Why we crave sweets after eating – and what to do about it


Q: I always crave ice cream or chocolate after dinner. How do I stop these cravings? Why do they happen?

A: You’ve probably noticed that hunger is not a prerequisite for sweet cravings. Our sense of hunger and fullness are largely regulated by hormones that can be triggered by the contents of our stomachs and small intestines. A food craving, on the other hand, can occur even when we are otherwise feeling perfectly satiated.

To help curb sugar cravings after a meal, try this:

Incorporate a variety of flavors, textures and smells into your main course.

Create new habits after mealtime.

One theory for why we crave sweets, even when we’re full, is called sensory specific satiety. We may be too full to eat another bite after stuffing ourselves at Thanksgiving with savory foods like turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. But if a different food is offered – say pumpkin pie or a chocolate dessert – people tend to eat more.

Researchers think this may be related to our nutritional need for a balanced diet, but it also helps explain why we often have room for dessert. By enhancing your main course with more variety, you might not feel something is missing at the end of the meal.

Another piece of the puzzle has to do with learned behaviors. Much of the literature around food cravings supports the idea that they are a conditioned response. Remember Pavlov’s dog? People can get used to eating a specific food in a certain context. Maybe having ice cream is how you relax after dinner, or maybe you refuel with a latte and a slice of cake in the afternoons. That pattern can release the reward hormone, dopamine, that makes us feel good and reinforces the habit.

What is happening when you most frequently desire sweets? Try breaking up those associations for a few weeks – like experimenting with other ways to reduce stress like yoga or bad reality TV, instead of eating a brownie, after dinner. After a while, you may notice you don’t crave a sweet with those same stimuli anymore.

How to curb sugar cravings

Enjoying sweets in moderation is perfectly normal. But if cravings are hindering your efforts to eat a healthy diet, here are other tips that can help:

*Try smaller, less frequent portions of your favorite sweets. A classic study from researchers at Northwestern University in 1975 found that people who ate a more restrictive diet were more likely to go overboard when given a chance at sweets than people who didn’t diet. You can also practice mindful eating to savor the experience.

*Don’t swap out real sugar with sugar substitutes. Some sugar substitutes are far sweeter than sugar, which won’t exactly help address the cravings. And according to the World Health Organization, not only do these not help with weight loss if that’s your goal, but they can lead to other health problems.

*Get some sleep. Are you reaching for something sweet at the end of the day when you’re tired? A 2013 study published in Nature Communications found that the more exhausted people feel, the more they desire high-calorie foods.

*Ask your doctor about medications. GLP-1 agonists like Ozempic are well-known to curb cravings, including for sweets and alcohol. But not everyone is a candidate. Check with your physician to see if you meet other criteria.

Why we crave sweets

Researchers have long studied why sweets hold such power over living creatures. In fact, one experiment found that rats preferred intensely sweet substances even over cocaine.

We’re also living in a world of meticulously engineered, aggressively marketed and cheap sugar-dense desserts and snacks that did not exist several generations back. This makes it harder than ever to break the pattern.

Why some people have a “sweet tooth” and others don’t actually remains something of a scientific mystery, but there are a few myths about it that research has debunked. Contrary to what many believe, there is no clear association between obesity and sweet food preference.

How much sugar can I have in a day?

The American Heart Association recommends:

*For men: No more than 36 grams of added sugar per day.

*For women: No more than 25 grams of added sugar per day.

Added sugars aren’t just found in sweets. Foods such as salad dressings, ketchup and even tomato sauce can also have added sugar. So can drinks. For example, one scoop of vanilla ice cream can have 14 grams of added sugar. A 12-ounce soda can have 39 grams.

To stay within the recommended range, it helps to check nutrition labels and minimize your consumption of ultra-processed foods, which have been linked with chronic diseases.

What I want my patients to know

We have so much work do to on a public health level about sugary food intake. There’s also a lot of shaming around how we eat and obesity that make these discussions hard – even with your physician. Find a health care team who recognizes that obesity is as much a disease as hypertension and can help guide you toward a path that meets your goals.

Dr. Trisha Pasricha. PHOTO: health.harvard.edu

Trisha Pasricha is an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.



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