As you might know, people who eat sugar regularly are more likely to crave it. However, sugar cravings can also occur among low-carb eaters, especially when starting a ketogenic diet.
In this article, you’re going to learn everything you need to know about sugar cravings, including what causes them, what foods can help you curb the cravings, and what other ways you can control them.
The various causes of sugar cravings can be grouped into two categories: metabolic reasons and psychological reasons. In some cases, such as sugar addiction, there can be a metabolic and psychological reason.
Metabolic sugar cravings tend to occur when your body or brain are low on energy causing you to crave energy-dense foods — one of which is sugar.
Psychological causes are more often a result of our habits or even marketing. Unlike metabolic reasons for sugar cravings, this type of sugar craving has less to do with what your body actually needs— for example, craving a Coca-Cola after a fast food meal.
The most common causes of sugar cravings include:
Blood Sugar Imbalances
When your blood sugar dips, your body sometimes responds by making you crave sugar to replenish your blood glucose levels. This is especially true in people new to a low-carb diet and aren’t yet fat-adapted, but can also happen due to stress or physical activity[*][*].
Becoming fat adapted means that your body is accustomed to burning fat for energy. (It’s one of the best ways to overcome sugar cravings, as we’ll cover soon in this article.)
People who are fat-adapted experience fewer sugar cravings as their bodies become less reliant on sugar and carbohydrates.
If you eat sweet treats regularly, you’ll most likely get sugar cravings more often.
For example, if you tend to have something sweet after dinner, you’ll find yourself getting a sugar craving after every dinner simply out of habit. The same is true of stress eating or rewarding yourself with sugar.
The United States is the leading consumer of sugar in the world with a per capita daily consumption of 126.4 grams (about a quarter of a pound)[*]. Habitually eating sugar might be a cultural norm, but it’s a habit best broken.
Sugar addiction refers to psychological dependence on high-sugar foods. As opposed to a habit of eating sugar, a sugar addiction might involve more intense cravings or even distress when you try to stop eating sugar.
Although there’s disagreement in the scientific community as to whether sugar addiction really exists in humans, evidence does suggest that the reward for sugar in the brain is processed similarly to other pleasurable activities like sex and gambling[*].
Whether or not it’s a true addiction, it’s certainly possible to have a very unhealthy and dependent relationship with sugar.
Although we cover tips to deal with this below, some people need to speak to a therapist or counselor who specializes in binge eating disorders and related issues.
Low Protein or Fat in Your Diet
When you eat a meal too low in protein or fat or both (such as low-fat sugary breakfast cereal, for example), it digests quickly resulting in a quick release of energy — which is followed by a crash you’re very likely already familiar with.
During the sugar crash, your body triggers a sugar craving to get you to eat more to elevate your blood sugar to normal.
Although this can feel like an emergency to your brain and body, it’s usually not (unless you’re a person who lives with diabetes or hypoglycemia). Sometimes the best thing to do is wait it out.
On the other hand, if you eat a meal rich in protein and fat, digestion is slower allowing your body more time before needing another meal.
Intense Physical Exercise
Your body’s got an incredible ability to metabolize energy quickly when you exercise. In fat-adapted individuals, the body will readily burn fat for energy when doing low- and moderate-intensity activities.
In non-fat-adapted people, the body will often first seek to take in more energy in the form of sugar before resorting to burning fat, especially during prolonged activities.
However, in both cases, whether or not you’re fat-adapted, very high-intensity exercise may trigger sugar cravings, especially if you’re not used to it. The reason is that our bodies have trouble burning fat at extremely high intensities of activity, so when you run out of glycogen (stored carbs in your muscles), you might get a sugar craving[*].
To reduce the likelihood of a sugar craving, get in some protein or fat before your workout to supply energy during and after the workout. If it’s not enough, you can also try using MCT oil before or immediately after your workout.
Mental Health and Stress
As we covered previously, sugar shares the same brain wiring as other sources of pleasure like sex, gambling, and drugs[*].
If you aren’t feeling your best, it’s understandable to reach for things that make you feel better instantly.
Unfortunately, people often feel worse soon after stress eating or medicating with sugar. Not only can binging on sweets lower your self-esteem but it’s also linked with worsening depression[*].
Lack of Adequate Sleep
Inadequate sleep can cause sugar cravings in two distinct ways.
First, it can cause changes in insulin sensitivity[*]. When insulin sensitivity becomes impaired, your metabolism is less efficient, so your body may require more food to produce the same amount of energy causing you to crave more food, particularly sugar[*].
Secondly, lack of sleep can diminish functioning in the areas of the brain that control hunger and willpower or executive functioning. Research shows that when your brain is running on too little sleep, you become more likely to make unwise food choices resulting in you craving high-calorie low nutrient foods like sugar[*].
Healthy fruits not only contain a bit of satisfying sweetness but also come with lots of micronutrients, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (plant-based compounds linked to better overall health)[*].
As you may already know, some fruits are too high in sugar and can easily put you out of ketosis. Be sure to consume high-sugar fruits like bananas, dates, or raisins in moderation, if at all.
Fortunately, some fruits are low enough in carbs and can therefore be enjoyed on keto as a suitable healthier substitute to refined sugar.
The best choices include:
Berries have the perfect level of sweetness and tartness to tame a sweet craving. In addition to their rich flavor, they’re very nutritious and are particularly rich in vitamin C, antioxidants, and polyphenols. Some of the berries you can enjoy on keto include:
Another low-carb fruit that can help you with sugar cravings is avocado due to its high fat and high fiber content. (You may think of it as a vegetable, but avocados are fruits, and they work surprisingly well as a sugar buster!)
One medium avocado has an impressive 20.9 grams of fat, 9.3 grams of dietary fiber, 2.5 grams of net carbs, and about 20% of your daily potassium needs[*].
Adding avocado to a meal is an easy way to boost the fat and fiber content. You can add it to smoothies or simply add some sea salt as a snack.
And if you crave variety, there are so many great ways to enjoy avocado due to its versatility; for example, you can eat it as guacamole, add it to salad dressings, or even make creamy desserts.
What curbs a sugar craving better than a sweet decadent candy bar?
That’s a trick question because sugar-laden candy bars only offer a temporary reprieve. But whether or not you’re keto, a keto-appropriate substitute without all that sugar is an amazing choice — it tells your brain you’re enjoying sugar, but without the unwanted crash!
Instead of fighting off your craving, try grabbing a keto-friendly candy bar that can deliver the same sweetness without the sugar that comes with ordinary candy.
Mallow Munch is a sweet crispy candy bar from Perfect Keto that delivers the same sweetness and crunch of a rice crispy bar without grains and carbs.
Each bar has an impressively low 80 calories (kcal) and 2 grams of net carbs, paired with 6 grams of fiber, and 9 grams of high-quality protein.
Chocolate is an ideal food to eat when a sugar craving hits. Dark chocolate will curb your craving while simultaneously providing you with health benefits.
Unfortunately, most chocolate on the market is loaded with sugar and other food additives. To truly enjoy any benefits you must choose keto chocolate that contains at least 55% cocoa, and be sure to double-check the label — we recommend 5 grams of net carbs or fewer per serving (whether or not there’s any added sugar).
Fat bombs are keto treats made with a base of high-fat ingredients like coconut oil, cream, and butter.
These delicious bites can curb your sugar craving by satisfying your sweet tooth and giving you a boost in energy — and they work astonishingly well thanks to substituting a slower burning healthy fat in place of fast-burning sugar.
Even a single fat bomb, which may contain 10-20 grams of nourishing fats, can keep you feeling full and energized for hours.
You can make your own fat bombs at home with just a few common ingredients.
Granola is a well-known staple that can curb your sugar cravings thanks to its sweet taste and high protein and fat content.
But if you were thinking that regular granola isn’t keto-friendly or low-carb, you guessed right. There is, however, a low-carb granola replacement on the market.
The Perfect Keto Nola Bar is a low-carb grain-free granola-style bar that tastes just as good as the real deal (we say better, but we might be a little biased). The delicious keto bar is chewy and sweet enough to kick any sugar craving you might have.
Each bar contains 140 calories with only 2 grams of net carbs as well as 6 grams of dietary fiber, 12 grams of fat, and 3 grams of protein. The bar works well for breakfast, low-carb dessert, or a snack at any time of the day.
Keto Cookies or Brownies
We’ve got tons of ideas in our free dessert recipe section waiting for you to try.
Our Favorite DIY Sweet Treats
Have you ever heard the advice that a sugar craving could actually be due to thirst or dehydration? It turns out there’s not really strong scientific evidence for this idea currently, but drinking water when you have a sugar craving is still worth a try[*].
Water is calorie-free and fills up your stomach — those are the facts. And sipping on a glass of water also gives you something to do while you wait on sugar cravings to pass.
If you suspect you’re dehydrated, drinking more water is a good idea regardless of sugar cravings. The idea of drinking eight glasses per day is also not based on any solid evidence — but you can try adding more water between meals to address possible dehydration.
Recent evidence does suggest that urine color is a valid way to assess your hydration status[*]. If your urine is a darker yellow color, you might be dehydrated, and drinking more water each day can help address this issue.
Finally, to get even more hydration benefit out of your water, you can add electrolytes to it. Electrolytes are mineral elements like potassium and sodium that help the body retain water and also assist cells in normal functioning.
Perfect Keto Daily Electrolytes are designed to provide optimal hydration with all-natural mildly sweet and fruity flavors. They’re an excellent choice if you’d like to replace sugar and boost your hydration levels.
Cure your sweet tooth with coffee by adding a keto-friendly sweetener like stevia, monk fruit, and erythritol.
To make it even more keto-friendly, make your coffee bulletproof by adding MCT oil or butter, or both. MCT oil can provide a quick boost in energy to the body similar to how sugar does, but without the crash.
A 2021 study also found that caffeine may enhance the ketogenic (ketone-producing) effect of taking MCTs[*]
Similar to coffee, tea can help cure a sweet craving if it has some kind of keto-friendly sweetener in it — or even if it doesn’t, simply by taking your mind off the sugar craving for a while.
In addition to addressing your cravings, tea can also support benefits like reduced inflammation and oxidative stress[*].
Drinking smoothies is a convenient way to get more nutrients in one meal. Adding fruit to a smoothie boosts sweetness providing a very healthy method to ward off those sugar cravings.
Remember, though, that you should only use low-carb fruits like berries and avocado in your smoothies. If you want more sweetness, add a keto-friendly sweetener like stevia or monk fruit extract.
Store-bought smoothies tend to be very high in sugar. Instead, make your smoothies at home or ensure you always read the nutrition label to make sure it fits your macros.
Beware that pre-made smoothies that claim to have no added sugar can still have very high levels of sugar due to added fruits or similar ingredients — this is especially true of smoothies made at chain stores.
Salty and Savory Foods
Sweet foods aren’t the only ones that can curb sugar cravings. Salty and savory foods can also improve your cravings by supplying you with protein, healthy fats, and a different satisfying sensation.
Some of the best sources of clean keto-friendly protein include:
- Chicken and other poultry
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
Fish is especially important for sugar cravings because it’s rich in both protein and healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
Some of the types of fish that can help your sugar cravings include:
Nuts and Seeds
Even though the protein quality of nuts and seeds doesn’t compare with that of most animal foods like meat and fish, they still supply a healthy dose of protein, fats, and other nutrients.
For example, a single (one-ounce) serving of nutrient-dense almonds contains[*]:
- 2.6 grams of net carbs
- 14.1 grams of fat
- 6 grams of fat
- Manganese, 33% DV
- Vitamin E, 48.7% DV
Healthy nuts and seeds include:
- Macadamia nuts
- Sesame seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
If you don’t love eating nuts and seeds whole, you can always opt for nut and seed butters that are equally healthy and keto-friendly. Nut butters can be enjoyed on their own, as a spread, as a dip, in smoothies, or as a part of low-carb recipes like peanut butter cups.
If you aren’t making your nut butter at home, always remember to buy only high-quality nut butters with simple ingredients and no added sugar or artificial preservatives.
Non-starchy veggies like leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are rich in dietary fiber, which slows down digestion and improves satiety[*].
When food digests slowly, energy is produced slower over a longer period of time. This helps to prevent energy spikes and dips that might be followed by sugar cravings.
Some of the healthiest keto-friendly vegetables include:
- Brussel sprouts
- Beet greens
Eating food isn’t the only way to deal with your sugar cravings. There are other positive habits you can engage in to reduce your chances of getting unwanted cravings.
Some of these habits include:
Exercise doesn’t have to involve the gym. There are many types of physical activity that can have a significant impact on your cravings including:
- House chores
You don’t have to wait for a craving to hit to do any of these activities. Add them to your daily schedule to reduce your chances of having to deal with the cravings coming up at all.
Get Enough Sleep
A study investigating the effects of sleep on diet found that just one night of sleep deprivation (4 hours of sleep or less) increased cravings for high carbohydrate foods including sugar[*].
Go to bed early and try to get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Adjust your environment to support a good sleep schedule by doing things like reducing noise at night, reducing screen time during bedtime, and eating earlier dinners.
Don’t Overindulge in Sweeteners
Studies suggest that overeating sweetened foods, even sugar-free ones, may reinforce or increase your dependence on sugar and sweet foods[*].
Resist the temptation to replace eating lots of sugary foods with eating lots of sugar-free-sweetened foods — instead, focus on eating a well-rounded diet with appropriate macros and indulging in treats once or twice each day, or even just a few times a week.
While this isn’t necessarily an issue for everyone, it sometimes pays to take a break from sweets altogether and rebalance your palate. After a few weeks or a month, you can try coming back to keto-friendly sweets and enjoy a healthier relationship with this type of food.
Go Homemade Instead
Making your own meals (and snacks) at home can help reduce sugar cravings and indulgences by limiting easy access to already made packaged foods, which are often loaded with sugar and other unhealthy additives.
When making sweet treats for yourself, remember to use only the best low-carb ingredients like almond flour, coconut flour, keto chocolate chip cookies, vanilla extract, and sugar-free chocolate.
Eliminate or Limit Your Triggers
Constantly exposing yourself to situations that encourage you to consume sugar only makes your health journey more challenging.
Some research suggests that people have a finite amount of willpower to stick to their resolutions[*]. If that’s true, each time you’re in a situation where you have to say “no” or consciously battle a sugar craving cue wears you down a little bit more. Before long, you might find yourself giving up and saying “Why not?”
Sugar craving triggers could include social gatherings that revolve around sweets, people who regularly offer you sweet treats, and media that features or brings to mind sugary snacks..
For example, you may want to skip your favorite baking show when trying to beat a sugar addiction.
While sugar might not seem quite as serious as some addictions, there are times when it could be a great idea to get some professional assistance in dealing with it.
For one thing, nutritionists and dietitians are extremely skilled at solving these types of problems. Don’t underestimate the value of having a dietary expert or health coach assist you with your goals.
And if you’re experiencing significant physical or psychological harm from overeating sugar (as well as other specific foods, or even food in general), a counselor, therapist, or even dietitian could likely provide life-changing perspective or insight.
Most people can kick their sugar habit by mixing and matching the tips from this article to learn what works for them. But if you feel like nothing works, we strongly encourage you to reach out to professionals, or talk to someone you trust about how to get appropriate help.
Sugar cravings are completely normal. Everyone’s experienced them, and mostly they’re a fact of life.
As long as you keep in mind the various reasons they occur, you’re much better equipped to handle them or ride them out when needed.
Whether you’re going keto for the first time, cutting out sugar altogether for the health benefits, or simply trying to figure out whether you’ll feel better with less sugar, we guarantee that the tips from this article are effective.
That said, sugar addiction is a real thing, and there’s zero reason to feel bad if you’re having trouble handling it on your own. Please speak to a doctor, counselor, dietitian, or even a trusted friend if you’re struggling.