Why We Eat Sugar: How to Know if Your Behaviors Stem from Cravings, Emotions, or Habits and What You Can Do About It

Which one of the following statements do you most agree with:

  • “I can’t wait for my next coffee break!”
  • “Every night after dinner, I just have to eat something sweet!”
  • “All I want right now is a cheeseburger and sweet potato fries[or insert any specific food]!  Nothing else will do!”
  • “It’s summer time, that means it’s ice cream time!”
  • “I can’t stop thinking about having another one of those cookies!” 

My guess is that most of you have uttered a couple of these at some point in your life.

But are you able to tell which one stems from a “craving”, if you are desperate for energy,  whether you are trying to bury some undesirable feelings, or if it’s just stemming from “habit”? 

Unfortunately, many of us cannot tell the difference between habits, cravings, or emotional eating patterns.  And if we aren’t aware of why we are reaching for certain foods, how can we possibly change the way we eat and reverse or eliminate some of these negative patterns?

The relationship we have with our food can impact our lives in different ways.  The poorer the relationship, the harder it is to turn behaviors around in your favor.  

So if you are someone who…

  • thinks about food ALL the time,
  • gets anxiety when the dessert comes out, or
  • Is unable to control themselves around food

Then this article is for you.  Read on to learn about the difference between cravings, habits, and emotional eating; how each of these can impact your life; and what you can do to start turning your negative behaviors into positive ones.  

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HABIT, CRAVING, EMOTIONAL EATING

The best way to begin dealing with sugar and carbohydrate cravings is to first establish if what you are experiencing at any given moment is a craving, an attempt to cover up or ignore some feeling, or merely a bad habit.  

So let’s define all three of these:

Habit

Per Wikipedia, a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously (i.e., without thinking or being aware of it).

Habits around food can be healthful, neutral, and downright unhealthy!  In fact, there are 4 types of food habits that we can fall into:

  • Fuel: this is when we are in the habit of eating food that we know is supporting our health and overall function!
  • Fun: this is the habit of enjoying food for it’s flavor without there necessarily being nutritious.  For example, occasionally enjoying dessert or a cocktail.
  • Fog: this habit is unconscious so you are eating without awareness.  This could be those bites you take while preparing dinner or mindlessly working through a bag of chips.  In both scenarios, you’re not’ tasting the food or even remembering that you ate it (you know that “wait, where’d it all go?” feeling!)
  • Storm: when you storm eat you typically experience the “I just can’t stop!” feeling.  You are fully aware that you are eating but you just can’t seem to put an end to it.  

As you will see as you continue reading, some of your eating habits can cross over into cravings and emotional eating.  

Craving

“An intense desire for certain foods or flavors” (according to Medical News Today)

Cravings may stem from one or both of the following:

  • Nutrient deficiencies – a craving for chocolate may mean that you need more magnesium whereas a craving for fried foods may indicate your need for essential fatty acids and fat soluble vitamins; or
  • Digestive impairment – you may not be digesting your food properly and therefore not absorbing the nutrients in your food and so your body signals that you should eat certain foods that contain these nutrients.
  • Carbohydrate dependency and sugar addiction – relying on carbohydrates for fuel can lead to certain hormone imbalances that cause us to crave more carbs while an addiction to sugar involves a rush of endorphins for which our body asks for more leading to cravings for more sugar!

Here are 10 signs that your body is craving food due to a carbohydrate dependency or addiction:

  1. You crave sweets after meals 
  2. You are constantly hungry 
  3. You feel the need to snack throughout the day
  4. You crave sugary drinks, alcoholic drinks, or drink a lot of juice 
  5. You crave sugar during or after meals 
  6. You crave carbs first thing in the morning 
  7. You feel like eating right before bed 
  8. Your hunger makes you anxious, irritable, or “hangry” 
  9. You find yourself thinking about food all of the time
  10. You are chronically stressed out and find yourself turning to food to calm yourself down

Emotional Eating

Emotional eating is the overwhelming, intense, and sometimes uncontrollable urge to eat even when not hungry or low energy. Instead one may consciously or unconsciously be eating foods to calm, soothe, relieve, or suppress an emotion, or trauma without regard to actual nourishment or nutrition. 

Emotional eating can create a vicious cycle of guilt–low self-worth–needing more comfort–eating more foods–and eventually developing addictions as well as cravings and bad habits.  

Some signs of emotional eating include:

  1. Eating one serving of dessert and not being able to stop thinking about having more
  2. Eating the cookie or dessert and noticing it always leads to more indulgences even the next day
  3. Finding yourself daydreaming constantly about the cookie, or dessert and justifying why it’s okay to have
  4. Feeling frustrated, sad, fed up, angry, anxious (insert your emotion here) and finding yourself in the pantry searching for sweets, or pulling up to the nearest bakery to sink your teeth into a donut or pastry
  5. Turning to food as a way to calm yourself down
  6. You avoid the dessert table because it’s bad for you but going home and eating the half box of cookies

Why Poor Habits, Cravings, and Emotional Eating Can Be Detrimental

As you likely noticed, there are some good eating habits available to you (i.e. FUEL eating and even FUN eating in moderation)!  However, many people tend to have an overwhelming habit to FOG and STORM eat and those are where the problems can lie.

The body’s dependency on carbohydrates that results from fog and storm eating (which are really another way to say emotional eating and cravings) can really have a negative impact on your health.  

Many of the following consequences can stem from these poor eating habits:

  • Physical issues: blood sugar imbalances and the cascade that follows including metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and PreDiabetes.
  • More physical issues: Chronic inflammation, digestive distress (bloating, pain, acid reflux, belching, fullness, constipation)
  • Chronic pain in your muscles and joints
  • Leaky gut and multiple food sensitivities
  • Autoimmunity
  • Emotional stress, lack of confidence, depression, anxiety
  • Obstacles to dealing with deeper issues and using food to cover up emotions and traumas
  • Unintentional habits can lead to undesired weight gain and feeling worse about yourself

How Negative Emotions Affect Your Brain 

Negative emotions such as anger, loneliness, sadness, fear, frustration, and guilt (to name just a few!) have the ability to put you into a flight/fight (stress) state and inhibit parts of your brain.

The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for high-level thinking, focus, and executive function often gets shut down first.

At the same time, being in fight/flight mode heightens access to the hindbrain and limbic system, the parts of the brain responsible for survival and instinct, so it becomes the predominant decision maker and can leave you with strong urges to eat.

When you are stressed, energy gets shunted from the prefrontal cortex and it becomes hard to make wise choices. Then we cannot stop before reaching for food to satisfy and  comfort us. 

We lose the awareness to think whether or not it is in alignment with our goals and values. 

Unfortunately, it’s easy to lose touch with true desires, goals, and even core values, when the hindbrain is at predominately work. At this point, a common reaction is to reach for food as a way to stuff or numb the feelings!

My Personal Experience with Emotional Eating

In my case, my emotional eating patterns led to more and more cravings and bad habits around food.  

I was subconsciously seeking comfort and understanding while trying to cover up past trauma at the same time! 

I also ended up with a carbohydrate dependency and sugar addiction that really impacted my health and resulted in several big chronic health issues.  Not only was my inflammation high, I had high blood pressure, high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and I was prediabetic.

Because of these, I had plaque forming in my arteries and was a high risk for a heart attack, I had Rheumatoid Arthritis and chronic pain, and I was severely fatigued.

All this stuff literally crept up on me because of my tendency for emotional eating which led to an addiction that was hard to break!

Fortunately, there is hope as there are many things you can do to turn your behaviors into health supportive ones.

How to Break Free from Poor Eating Habits, Cravings, and Emotional Eating

In order to successfully decrease or eliminate your consumption of sugar and lose your dependency on carbohydrates you must first become aware of what draws you to eat these types of food:

Are you craving them?

Are you eating them in an effort to dull an emotion you don’t want to deal with (i.e. emotional eating)?

Or have you just always eaten that way and never questioned it before (i.e., a learned poor habit)?

This will allow you to determine if what you are experiencing is a craving, emotional eating, or just a habit (again, habits can be intertwined or can form due to cravings and emotional eating so you may end up going deeper than you realize when you do the work to change your behaviors!).

Changing Habits

The effort you need to change your habits is determined by where they stem from.  If there is any sort of emotional connection to your habits, then be prepared to put in some work!  

If your habits are simply the result of a learned experience, with no emotional tie, then you may be able to easily drop bad habits and replace them with good habits.  For example, you can clean out your pantry and commit to buying only health supportive foods that both you and your family enjoy.  This will automatically force you to eat better foods!

You can also schedule days/evenings to shop for food, plan and prep!  This can help you steer clear of picking up the phone and ordering food last minute!

Overall, habits can take time to change so don’t be afraid to do things one step at a time.  You greatly increase your chances of the habits sticking if you don’t overwhelm yourself!

Turning Cravings Around

Cravings can be a little trickier to conquer.  Remember, cravings are typically the result of nutrient deficiencies, digestive impairment, or carbohydrate dependency/sugar addiction.

You might not know off the bat which one is your cause so it’s best to start with addressing your digestive capabilities and ensuring you are eating a nutrient rich diet.  

Some actions steps you can take include:

  • Eating while sitting down and in a relaxed state: this puts your body in an optimal state to digest the food you are eating
  • Fill your plate with a variety of colorful vegetables and round them out with healthy fats and small amount of carbohydrates from starchy vegetables likes sweet potato and squash
  • Ensure you are sleeping 7-8 hours per night
  • Minimize stress and develop some stress management techniques that don’t include food
  • Reduce or eliminate your consumption of sugar: sugar can deplete us of important minerals and other nutrients!
  • Stock your pantry with healthy snacks such as raw nuts and seeds, nut butters, olives, avocado’s, flax crackers, low carb bars and homemade fat bombs) to get you through to your next meal while you wean off of sugars.
  • Drink at least half of your body weight in ounces of water per day: hunger and dehydration can produce similar feelings so staying hydrated ensures you are only eating when you are actually hungry.

Tackling Emotional Eating

If you know you are an emotional eater then it is really important to trace that back to the beginning by asking yourself why did it start in the first place?  And getting really clear on what emotions lead you into eating now. Is it your demanding schedule? Is it being a mom? Is it overwhelm from responsibilities? Anxiety? Fear? Sadness? 

Whatever the emotion is, figuring out a way to deal with it will be your ticket to breaking up with emotional eating for good! 

Once you figure out what your triggers are, it’s important to come up with a game plan for the moment!

How will what I eat now, out of emotion, affect me in the future?

The goal is to do something just a little differently each time you feel ready to eat emotionally. See if you can pause just long enough to start a question and answer dialogue with yourself:

  • If I choose to eat emotionally, what will the results be like in 2 minutes? 2 days? 2 hours? 2 weeks?
  • If I choose to manage my emotions without food, what would be the results in 2 minutes? 2 days? 2 hours? 2 weeks?

Alternate Actions

Since eating was being used as a way to deal with (or not deal with!) negative emotions, it’s important to find a new outlet so that you do not feel overwhelmed by what you are experiencing.  

This is why it is important to come up with a list of alternate actions you can take that will replace the food you were eating.  Some examples include: 

  • Journaling: use this time to write out how you feel and express gratitude
  • Run a hot bath, put some lavender oil in, and relax in the bath. It’s an aromatic, soothing way to comfort and distract you.
  • Put on some meditative music or to listen to someone who’s very inspirational and distract yourself that way.
  • Call a friend!
  • Engage and lose yourself in one of your favorite hobbies: artwork, playing music, knitting, bird- watching, gardening, dancing, swimming, yoga, theater, sports, etc.
  • Focus on your breathing and feelings of appreciation.
  • Visualize a time and place that brought you pleasure. Transport yourself in space and time back to that place. 

From unhealthy to healthy!

As you can see food habits, cravings, and emotional eating can all be intertwined but each of them has different approaches for turning your behaviors into positive and health supportive ones.

For me, there was definitely one thing that helped me ditch my cravings and improve my health while also teaching me how to eat nutrient dense foods, including healthy sources of carbs, healthy fats, and quality protein. 

And that one thing was learning how to follow a Keto lifestyle!

I’m sure you’ve heard of Keto and maybe you’ve even considered implementing a Ketogenic diet where you teach your body how to run on fat in the form of ketones and fatty acids for energy.

For me, it was life changing. No joke!

It has worked so well for me that I have developed the Pure Keto Reset and Keto Clear programs so I can help others feel their best too!

Why Keto?

The ultimate goal for most people is to develop metabolic flexibility, which basically means that after you become fat-adapted or Keto-adapted you’ll be more ready to reintroduce some carbohydrates back into your diet and use them properly for energy too. 

Teaching your body to use fat for energy has so many benefits besides curbing carb cravings and ending sugar addiction.

Some of the other benefits you may experience from becoming fat-adapted or Keto-adapted include:

  • increased energy overall 
  • sustained daily energy without the dips and crashes, 
  • heightened focus and clarity, 
  • less pain and inflammation, 
  • weight loss and easy weight management, 
  • Less hunger and no more intense feelings of hangryness (hungry and angry)
  • Balanced moods, this is a big one when it comes to emotional eating
  • And of course improvement of your unique health symptoms from balanced blood sugar and quality foods.

Yes, a ketogenic lifestyle can certainly do wonders to get your body to use fat as its main source of fuel.  This can ultimately result in less cravings and more health supportive food habits!

However, Keto on it’s own will NOT solve some of the underlying emotional baggage that you may be hanging on to.  This is an area that involves deeper work and really digging into what it is that is driving these emotions.

Are You Ready to Change Your Life?

If you feel you need more help navigating sugar cravings and figuring out what else might be causing them, head over here to take a look at the services I offer and then let’s schedule your FREE Discovery Session so that we can create your plan for achieving your best health!

To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself.”  

– James Clear