sugar levels, eating a varied, balanced diet is important to help meet these needs.

What to do:

  • Get enough magnesium – it’s involved in more than three hundred of the body’s enzyme reactions and plays an important role in the regulation of blood sugar. We need to consume magnesium-rich foods regularly, such as green leafy vegetables, nuts and wholemeal bread.
  • Other micronutrients which play an important role in blood sugar balance include B vitamins, vitamin C, chromium and zinc.

4. Curfew your cravings

Keep your trigger foods, such as chocolate, biscuits, cakes and cookies, out of the house or at least out of sight.

What to do:

  • When you have a craving, satisfy the urge with a healthier substitute such as a naturally sweet herbal tea – try apple, rooibos, vanilla or liquorice root.

5. Stick to a schedule

It may sound boring, but keeping to regular meal and snack times can help to reduce times you’re left feeling hungry.

What to do:

  • A protein-rich breakfast is key to stabilising blood sugar at the start of your day. Find ideas in our protein-packed breakfasts.
  • Eat balanced meals containing protein, fat and carbs, as well as healthy snacks throughout the day. This will improve your resilience and stop you feeling tempted by the biscuit barrel later in the afternoon. We have plenty of healthy snack ideas for you to try.
Hand holding large chocolate cookie

6. Target triggers

Certain points in the day can be a trigger – your commute to the office, passing the coffee bar, the 3pm vending machine run.

What to do:

  • Identify the places, times, people or activities that act as your personal triggers and take steps to avoid or change them.

7. Sleep soundly

A UK study found that people who increased the length of their sleep each night reduced their sugar intake by as much as 10 grams the following day.

What to do:

  • Adopting appropriate sleep hygiene behaviours like avoiding caffeine after 2pm, establishing a wind down routine and keeping to a regular sleep-wake cycle may lengthen the duration of your sleep and, as a result, improve your food choices.

8. Get support

It always helps to talk with someone who understands what you’re going through.

What to do:

Call a friend as a distraction strategy, as well as for valued words of encouragement. You could even take on the challenge of beating your cravings together.

9. Keep active

Going for a walk, run or other form of exercise helps stabilise blood sugar levels and makes the blood sugar hormone, insulin, more effective.

What to do:

  • Follow a regular and consistent exercise programme to help support levels of feel-good serotonin and help manage the stress hormone, cortisol. Elevated and consistently high levels of the latter lead to increased blood sugar because it prepares the body for fight or flight.
  • Try these budget-busting exercise ideas.

10. Take a hot bath or shower

A small study in the UK reported that soaking in a hot bath for an hour lowered blood sugar levels in sedentary, overweight males who were unable to exercise.

What to do:

  • This was a small study and limited in its findings, but it does suggest that taking a hot bath or shower may be more than just a relaxing thing to do. That said, exercise caution if you plan to try this at home – make sure the water temperature isn’t hot enough to cause injury and make sure someone is at hand if you need assistance.

Want more help to cut down on sugar? Try these…

Davina McCall: How to be sugar-free
Our favourite lower sugar recipes
Our guide to sugar-free baking
Why is sugar bad for you?
10 things you should know before giving up sugar
All you need to know about sugar
More health & nutrition tips

This article was reviewed on 26th October 2023 by Kerry Torrens, Registered Nutritionist.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.


All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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