A study published in June 2017 in Appetite found that 86 percent of people who had food cravings thought about high-calorie foods specifically, those containing chocolate. The good news: Reaching for healthy foods high in nutrients like protein and fiber can help stave off unhealthy hankerings.
Nuts, such as pistachios
Seeds, such as sesame and chia
Pulses, such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas
Below, find a full list with the scientific reasons why they may be effective. Plus, learn more about what may be behind your sugar cravings in the first place.
Side Effects of Eating Too Much Sugar While sugar is satisfying to the taste buds and the soul, the constant spikes in blood sugar and crashes that follow a binge can set off a host of effects, including fatigue, irritability, and anxious thoughts, among others, according to Sanford Health.
Blood sugar highs and lows can also perpetuate sugar cravings. “When you're consuming sugar, then you end up getting onto this whole roller-coaster ride of blood sugar dysregulation and that in and of itself can perpetuate physical stress, which then causes you to have more sugar cravings,” says Dana Elia, RDN, an integrative and functional nutrition doctor in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and author of The Sugar Detox Diet for 50+.
Added sugar, which Americans tend to eat too much of, can be particularly insidious for health. According to a November 2016 study in the journal Nutrients, consuming too much can increase the risk for obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, cognitive decline, and certain types of cancer.
The 2015–2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar intake to a maximum of 10 percent of your daily calories. This is the equivalent of 200 calories, or 12 teaspoons (tsp), if you’re eating 2,000 calories per day. One can of Coke contains about 9 tsp of sugar, for example. Which Factors Are Causing You to Crave Sugar? Sugar cravings can strike seemingly at random, and more than one culprit may be responsible. Here are some of the potential causes: Dehydration Thirst can often look like hunger or a food craving, Elia says. Indeed, previous research found that people responded “inappropriately” to hunger and thirst cues 62 percent of the time. For example, they were thirsty, not hungry, but ate anyway.
Poor Diet Quality Diet quality can also play a role in triggering sugar cravings. For example, consuming a higher ratio of carbohydrates to protein and healthy fats or consuming white, refined carbohydrates like those in processed foods can increase hunger and sugar cravings, according to Elia. “If you're craving something else within 90 minutes or two hours after a meal, you want to revisit: What did you just eat, and what was it missing?” she says. Gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of the microbes in the gut, or an overgrowth of yeast, for example, can lead to sugar cravings, according to an article published in April 2018 in Metabolic Interaction in Infection. A previous study suggests that probiotics, prebiotics, and improving eating habits can alter the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut and lessen food cravings, though more studies are needed.
“If you're eating highly processed carbohydrates, standard American poor-quality proteins, [and] a lot of saturated, processed, poor-quality fats, that's going to have some pretty devastating effects on the diversity and the healthfulness of the number of beneficial bacteria in your gut, which can really drive some sugar cravings,” Elia says.
Hormonal Changes For women, cravings for sugar can be in part a result of hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, and estradiol (or oestradiol). Per the Hormone Health Network, estradiol levels increase during the menstrual cycle to mature and release an egg and thicken the uterus lining to allow the fertilized egg to implant. Research has found that estradiol can be associated with an increase in food cravings. A study published in April 2016 in The FASEB Journal found that women with higher estradiol during the luteal phase of their menstrual cycle, or the time after ovulation, consumed carbohydrate‐rich foods and had an increase in sugar cravings. "That's why you'll hear women come to report that they suddenly have this intake or this uptake of a craving for chocolate during their menstrual cycle,” Elia says.
Stress Finally, stress is another cause of sugar cravings. A previous study found that chronic stress had a significant direct effect on food cravings, and food cravings in turn had a significant effect on body mass index (BMI) when indulged. When levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, increase, consuming sugar can provide a hit of dopamine, a neurotransmitter often dubbed “the happy hormone.” Yet, as Elia previously explained, when consumed in excess, sugar can throw blood sugar out of whack, increasing stress and setting off a vicious cycle. Nutrient Deficiencies Deficiencies in certain minerals such as zinc, chromium, iron, calcium, and magnesium may lead to sugar cravings as well, Elia says. Magnesium deficiency is specifically worth paying attention to. According to a study published in March 2018 in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, up to 50 percent of people may have a magnesium deficiency, which other, prior research in elderly people links to an increased risk of insomnia.
Meanwhile, an article published in December 2018 in Nutrients notes that magnesium deficiency is associated with increased stress, anxiety, and depression — mental health effects that can in turn impede quality slumber.
Without adequate quality sleep, we’re more likely to eat more calories and crave quick energy in the form of simple sugars, says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, who is based in Franklin, New Jersey. Another reason magnesium deficiency can drive sugar cravings is that the mineral helps convert food into energy, Palinski-Wade says. “So anything that's leaving you feeling more lethargic and fatigued, naturally your body craves those quick energy sources, which tends to be those sugary foods,” she says.
Foods That Can Help Prevent Cravings for Sugar Don’t let cravings for sugar stand in the way of your health goals. This list of 20 foods will help to satisfy your hunger, regulate your blood sugar, and help keep sugar cravings at bay.
Berries Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are some of the best foods to consume when you’re having sugar cravings. Because they’re low-glycemic fruits, they provide plenty of sweetness without spiking blood sugar, Elia says. Berries also have high water content and are a good source of fiber, which helps you to feel fuller longer, balance blood sugar, and improve insulin sensitivity, Palinski-Wade says. For example, a cup of raw raspberries provides 8 grams (g) of fiber, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That makes them an excellent source of the nutrient.
Avocado According to the USDA, avocado offers about 8 g of fiber per 4 ½ cups, as well as healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, making it one of the best foods to fight sugar cravings. A study published in March 2019 in Nutrients suggests that replacing refined carbohydrates (in this case, a bagel) with avocado in meals helps suppress hunger, increase meal satisfaction, and limit insulin and blood sugar spikes. In this case, it also reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in adults with obesity or who are overweight. When you feel satisfied and your blood sugar and insulin are regulated, you won’t be as likely to experience sugar cravings, Palinski-Wade says. Add avocado to salads, smoothies, and Mexican dishes. Or combine avocado with cacao and a bit of maple syrup for a creamy, delicious pudding without all the added sugars that store-bought types have.
Pistachios Thanks to the combination of protein, fiber, and healthy fats, all types of nuts are great choices to curb sugar cravings, but pistachios in particular are standouts. A study published in July 2020 in Nutrients found eating pistachios was associated with a decrease in consumption of sweets, and weight loss in adults with obesity or who were overweight. “I find when clients use pistachios as a snack, they tend to slow down with eating so they're feeling more satisfied, but also because they're eating more intentionally and more mindfully — that seems to do a big number on curbing cravings as well,” Palinski-Wade says.
Sesame Seeds Seeds such as sesame seeds have healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, as well as fiber, which combat sugar cravings. According to the USDA, 1 tablespoon (tbsp) of whole toasted or roasted sesame seeds offers 1.1 g of fiber. “If you're eating the seeds, you've got that nice little crunch, pop sensation going on in your mouth, bringing another layer to the enjoyment of your meal or your snack,” Elia says.
Chia Seeds Chia seeds might be tiny, but their nutritional profile makes them a powerhouse for curbing sugar cravings. For one, they offer more than 4 g of protein and nearly 10 g of fiber in 1 ounce (oz), according to the USDA. They’re also the richest plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, according to Harvard University. What’s more, a small study published in October 2017 in Nutrition Research and Practice found consuming chia seeds with yogurt increased satiety and reduced cravings for sugary foods. A delicious way to consume chia seeds is to make pudding by combining 3 tbsp with 1 cup of plant-based or cow’s milk and letting it sit overnight. Then add cinnamon or your favorite spices. “Chia seed puddings are a way to get a nice dessert-type snack but without the sugar and the calories that come with it,” Elia says.
Fun fact: Quinoa often falls under the whole-grains category, but it’s actually a seed that’s rich in antioxidants and is naturally gluten-free. According to the USDA, with more than 4 g of protein and more than 2 g of fiber in ½ cooked cup, quinoa is also a good go-to sugar fighter. Serve quinoa as a side dish, add it to salads and soups, or serve it for breakfast with fruit, nuts, or seeds, and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
Oats Oats are a good source of soluble fiber, which Harvard University notes helps staves off hunger and can help lower glucose levels and curb sugar cravings. Avoid instant oatmeal packets, which are highly processed and high in added sugars, and stick with rolled old-fashioned oats or steel-cut oats instead. “If you add some nuts or seeds to your bowl of oatmeal, that's also going to give you a well-rounded, filling meal, but without having the carbohydrates spike that other breakfast cereals would have,” Elia says.
Beans and Lentils For plant-based protein and filling fiber, turn to beans and lentils. Those characteristics make these foods smart choices to help keep your blood sugar steady and fend off sugar cravings. A small study of healthy adults, which was published in June 2018 in The Journal of Nutrition, found replacing ½ of a serving of rice with lentils and replacing potatoes with lentils caused a 20 percent and 35 percent reduction in post-meal blood glucose, respectively. Add beans to soups and stews, or make homemade plant-based burgers.
Hummus Like lentils, chickpeas are in a food group called pulses. (Peas are also in the club!) Ground with tahini and olive oil, they make hummus — a versatile and sugar-fighting spread. Swap it in for mayonnaise in a sandwich, pair it with whole-grain pita chips, or use it as a dip with celery sticks. According to the USDA, ½ cup of hummus has about 10 g of protein, 7 g of fiber (making it an excellent source), and healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Coconut Oil Like other types of fats, coconut oil is digested slowly, which can help increase satiety, slow down how other foods are converted into sugar in the bloodstream, and balance blood sugar, which combats sugar cravings, Palinski-Wade says. Keep in mind that coconut oil is saturated fat, so be mindful of enjoying it in moderation. One tbsp contains 104 calories and nearly 10 g of saturated fat, according to the USDA. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat and replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, nuts, and seeds. When choosing coconut oil, opt for cold-pressed, extra virgin coconut oil, Elia suggests. According to Harvard University, this type of coconut oil may retain more of its nutrients than coconut oil that is not cold-pressed.
Olives and Olive Oil The healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in olives and olive oil can help you to feel fuller longer and curb sugar cravings. A meta-analysis published in July 2016 in the journal PLOS Medicine found that swapping more unsaturated fats for carbohydrates or saturated fat can reduce blood sugar and improve insulin resistance.
Nonstarchy Vegetables Here’s yet another reason to veg out. Nonstarchy, low-glycemic vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, spaghetti squash, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage have filling fiber to keep hunger at bay, and are digested slowly to prevent blood sugar spikes and curb sugar cravings. A previous study in the journal Appetite examined supplements containing thylakoids, which are compounds found in all green leafy vegetables, and found that they increased satiety and reduced hunger and sugar cravings. Studies on the role these compounds play when eaten in whole foods are lacking, but the fiber in green veggies alone is enough reason to reach for them. For example, as the USDA notes, 1 cup of boiled, chopped broccoli offers more than 5 g of fiber, making it a good source. If you prefer a sweet, savory flavor without added sugars, roast your vegetables or cook them with balsamic vinegar.
Sweet Potatoes Sweet potatoes are a great source of vitamins and minerals. One cooked medium sweet potato with the skin has nearly 4 g of fiber, per the USDA, making them a good source. Fiber helps stave off hunger and offset insulin spikes, Elia says. Roast them, bake them, or make sweet potato fries in the air fryer, but be sure to eat the skin, which is rich in nutrients, including fiber.
Greek Yogurt Getting enough protein at every meal can help reduce cravings for sugar. Because carbohydrates are the easiest macronutrient for the body to break down and they break down quickly, protein and fat will hold you over until your next meal, Elia says. A study published in June 2016 in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found higher intakes of protein were associated with fullness. And a small past study found overweight men who increased the amount of protein in their diet to 25 percent of their total calories felt fuller throughout the day and had fewer food cravings. According to the USDA, ½ cup of Greek yogurt offers 9 g of protein, and that makes it an excellent food to fight sugar cravings, Palinski-Wade notes. Choose plain Greek yogurt varieties, which don’t have added sugars, and artificial sweeteners, which can drive sugar cravings and negatively affect the gut microbiome, Elia says. Add berries for fiber and a hint of sweetness or other mix-ins like nuts and seeds, nut butter, cinnamon, and vanilla extract, or use the yogurt to make a sugar-free frosting or in place of sour cream.
Meat, Poultry, and Fish Not a fan of yogurt? Other animal-based proteins can help you get your protein fix. For high-quality fat and protein, opt for wild-caught or cold-water fish and organic, pasture-raised, grass-fed poultry and meat, Elia recommends.
Eggs Eggs are also packed with sugar-fighting protein — one large egg has more than 6 g, notes the USDA — as well as 13 essential vitamins and minerals. Because eggs are also a source of saturated fat, though, eat them in moderation.
Cheese The combination of protein and fat in cheese can help curb a sweet tooth. But keep in mind cheese is also high in calories, saturated fat, and sodium, Elia says. Also, cheese can be addictive for some people because of its casomorphins, or mild opiate-like compounds. These compounds attach to the same brain receptors as addictive drugs, release dopamine in the brain, and lead to feelings of reward and pleasure, according to Elia. “You don't want to swap out one addiction for another so if you're going to consume cheese, keep it to no more than an ounce,” she says.
Spirulina As Harvard Health Publishing points out, spirulina is a blue-green algae that is a good source of protein — there are more than 4 g per tbsp — and rich in vitamins and minerals that can address nutritional deficiencies and combat sugar cravings, Elia says. Spirulina is also a good source of tyrosine, an amino acid that’s necessary for the production of neurotransm