Unraveling the Biology of Sugar Cravings: A Closer Look

February 8, 2024
sugar cravings

Sugar cravings can be a challenging obstacle on the journey to maintaining a healthy weight. The irresistible allure of sugary treats and the struggle to resist them can often feel overwhelming. However, gaining a deeper understanding of the biology behind sugar cravings can empower people to take control and make healthier dietary choices.

Craving sugar had survival benefits for your ancestors many generations ago. They relied on calorie-dense foods for survival. Today, with our sedentary jobs and technology, we don’t burn as many calories, so excess sugar accumulates as unwanted fat. Take control of your sugar cravings by learning more about the biology of sugar cravings and developing a plan to reduce their hold on your dietary choices.

What is the science behind sugar cravings?

When we consume sugar, our brains respond by releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter (brain chemical) associated with pleasure and reward. This phenomenon aligns with the food addiction model, suggesting that excessive consumption of highly palatable, sugary foods can have similar effects on the brain as drug addiction.

Key aspects of this model:1

  • Loss of control over sugar consumption.
  • Increased motivation to continue consuming sugar.
  • Persistence in sugar consumption despite negative consequences.

These characteristics imply that sugar cravings can lead to a spiral of addiction-like behaviors, including loss of control over food intake, withdrawal symptoms upon sugar abstinence, and persistent cravings for high-sugar foods. 1,2

Sugar’s addictive properties may be attributed to three main mechanisms:

  • Palatability: Sugary foods are very palatable, and the sweet taste may make you want more.
  • Nutrient value: Sugar has a nutrient value that gives you energy.
  • Dopamine release: Sugar consumption may trigger dopamine release.

Dopamine is a critical component of the reward circuit in your brain that registers pleasure. When pulses of dopamine are released, it reinforces the desire for sugar.

Addictive behavior can be thought of as having three stages: bingeing, withdrawal, and craving.  


If you consume sugary foods, your brain will release pulses of dopamine. This could increase your desire and motivation to eat more sugary foods. Over time, you would develop the habit of choosing sugary foods over other options. It may even become a compulsion to eat these foods as opioid receptors are stimulated. Your brain releases less dopamine to adjust to your increased sugar consumption. You respond by consuming more sugar. This is called tolerance. 1,4  


As time goes on, you may even experience withdrawal symptoms like shakiness and irritability if you don’t eat sugar.1,4


Reduced access to sugary foods or a decreased response in the brain can lead to increased cravings. This can cause you to be more motivated to choose sugary foods.

Sugar Addiction vs Drug Addiction

The comparison between sugar addiction and drug addiction is always a challenging one. Animal studies support the premise that sugar is addictive, but food, whether or not it contains sugar, is necessary for survival. A better understanding of how sugar and dietary choices affect the brain and body is important.

People who experience cravings for sugary foods and withdrawal symptoms if they do not have access to these foods will self-medicate. This vicious cycle of seeking dopamine and self-medicating can lead to obesity and eating disorders. Research suggests that it is the intermittent access to sweet-tasting or highly palatable foods that is driving bingeing and other food addiction symptoms, not changes in brain chemistry.1

Which foods are most addicting?

The Yale Food Addiction Scale is a widely accepted tool for measuring food addiction.3  Animal models suggest that foods that are high in fat, high in sugar, and, most powerfully, combinations of high-fat and high-sugar are most addictive. 1  

Characteristics of foods most likely to be addictive include2

  • High fat
  • High sugar
  • Low fiber
  • Low protein
  • Low water content
  • Highly processed

Highly processed foods make it easier for foods to be absorbed from the intestines into the bloodstream. This may result in quick blood sugar spikes and subsequent insulin spikes. However, this theory is not widely accepted, as people respond differently to foods with a high glycemic index.

Other Factors that Contribute to Sugar Addiction

In addition to dopamine release in the brain, other factors may contribute to sugar addiction.

Cultural Associations

In many cultures and communities, sugar is associated with pleasurable activities. Children may get a sugary treat as a reward. Holidays and birthdays are typically celebrated with sugary desserts. People often eat sugar for the pleasure it brings and the positive associations they have with foods like birthday cakes.

Marketing and Accessibility

Marketing factors and easy accessibility also make it easy to desire sugar. Sagar-laden products are strategically placed at cash registers in stores, featured on restaurant menus, and found in vending machines. Colorful and attention-grabbing packaging adds to their appeal.

Hidden Sugar

Sugar may also be hiding in places you would least expect it. Almost everyone knows a glazed donut or an iced cupcake is going to be high in sugar and calories. But a “healthy” breakfast choice like high-fiber granola may surprise you with its sugar content. A whopping 16.7 grams of sugar at 4 kilocalories each means that 67 kilocalories of the 367 kilocalories in 100 grams of granola are from sugar.

Sugar may hide in your foods under labels, such as high fructose corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, lactose, maltose, evaporated cane syrup, carob syrup, and brown rice syrup.

Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruits and vegetables, and added sugars are in processed foods. Natural sugars come packaged with essential nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants, which slow down their absorption, providing a steady release of energy. On the other hand, added sugars in processed foods offer little to no nutritional value and can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and dental issues.

The Genetic Factors Influencing Sugar Cravings

While our evolutionary history plays a significant role in our sugar cravings, genetics also contributes to our propensity for sweet foods. Several genes have been identified as potential factors influencing our sugar cravings. The FGF21 gene, for instance, has been linked to a greater tendency to indulge in sugar and carbohydrate-rich foods. Recognizing these genetic factors can provide some insight into sugar cravings.

A woman looking at two donuts

Strategies to Beat Sugar Cravings

While your genetics and brain chemistry may oppose your desire to cut down on sugar, reducing sugar intake can benefit almost everyone. Here are some suggestions to reduce your sugar consumption or at least choose healthier options to satisfy your sweet tooth.

1. Opt for Natural Sweetness

Instead of reaching for processed desserts and sugary snacks, satisfy your sweet tooth with naturally sweet foods like fruits. Fruits not only provide natural sugars but also offer an array of vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are beneficial for your overall health. Incorporating fruits into your diet can help curb sugar cravings and provide a healthier alternative to processed sweets.

2. Mindful Eating

Practicing mindful eating can help address sugar cravings by bringing awareness to our eating habits and choices. Take the time to savor each bite and pay attention to the flavors and textures of the food you consume. By being fully present during meals, you can cultivate a deeper appreciation for the nourishing qualities of whole foods and reduce the desire for sugary treats.

3. Choose Balanced Meals

A well-balanced diet plays a crucial role in managing sugar cravings. Including lean proteins, healthy fats, and fiber-rich carbohydrates in your meals can help regulate blood sugar levels and prevent energy crashes that often trigger sugar cravings. Focus on incorporating wild-caught fish, pastured poultry, nuts, seeds, and vegetables into your diet to maintain a balanced and nourishing eating pattern.

4. Minimize Highly Processed Foods

Processed foods, especially those that combine the “salt-sugar-fat trifecta,” can intensify sugar cravings. These foods are designed to be highly palatable and addictive, making it challenging to resist their allure. By reducing your consumption of processed foods and opting for whole, unprocessed alternatives, you can break the cycle of sugar cravings and cultivate healthier eating habits.

5. Prioritize Quality Sleep

Quality sleep is essential for overall well-being, including managing sugar cravings. Lack of sleep can disrupt hormone regulation, leading to increased appetite and cravings for sugary foods. Establishing a regular sleep routine and ensuring adequate rest can help maintain hormone balance and reduce the likelihood of succumbing to sugar cravings.

6. Manage Stress and Emotional Eating

Stress and emotional factors can often trigger sugar cravings as a form of temporary comfort. Developing healthy coping mechanisms, such as regular exercise, meditation, or engaging in hobbies, can help reduce stress levels and minimize emotional eating. By addressing the underlying causes of stress and finding healthier outlets, we can break the cycle of relying on sugar for emotional relief.

7. Stay Hydrated

Dehydration can sometimes be mistaken for hunger, leading to unnecessary sugar cravings. Ensure you stay hydrated throughout the day by drinking an adequate amount of water. Infusing water with fresh fruits, vegetables, or herbs can add flavor and make it more enjoyable. Additionally, consuming water-rich whole foods like cucumbers and melons can help quench your thirst and reduce the urge for sugary beverages.

8. Seek Support and Accountability

Changing habits and overcoming sugar cravings can be challenging, but having a support system can make a significant difference. Share your goals and challenges with a friend, family member, or healthcare professional who can provide encouragement and guidance and hold you accountable. This support system can provide the motivation and reassurance needed to stay on track and make lasting lifestyle changes.

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Author: Leann Poston, M.D.
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  • Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS One. 2015 Feb 18;10(2):e0117959. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117959. PMID: 25692302; PMCID: PMC4334652.
  • Avena NM, Rada P, Hoebel BG. Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008;32(1):20-39. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019. Epub 2007 May 18. PMID: 17617461; P
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