How to Beat Sugar and Carb Cravings

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple.

After Leo asked me to contribute an article for his series and I agreed, he sent over a list of questions from you guys – a fair representation of your collective troubles with healthy eating. And as I went over the list, almost every single item dealt with a sugar or carb craving that a person (or people) couldn’t beat.

From sweet tooths to sugar highs to chocolate binges, the carb and sugar cravings really are omnipresent among all of you. What are we to do?

Some of you have hacks that work some of the time, like brushing your teeth before you give in to the cravings or chugging decaf sugar-free tea, but they don’t really work that well or stick. If they did, you probably wouldn’t have written it, right?

No, we have to beat the craving back for good. It may not disappear entirely, but we want to be able to control it. To harness it (for good, not evil). You want to be able to have a sweet – one sweet – and stop. You don’t want to let it rule you.

Before we can hope to defeat the problem and beat the craving, we have to understand why the craving is occurring. The funny (and in my opinion, fascinating) thing about most instinctual motivations toward specific behaviors (like a sugar or a carb craving) is that they are rooted in our biology. There’s some physiological reason for their existence. They don’t “just happen.”

Here, I’ll give a prime example (not food related):

Children are driven to put strange objects – pretty much whatever they can lay their hands on – in their mouths not because they’re disgusting creatures, but because this behavior confers a survivability advantage by exposing their immune systems to a wide range of bacteria. Recent studies are confirming that kids who are exposed to the most bacteria (like farm kids) grow up to have less asthma and better, stronger immune systems.

Now, let’s look at several explanations – and solutions – for carb and sugar cravings:

1. Your food cravings and food environment are mismatched.

When it comes to food, we have ancient genes – animal bodies that obtain necessary nutrients by craving certain foods. If we perceive a nutritional deficiency, the desire for a food that provides that nutrient kicks in. Now, before all this processed junk “food” was available, people obtained nutrients through real, whole food. That was all that was available, and that was what we craved.

20,000 years ago, when someone’s physiological self required a certain nutrient, like glucose or vitamin C, the craving would manifest as a desire for fruit. Fruit is sweet, and fruit provides vitamin C.

Today, when someone needs or wants sugar or vitamin C, they crave candy and soda, because those are the foods our modern selves associate with “sweet.” The craving is ancient and biological, but the manifestation of that craving is culturally-determined and corrupted.

If you’re craving sweets and you think this might be the root cause, eat a piece of fruit. What happened to the craving? Because these craving manifestations are stubborn, you may have to keep this trick up until your natural “sweet cravings” begin to manifest as fruit cravings.

2. You’re over-stressed.

Are you stressed out? I’d bet you are (you wouldn’t be a regular reader of Leo’s if you didn’t have a need for it!). I certainly am. We all are, pretty much. Even if you practice daily meditation, get plenty of exercise, and enjoy a warm relationship with loved ones, you’re still dealing with things like the daily commute, paying bills, and late night TV that cause undue stress in your life.

The thing about stress is that it’s not some vague, ethereal concept floating somewhere outside of our bodies, even though that’s how we usually think about it. It’s a real thing, with real physiological impacts. One result of stress is the elevation of cortisol, an important and powerful stress hormone. Studies confirm that in people with elevated or dysregulated cortisol (often due to stress), sugar and carb cravings skyrocket. Another result of stress is the elevation of ghrelin, a hunger hormone that increases cravings.

You’ve heard of stress eating, I’m sure, but this suggests that stress eating takes the specific form of sugar and carb eating via two pathways: the body’s way of dealing with excess cortisol, and the body’s release of ghrelin.

So, what to do about stress-induced cravings?

Well, the cool thing about stress eating is that you know it when it happens, as it happens. That swing through the drive-thru after a hard day at the office and an hour in bumper to bumper traffic brings a sweet, instant release of tension that feels a little too easy, a little too good to be good for you. You could eat the candy and go for dessert and you’ll feel better tonight… but what about tomorrow? Today’s stress went away for now, but what are you going to do about the stressors responsible for it?

At some point, you have to make the decision not to take that easy way out, and instead focus on avoiding the stressors and mitigating their effect on you. Otherwise, you’ll keep chasing that sugar dragon.

3. You’re over-training.

Back when I was an elite marathoner, I went through upwards of 700 grams of carbs a day, mostly in the form of pasta, bread, and ice cream. I was craving carbs and sugar because I was using it up so quickly, and I needed the fastest-acting and most easily absorbed stuff I could get my hands on.

Nowadays, I don’t get those cravings. I train, but I keep things short, intense, and to the point. I can go most of the time using fat for energy, with very few activities that require an inordinate amount of carbohydrates for energy. I don’t need a whole lot of sugar or carbs anymore, so I don’t crave them.

Normally, you should be able to satisfy your glucose requirements by eating whole foods like roots, tubers, yams, and potatoes. Normally. If you’re not normal, if you’re over-exercising a ton and burning through those glycogen stores, your body is going to demand instant refueling, and chances are the whole food healthy carb sources simply won’t cut it. As I mentioned earlier, the easiest, quickest way to replenish your glycogen stores is to eat fast-digesting carbs and simple sugars. Calorically-dense sweets take the cake (literally) in that regard.

Sound familiar? You might want to reduce your training intensity (my first choice). If you don’t want to do that, you had better start fueling up with some quality sources of starch. Either way, you have to change.

But at least you know how and where.

4. You need more sleep.

How much sleep do you get each night? Six hours? Seven? Not enough? If you’re like most people, you get fewer hours than you’d desire, and fewer than you require. This can be devastating to your health (and happiness) for a number of reasons, but today we’re talking about sugar and carb cravings.

Surprise, surprise, a lack of sleep can cause them.

First of all, missing sleep is a potent stressor. Like all other sources of stress, it will raise cortisol and cause cravings via that route.

Second of all, sleep can also make food more rewarding. What’s “rewarding,” as far as food is concerned? A rewarding food is one that compels further consumption, even past the point of physical discomfort. A recent study found that a single night of sleep deprivation increased people’s desire for and pleasure derived from junk food.

Sugar and carb cravings are tough to beat, at least when you have no idea why they arise. Now that you do have an educated idea(s) of the root cause(s), you can take the necessary steps to address those causes and find a permanent solution. And hey, it’s not like eating more fruit, getting less stress and more sleep, and finding a more sustainable, healthy training regimen are bad things to go for anyway, right?

Good luck!

Mark Sisson writes about healthy, primal living at of Mark’s Daily Apple. Check out his book, The Primal Blueprint.