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Sugar cravings: combating a sweet tooth

Sugar exists in our modern diets in a whole range of different forms.

Psychologist Dr Jen Nash offers her take on dealing with sugar cravings and offers a perspective on the underlying causes behind them.

The sour side of a sweet tooth

Ever raided the biscuit tin? Tucked into treats at the office? Added an extra spoonful of sugar to your coffee? Sugar has become a staple ingredient of modern day eating, and everyone, with or without diabetes, can benefit from limiting their intake.

But, in our sugar-laden diets, this is easier said than done, particularly as sweet food is often offered as an expression of love in our food-abundant cultures. We take a look at the psychological reasons behind sugar cravings, in an effort to help you master them...

Why do we crave sugar?

It is perfectly natural to enjoy sweet food. We have evolved from times when food was scarce, and high calorie food was rewarding both to our taste buds, and for our survival.  Some people feel ‘addicted’ to sugar, and report that freedom only comes when they completely abstain from it.

Sweet food certainly acts on the reward systems in our brains, and, for most of us, sweet food has a positive impact on mood, at least in the short-term.


The concept of a sweet tooth is a fascinating one. As a psychologist working with people with a ‘sweet tooth’, it is interesting that often the desire for sugary food is a signal that ‘sweetness’ is craved for in another part of life.

Craving sweet food has become a socially acceptable smokescreen for a desire for ‘sweetness’ in other forms, whether it’s stress relief, comfort, reward, overcoming tiredness, or prolonging a celebration.

It's important to note that it's not 'bad' to crave sugar, and shouldn't be something you should feel guilty about - cravings are natural and most of us deal with them at some point.

Mind over matter

But, what has your ‘inner world’ got to do with sugar? If you’re curious, the first step is be a detective and notice what’s going on when the sugar craving strikes. You can start by getting clued up about the three different types of hunger –

  1. Stomach hunger is the signal that your body needs to be fed. E.g. an empty/gnawing feelings in your stomach, irritability, headache or fatigue, amongst others.
  2. Mouth hunger occurs when one of your senses triggers a desire for food –smelling or seeing food / images of food, or hearing food-related sounds such as a packet being opened.
  3. Heart hunger is a desire for food that occurs due to an emotion, memory or thought, or about your sense of self. It develops suddenly and occurs in your mind. Eating often leads to guilt and/or shame, rather than the satisfaction that comes with eating in response to stomach hunger.

If you’re not experiencing stomach hunger when you’re craving, then it means you’re ‘hungry’ for something else. Sometimes only sweet food will do, but rather than just ‘numbing out’ and eating unconsciously, start to see the desire for sweet food as a symptom, or clue, revealing something else. Try asking yourself, ‘What am I really hungry for?’

Could it be...

  • To reward or treat yourself for a job well done (or just getting through the challenges of the day)?
  • To prolong a ‘high’ or celebration?
  • Or something deeper - a different relationship, a less stressful job, or a more appealing way to spend your days?

Sometimes it’s possible to create changes in life to get these true ‘cravings’ met:

  • Leave or speak up in a relationship that isn’t working for you
  • Read a book that teaches skills to communicate differently to people that leave you feeling angry/taken advantage of
  • Find more creative ways of rewarding yourself
  • Change your job, or negotiate different conditions.

If it’s possible to make the change then do so, and notice what happens to those sugar cravings. But sometimes it feels impossible to make these big changes and we can feel very stuck. Often just the insight of what you are truly craving loosens the grip of power that it has over you. So rather than saying to yourself, ‘What’s the matter with me, I just can’t resist sweet food’, you can instead start to see the craving as an attempt to get an important ‘inner’ need met. You can begin to have a different conversation with yourself, ‘Ah I see, I’m craving this sugary food because of XYZ’.

Sugar doesn’t have to be the enemy, to be battled. When we switch our mind-set to see the sugar as an attempt to take care of ourselves, we can start to think creatively about our choices. Think of a child you know. Yes, they might want to keep eating sweet food until they’re sick, but as a parent, you likely allow sugar in moderation, and then engage them in a distracting activity that will appeal at least as much. What might be your equivalent? After all, as adults we too need a good balance of work, rest and play.

Look elsewhere for your fix

If you realise you are craving sweet food in relation to your inner world, try one or more of the following and see what’s helpful:

  • Talking to someone who understands
  • Writing it down (you can destroy it afterwards)
  • Getting active/engaging in physical activities
  • Create another way of treating yourself
  • Say no to others’ requests
  • Have a sleep
  • Meditating, praying or having some other reflection time

Sugar cravings, as well as cravings for reward, solace and celebration, are natural. Remember it’s ok to use sugar to deal with life’s problems some of the time – most people do.

Finally, try and learn from the 'predictability of life'. If you know that certain situations, events, people and feelings trigger your sugar cravings, how can you be kind to yourself and create a plan to help you?

Sometimes preparation is the best form of defence...

Win the ‘inner battle’ with sugar

Sugar cravings, as well as cravings for reward, solace and celebration, are natural. Remember it’s ok to use sugar to deal with life’s problems some of the time – most people do. Difficulties occur when sugar becomes the ‘go-to’ way of dealing with problems it wasn’t designed to fix. By figuring out what you are truly craving, and developing a range of ways of dealing with it, you will be in control, not the sugar.

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