Such a cute name to give to such a demanding, insatiable beast. The thing that ruins your weight loss efforts, fuels your emotional eating, and tempts you into believing that you can stop at ‘just one cookie’.
Well, I’m a huge fan of ‘know your enemy’ – and that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.
And I’m also a huge believer of the idea that once we understand something, we can start to love it.
…And from that place of understanding and love, we can change 🙂 And that’s also exactly what we’re going to do today.
Exploring your sweet tooth
First we’re going to explore why so many of us have a sweet tooth, and understand how and why it works the way it does.
Then I’m going to show you how to look at your cravings in a different way.
And once you’ve mastered that, I’m going to give you some actionable strategies to use to move past the control your sweet tooth has on you.
Sounds like a lot, huh? Well, I didn’t call it ‘Ultimate Guide’ for nothing!
Why do we have a sweet tooth?
4 Key causes
Cravings, especially the craving and enjoyment of sweet foods, are an interesting intersection between hunger and emotion. More than any other food or flavour, people report craving sugary foods. For an awesome (scientific) read about our love for sugar, check out this research article: The Human Sweet Tooth.
There are lots of reasons for this, and they fall into 4 main categories. You can use the craving cause checklist I’ve made as a starting place to figure out where you might be.
This is important because depending on what’s casing your sweet tooth, you’ll need a different approach to healing or dealing with it. So, take a look at these 4 sugar-craving-causes. Let’s start with:
1) Foods that make you go WOAH!
Your sweet tooth is actually really helpful.
Or it used to be.
Humans have evolved to have a preference for sweet foods because often, if a food is sweet, it means it’s not poisonous and is full of energy. So, back in the day when we were hunting and gathering, if a food was sweet, it was a good thing and we were really attracted to eating it. Similarly, mother’s milk is sweet and super nutritious (and full of energy), so we’ve all got both an innate and a learned preference for sweet foods.
But, I don’t think this really covers the raging sweet tooth so many of us have.
The cravings, the hunger, and the sweet-thing binges… these are definitely NOT adaptive.
Some of it is the foods themselves. Hunter-gatherers got fruit, berries, and the odd bit of honey – and I’m pretty sure they didn’t sit around wondering where their next fix of raspberries was coming from. These days we are surrounded by cookies, cake, and candies… and we definitely sit around planning our next fix.
Why? Because these ‘foods’ are designed to be craved. They are made by scientists, marketers, and corporations who really, really want you to crave their product. So, they create the goodies with just the right amount of everything, which SUPER activates your sweet tooth, and your wonderful, healthy, natural preference for something sweet is hijacked and turned into this thing that gives you so much grief. Michael Moss wrote a great book about this, Salt Sugar Fat: How the food giants hooked us, and it’s a great read if you’re interested in knowing more about human-engineered foods, and how we love them.
So, it could be the foods you’re eating that are fuelling your sweet tooth. This isn’t meant to sound accusatory, but empowering. If it’s the choices you’re making, then you can totally change it simply by making different choices.
What can you do about it?
Well, it’s as easy (and as hard) as making some different choices with your food. Simply (hahaha… ok, it can be really hard in practice!) stop eating crappy sugar filled foods for a few weeks and see what happens to your cravings. You can do this alone, or with the help of a coach. I know some awesome people who specialise in sugar cravings. For example:
Sarah Wood (we went through our coaching training together and I know she rocks!) specialises in empowering women to be their best, happiest, healthiest self and her ‘Yo-NO diet’ program has a strong focus on sugar and cravings.
You can also use one of the many sugar detox plans found online. If you decide to go this route, I strongly suggest reading this awesome post from Nia Shanks about the worries she has about detoxs (I totally agree with her), and please, please be careful to choose a positively focused, balanced cleanse or detox. For example:
I love and support the Whole30
I think Alex Jamieson has it going on!
I also trust Dr Mark Hyman in ‘How to detox from sugar’
It’s ok to ask for help
If you’ve been on this sugar cravings rollercoaster for a while, and feel like your cravings are too intense for you to manage alone – please get some help. There are lots of people who have been there, who would love to help you out. And it is in no way a ‘weakness’ to get help. If your sugar habit has become physical, your body chemistry (this is where insulin comes in – look up ‘insulin rollercoaster’ for more details), it may be bigger than you can deal with alone. That’s cool – this is such an opportunity for you to grow, learn, and become even more awesome!
2) Emotions love sugar
In my experience, the most common type of food used emotionally is sugar. Sweet treats help us feel less stressed, less angry, comforted, and taken care of.
And this is only natural. It’s ok. Used strategically, it’s a great emotional coping mechanism. But, when it’s out of control, causing massive cravings, or making you feel bad, then it’s obviously not a good thing.
Sugar can be used to calm or soften any strong emotion, not just negative ones. It’s also widely used to enhance positive emotions – I am soooooo intimately acquainted with this one. Sugar craving and celebrations go hand-in-hand for me.
And if we count boredom (or a kind of lack of emotional stimulation) as an emotion, then for some of you, this can cause sugar cravings too.
So, for some of us, if we feel too much, we turn to sugar to cope… and if we feel too little we turn to sugar to stimulate.
Why, why, why?
Why does sugar have this emotional hold over us? How can our emotional cause a sweet tooth?
Part of the answer is nurture, and part of it is nature.
Let’s start with nurture. This is basically the pattern you’ve been taught since childhood.
For most of us, as a baby (and even older), when we cried or were upset we were given milk from our mothers (or formula) which is sweet tasting, or candy as we got older. This made us feel better and lets us know we were seen, heard, and loved. So, when you grow up and you get upset… we want to feel this same way. The easiest way to try to do that? Eat. Drink. Sugar.
So, an emotional sweet tooth can be a deep habit.
It also has a nature, or biological basis, too. Quite simply, sugar stimulates our brains in ways we find really pleasurable. So, if you’re feeling like crap, sugar gives you a shot of pleasure, and if you’re feeling great, sugar can make that moment even better. As this study shows, your body and brain learn this pretty quickly, and want to use it all the time.
Combine both of these sugar-loving nature and nurtures, and it’s totally clear as to why you use sugar emotionally.
Sound like someone you know?
If this is sounding like you, and you think emotional eating might be the cause of your sweet tooth, there is a lot you can do. “Quitting sugar” is likely NOT going to work for you, as it might for someone who has more of a physical craving basis (as in the previous section). For you, you need to learn new coping strategies, sort through those emotions, and really develop some different pattern in your mind, body, and soul.
This can definitely be done alone, or with the help of a free online support group (Like the wonderful ‘Nourishing Nutters’ Facebook group). I love the books and workbook from Geneen Roth for an at-home approach. I’ve also got a free emotional eating journal challenge you can do at any time to get you looking at your food, body, and emotions more closely. Journaling is a fantastic emotional tool!
Or, if you want to see and feel results faster, you can hire a coach like me who specialises in emotional eating. I’ve got a ton of strategies, insights, and support to give and if you’d like to find out more, I do free 40 minute discovery calls so you can get some help quickly. I also have a very cool 8 weeks to eating easy program that will definitely help you out.
If my program doesn’t sound like it fits with you, Nutritional Therapist and Eating Psychology Coach Claudia Norris runs ‘Happy in Body’ and specialises in working with sugar cravings from a biochemical and emotional point of view.
3) You might be low in ______
As if physical cravings and emotional eating weren’t complicated enough, your sugar cravings might be a result of nutritional deficiencies.
Many nutritional deficiencies can cause sugar cravings. Insufficient zinc, chromium, magnesium, fat, protein, and even water (to name just a few) have been noted as causing sugar cravings in some people.
When I tried to look at the research on this… there was just so much! Too many to list and go into. There are some common ones like:
- Magnesium deficiency (which is especially likely if you specifically crave chocolate)
- Not eating enough fat
- Not eating enough quality carbohydrates
- Not getting enough sleep (ok, not nutritional, but still a deficiency)
These are common just because of the lifestyles most people lead.
This is a complex issue, and is more nuanced and personalised than I can help you with in a blog post. If you take a look at the craving cause checklist and think this cause might be you, go see your healthcare professional and get some tests done. It’s the fastest, easiest, and probably cheapest way to go. Self-diagnosis of deficiencies can take a lot of (expensive – if you’re trying supplements) trial and error because they symptoms can often be quite similar. So, drink some more water (just to be on the safe side) and go see your doctor 🙂
If nothing shows up on your tests, and you still think this describes you, then get yourself a functional doctor, nutritionist, or health coach (many of whom operate online these days, so it doesn’t matter where you live or work). Sometimes doctors’ training doesn’t stretch far enough into the nutritional realm for them to deal with this kind of thing effectively.
4) Bacteria, parasites, and fungus
– oh my!
Some natural health experts link infection or overgrowth of bacteria, parasites, and fungus with sugar cravings.
This seems to be a bit more controversial for those who go for more of a conventional medicine approach, but there is certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence out there – both from sufferers and healing professionals – that suggests that certain bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections can cause you to crave sugar.
The main idea here is that these little organisms mostly live off of glucose, and so to help them survive and thrive in your system, they release chemicals (or stimulate your cells to release chemicals) that result in sugar cravings. You eat more sugar; they reap the benefits of all the extra glucose in your system.
After doing some research myself, and finding an awful lot of hearsay and anecdotal evidence, and hardly any scientific references at all, here’s my opinion on the matter (and if anyone has any links to research, please share!):
Fact #1: Many bacteria, parasites, and fungi eat (or absorb) sugar (glucose) as their main food source
Fact #2: Research has shown that some bacteria, parasites, and fungi release or stimulate the release of chemicals that change the behaviour of the host they’re living in to help with their survival.
If we put these two facts together, it’s not too much of a leap to think that these little guys could induce sugar cravings in humans.
If you suspect your sweet tooth might have a bacterial, parasitic, or fungal source, you’ll need to go to a doctor and get tested. As I said, conventional doctors might not be super down with this, so finding a functional doctor or someone similar might be a huge help.
Again, check out the cravings checklist for a quick indication of what might be causing your cravings.
Let’s get practical!
Ok, so in the introduction to this post, I said we’d explore having a sweet tooth and the reasons behind it (done!), and then we’d talk about shifting our perspective on sugar cravings to one of love and acceptance.
But what the heck!?
I just spent over 1,000 words detailing the causes of sugar cravings and offering some suggestions on how to heal them!
Why would you love your sweet tooth?
What does that even mean?
How can you love it?
Practically, what does this even look like?
I know, I know. It sounds totally counter-intuitive and a bit of a crazy-pants idea. But, stay with me for a second here.
Yes, too much sugar is bad for you.
Yes, craving sugar is annoying.
Yes, it can be horrible, destructive, shameful, and painful.
Yes, it can mask much deeper emotional and health issues.
Yes, it’s a good to work towards ending your cravings and healing.
But NO, you shouldn’t hate the cravings, or the sweet tooth, or the sugar-loving behaviours that you have.
Because your cravings and behaviours are a doorway, a messenger, and an amazing chance to dig deeper into yourself, your life, and body and experience life as you are meant to live it.
Basically, your cravings are indicating that something is wrong, and if you can learn to love that message – to listen to it with patience, care, and attention, then you can hear what sugar is trying to tell you.
Is it trying to tell you there’s an infection in your lower intestine?
Or that you need more sleep?
Or that you’re getting dangerously low in magnesium?
Or that life for you might blossom and bloom if you learned to feel and express your anger instead of eating it?
Or that you’re bored out of your tree and it’s really time to find a hobby that lights you up?
How much better could your life be if you loved your cravings and listened to them with a kind and attentive ear? By hating and trying to ‘fight’, destroy or ignore your cravings, you’re hating on or ignoring the very important message you could be receiving. You’re essentially shooting the messenger before they’ve even delivered the message!
Ok, so really, what does loving your cravings look like?
No, it doesn’t mean you stop working towards healing and just eat all the sweet treats you can get your hands on.
It means you stop hating on yourself, your behaviours, and your circumstances. You stop trying to judge them or bully them into submission. You stop trying to hate them into change.
Practical advice on how to do this:
First, if you want some awesome downloads to help with this, grab your ebook – it’s got pages for all the advice and steps I’m about to give you 🙂
My most useful tool in the sugar cravings healing journey is definitely tracking. In this case, you’ll be tracking the thoughts and feelings you have around your sweet tooth and sugar craving behaviours.
Write down what you think, feel, believe, and do when you crave sugar. You’re specifically looking for places where you’re fighting your cravings, feeling victimised, hopeless, or shameful.
You will find these places, and will probably continue to find them for a long time (or forever). What they do is stop you from being able to hear – you get so emotionally tied up in fighting the craving that you can not hear the symptoms, behaviours, or feelings behind them.
So, once you’ve identified your ‘fighting places’, plan ahead for some ‘thought replacements’ – positive thoughts you can use to calm yourself down and accept where you are so you can notice the details of your cravings.
Then take note of those details. Things like other symptoms, types of cravings, other emotions you get around the same time – anything that feels relevant or interesting. Now you’re listening to your sugar cravings. Awesome!
What should you do now?
Right, so you’ve learned about the different causes of cravings, and a little about how to start healing each of them. You now know why and how to change your mindset around your sugar cravings so you can start to work with them instead of against them… now how can you do that work and start healing?
Following on from the journaling above, decide how you want to listen to your cravings (journal, take the challenge, use an app, a spreadsheet, a video log, whatever). As you let go and listen to your cravings, write/talk about how you feel both physically and mentally. Write down what you think, feel, believe, and do when you crave sugar. How do you feel if you deny yourself? How do you feel if you eat the sugar?
After collecting a few days or week’s worth of writing, take a look back over it. Can you see any patterns that indicate what might be causing your cravings? Do they seem physical, emotional, or due to an infection or deficiency?
Once you have this lead, you’ve got your starting place. Go back through this guide to the section that applies to you, and apply the suggested strategies.
Keep tracking though! You’ll want to see shifts, improvements, changes, and breakthroughs, and keeping track is one of the best ways to do this.
Is cutting out all sugar a good idea?
But sometimes yes.
Individualised health – it’s an amazing thing, but a bit short on absolute answers 😀
Ok, let me explain.
Generally, the idea to ‘cut out all sugar’ comes from a place of force, hate, and a denial that your cravings are messengers. You just want to shut them up. As we’ve discussed, this isn’t the best way to go and will often backfire and cause massive sugar binges. That or you’ll use all your willpower not eating sugar and ignoring your cravings, and then just miss whatever important thing they’re trying to tell you. Bummer.
But sometimes, cutting out sugar can be a cool experiment or way to break out of a habit. It kind of depends on *why* you’re doing cutting it out.
Trying a whole30 (totally sugar and sweetener free –among other things- for 30 days) just to see what happens? Cool!
Cutting out sugar because you hate your body and want to lose weight? Not so cool.
So, examine your motives, take a look at what you think is causing your cravings, and decide what’s best for you in a gentle way.
The Ultimate Guide to your Sweet Tooth
There you have it: my epic, practical, and detailed guide to your sugar cravings. If you’d like to download this guide as a free eBook to keep forever – go for it! As an added bonus, the eBook version comes with extra worksheets, the cravings type checklist, and printable sugar craving journaling pages. That’s a whole lot of free awesome to get you loving and healing those cravings 🙂
And if you need more detailed information for your situation? Grab your free 40 minute discovery session with me, and let’s get you happy, healthy, and whole!