Today’s food landscape is rife with quick, cheap access to sugar whenever we are craving it — and even when we aren’t. Grocery and convenience stores are stocked with cookies, candy, sugary beverages and other sweet snacks strategically placed at the checkout prompting unhealthy impulse buys. What’s more, sugar can be hidden under many names in unsuspecting foods ranging from condiments to frozen fruits.
Even after a satisfying meal, sugar cravings can hit you hard. This could be due to factors such as dehydration or lack of sleep. Another explanation is hedonic hunger — or eating for pleasure rather than for satisfaction. Researchers are still trying to figure out why this happens, but before we take the first bite, the sight of a sugary or fatty food causes the brain’s reward circuit to get excited.
Once the sweet treat hits your tastebuds, signals are fired off to the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that causes an intense feeling of pleasure. Overeating sugary foods not only floods the brain with dopamine but also creates a pattern of sugar cravings. In a short time, the brain starts to crave more sugar to reach the same threshold of pleasure it once got from small amounts of these feel-good foods.
To cut back on sugar, start by tracking your intake with an app like MyFitnessPal and prioritize whole foods. These 10 picks provide important satiating nutrients like protein, healthy fats and fiber to keep you fuller, longer and prevent cravings caused by blood sugar crashes.
Packed with heart-healthy fats, almonds can help control blood sugar, keeping intense sugar cravings in check. The healthy fats in nuts keep you feeling satisfied even longer, making it less likely for you to have an energy dip between meals — when sugar cravings are often at their worst. Add them to oatmeal, sprinkle them in salads, use them in energy bars or make your own almond butter and almond milk.
The healthy monounsaturated fats in avocado can play a role in satiety and satisfaction, while helping to keep your blood sugar balanced. Avocados are also rich in fiber, which can help with the feeling of fullness, and antioxidants. Add avocado to your sandwiches, toast, soups, salads, egg dishes, smoothies, dressings and even desserts.
Unlike fruit juices and dried fruit that are high in sugar and low in fiber, whole, fresh fruit like raspberries provides a great source of fiber that allows for the slow-release of the natural sugars. With only 5 grams of sugar per cup, raspberries are also a low-sugar fruit, along with blackberries and strawberries. Pro tip: Blend frozen berries into a smoothie or cream them in the food processor with half a frozen banana to create a thicker frozen texture similar to soft-serve ice cream.
Many sugar cravings stem from undereating in general or imbalanced meals and snacks. The brain sends signals craving sugar or energy. Cheese is high in the amino acid tyrosine, which helps the brain release transmitters such as dopamine that regulate pleasure centers and can have a calming effect. Cheese is a great source of protein and fat to help balance blood sugar, and also provides micronutrients, like zinc, calcium and vitamin B12.
Eggs are a nutrient-dense, budget-friendly source of protein and fat. Their savory nature lends them to be a great option for stabilizing blood sugar and sugar cravings. Not only does their protein and fat help keep you full, but they also offer essential nutrients, like choline, vitamin D and B vitamins. While eggs are a great breakfast option, they can also be used on pizza, hard-boiled as a snack, or in grain bowls.
The fiber from celery paired with protein and healthy fat from peanut butter is a triple play for stable energy. Snacks rich in these three nutrients are the best way to keep you sustained between meals, as protein, fats and fiber are digested slowly to gradually release energy over time, making it less likely you’ll hit that afternoon energy crash.
Beans and lentils are great plant-based proteins to add to your diet, plus they are budget-friendly pantry staples with a long shelf life. A cup of beans offers 7–9 grams of protein and 6–8 grams of fiber, which are filling and stabilize blood sugar. Legumes can also help with digestion and provide an array of other nutrients, such as iron, B vitamins and potassium. Add them to salads, soups, pasta, veggie burgers and even in desserts like brownies.
Another cause of your sugar cravings could be an imbalanced gut microbiome, where the bacteria have adapted to thrive on sugar. To reset your gut’s natural balance of bacteria, choose low-sugar Greek yogurt and kefir that are packed with active probiotics. Greek yogurt is also rich in protein, keeping you fueled until your next meal. Add them to parfaits, smoothies, or use Greek yogurt in baked goods or as a substitute for mayo or sour cream.
Beyond being a great source of protein, fiber and fat, pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas) are rich in magnesium. If you crave chocolate, maybe your body is asking for more magnesium, as cocoa is also rich in this crucial mineral. Choose other high-magnesium foods such as leafy greens and seeds to boost your magnesium levels. Pump up your magnesium by topping this squash soup with toasted pumpkin seeds.
Sweet potatoes are naturally sweet without sugar, so they’re great substitutes for sugary options when your sweet tooth hits. As a fiber-rich complex carbohydrate, they also offer long lasting energy that can help keep you focused and stave off cravings for hours. Enjoy them with eggs in breakfast hash, pair them with black beans in enchiladas, add them to salads and grain bowls, or use them in healthier desserts like these brownies or pie bars.
Originally published September 2017, updated with additional reporting by Sarah Schlichter, RD.
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