Why are sugar cravings so hard to fix?

Wrapped up in emotion and that inimitable feel-good factor – cakes, biscuits and chocolate 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. Many women experience cravings just before their period or during the shifting hormonal levels typical of the perimenopause.


Some days it just feels like you’re 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.

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 that sugar-laden cookie or you just want a little boost in the lead up to your period. Whatever the cause, we have a solution – read on for our simple strategies to put sugar cravings behind you.

Find out more about your recommended daily sugar allowance in our guide on 'why is sugar bad for me'. Looking for a sweet alternative or want to know your fructose from your sucrose? Find out more in our sugar hub.

Your 10 point plan to fix those sugar cravings

1. Make meals matter

Low levels of protein and fat combined with high levels of fast-releasing carbs in meals and snacks will 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. Adding a little protein to sweet snacks like a handful of plain nuts with a piece of fruit helps stabilise energy release.

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. 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 satiated for longer.

Woman balancing salad in one hand and donuts in the other

2. Satisfy sweetness

A great way to satisfy that sweet need is to add sweeter tasting vegetables like sweet potatoes or pumpkin 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, which help promote a healthy gut.

3. Know your nutritional needs

Certain vitamins and minerals are needed to balance blood sugar levels. One such mineral is magnesium, which as well as being involved in more than three hundred enzyme reactions in the body, plays an important role in the regulation of blood sugar. We need to consume magnesium-rich foods regularly – achieve the levels needed by including plenty of green leafy vegetables, nuts and wholemeal bread in your diet.

Other micronutrients which play an important role in blood sugar balance include the B complex of vitamins, vitamin C, chromium and zinc.

4. Curfew your cravings

Keep problem foods out of the house or at least out of sight. When you have a craving, try satisfying it with a healthier substitute such as a naturally sweet herbal tea – useful ones to try are apple, rooibos, vanilla or liquorice root.

5. Stick to a schedule

It may sound boring, but keeping to regular meal and snack times helps minimise those ‘on the hoof’ moments when you’re less aware of what you might be consuming. By eating balanced meals and snacks regularly through the day you’ll improve your resilience and be more likely to resist the vending machine or the biscuit barrel later in the afternoon.

6. Target triggers

Certain points in the day can act as a trigger – your commute to the office, passing the coffee bar, the 3pm vending machine run etc. Identifying the places, times, people or activities that act as triggers and taking steps to avoid or change them can make all the difference. Be prepared for one or two hiccups though – breaking habits that make you feel good is a particularly challenging thing to do. That’s because pleasurable activities trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine which strengthens your sense of reward and enjoyment.

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

8. Call a friend

It always helps to talk with someone who understands what you’re going through. Call a friend as a distraction strategy, as well as for valued words of encouragement.

Woman working out on a blue mat at home

9. Exercise regularly

Going for a walk, run or other form of exercise helps stabilise blood sugar levels and makes insulin more effective. Following a regular and consistent exercise programme may also 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.

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. 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.

Useful resources for cutting down on sugar

Davina McCall: How to be sugar-free
Our favourite lower sugar recipes
BBC Good Food’s guide to sugar-free baking

Like this? Now read…

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 published on 16th September 2020.

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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