You’re sitting at your desk, the clock strikes 3:30 p.m., and suddenly your sweet tooth is on a savage hunt for sugar. You battle your craving for 15 minutes, barely able to concentrate on the screen in front of you, before giving in and sneaking three cookies out of the office kitchen. Sound familiar?
Sugar cravings are common, and they can be really hard to ignore. Fighting them with willpower isn’t going to get rid of them. Here are five causes of sugar cravings that may surprise you — and how to eliminate them (not an ounce of willpower required).
1. Depression/Low Mood
Ever felt happier after eating a chocolate chip cookie? It’s not just your taste buds having a party. Carbohydrate consumption increases serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood control. When you eat carbs, you get a little boost in serotonin, and you feel happier. It is well researched that low moods and depression cause an increase in cravings for carbohydrate- and sugar-rich foods, because your body is searching for that little hit of the feel-good chemical serotonin.
Action: Try other serotonin-boosting foods like sauerkraut, bananas, walnuts, salmon, and green tea. Exercise is another effective way to keep serotonin levels healthy. If you suspect you may be suffering from depression, see a qualified health professional.
2. Lack of Good Sleep
Sleep deprivation affects our food choices in a number of ways. First of all, if you’re not getting enough sleep, your body produces more “hunger hormone,” making you eat more often, and you also produce less “full hormone,” so you’re not as able to recognize when you’re full — meaning you eat more than you need to. So a lack of sleep really is setting you up to overeat and overconsume.
Research has also found that sleep deprivation has a direct impact on the decision-making part of our brains, making us more prone to choose junk food.
Lastly, when you haven’t had enough sleep, you tend to feel pretty tired. And what will your body use as a quick energy boost? Sugar.
Action: Aim for at least seven hours sleep per night, and avoid screens (including your phone!) for at least 30 minutes before bed. Avoiding caffeine, refined sugars, and exercise in the evening is also important. Sleep isn’t just about duration: You need to get deep, quality sleep to reap the benefits.
3. Inadequate Carbohydrate Intake
Ah, the irony. You go on a strict, low-carb diet in an attempt to quickly lose weight, and three days into the diet you’re craving carbs and sugar like nobody’s business. Why? Your body needs carbohydrates to function. If you restrict carbs, or just don’t eat enough of them, your body will eventually scream out for some. And you’re not going to crave sweet potato or a dark grain bread: You’re going to crave cake, or bread, or cookies, or muffins.
Action: There’s nothing wrong with reducing carbohydrate intake. Just remember that your body still needs some carbs! Eat low-GI carbs like sweet potato, pumpkin, carrot, beets, whole grains, and brown rice.
4. Iron Deficiency
You’ve probably heard that an iron deficiency will make you feel lethargic and zap energy levels. When you’re suffering with low energy for long enough, your body starts to look for anything that gives a temporary energy boost. Hello, sugar cravings.
Action: If you struggle with low energy, visit your doctor to get your iron levels checked. Ensure your diet contains iron-rich foods like spinach, egg yolk, red meat, pumpkin seeds, and lentils.
5. Inadequate Protein Intake
Just like your body needs carbs, it also needs protein. When it comes to sugar cravings, protein consumption is important to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. If you skip protein at breakfast and lunch, chances are that you’ll be hit with a sweet craving around 3 p.m. Protein and fat slow the release of sugar from food, keeping blood sugar stable and helping prevent sugar cravings.
Action: Eat a breakfast and lunch filled with protein — nuts, seeds, meats and seafood, mushrooms, lentils, beans, etc. A protein-rich snack between meals will also help stabilize blood sugar levels, thereby reducing afternoon cravings.
This story originally appeared on Food Matters. It has been reprinted with permission.