If you crave sugar, you’re not alone, but it certainly isn’t helping your health, particularly for anyone living with arthritis. Here we list some of the most common causes behind sugar cravings and offer tips to help navigate them.  


Why is Sugar Such a Problem?

The problem with sugary foods is that they are energy dense (full of calories), whilst being nutrient poor. While small amounts of sugar can be consumed in a healthy and well-balanced diet, when consumed in excess, sugar can negatively impact our health. High sugar diets have been linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, weight gain, poor dental health, low mood, irritability, and fatigue. Consuming too much sugar can lead to inflammation, which can trigger joint pain, which is important to know for anyone living with arthritis. 


Why we Keep Reaching for the Sugar (and how to Stop):

There are physical, psychological, environmental, and emotional reasons people crave sugar. One of the more difficult things, these days, is how readily sugar is available and the fact that a great deal of it is hidden in our foods, making it more difficult to monitor our intake. Here are some possible reasons that you may be struggling with sugar addiction right now. 


  1. Poor sleep and fatigue: When we’re tired and feeling low in energy, our bodies produce increased amounts of a hunger hormone known as ‘ghrelin’. This explains why, if you’re tired, you’re more likely to make a poor food choice (and then regret it afterwards). Living in Ireland today, sugary options which may have once not have been so readily available, are now unfortunately all too easy to pick up. Just look at your local petrol station for the now common display of sugary pastries, doughnuts, and chocolate bars, demonstrating that the environment we live in is not helping us to make the healthier choice. The irony, of course, is that eating sugar will cause our energy levels to plummet further and, an hour or so later, we’ll be feeling even more tired than before. How to stop: Instead, reach for a snack that is likely to help your energy levels, rather than cause them to crash, such as cashew nuts or dry roasted peanuts, a banana, a boiled egg on wholemeal toast, a low-sugar flapjack, or some carrot batons with hummus.  


  1. Poor diet: If you’re not really thinking about what you’re eating, and possibly not getting enough fruits and vegetables in your diet, or eating healthy, balanced meals made up of lean protein, healthy fat, and unrefined carbohydrates, it’s possible that you’ll keep reaching for sugar simply as a result of being hungry and dissatisfied. How to stop: It’s important to consume foods high in fibre (such as brown bread, porridge and fruit and veg), as well as protein foods (such as fish, chicken, pulses, or lean meats) every few hours to help stabilise your blood sugars. Once you are doing this, you are less likely to crave sugary foods as you’ll feel more satisfied and less hungry. It’s simple, but it really does work.  


  1. Emotional reasons/out of habit: Sugar cravings are often the result of conditioning over time for instance, for you, finishing dinner could signal eating dessert or something sweet (signalling a ‘reward’). From a very young age we are conditioned to use food not only for nourishment, but also for comfort (this can come from advertising messages, but also from cultural conditioning). Whenever the brain experiences pleasure, it releases a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. We feel good whenever dopamine is activated so it’s no wonder, we strive to repeat the cycle. We learn that every time we have dinner (or some other trigger, such as every time we go out in the car), if we consume sugar, we will feel good as we get a ‘hit’ of this pleasure hormone. How to stop: The first step is to try to find a healthy, replacement habit post-dinner or when you hop in the car to reprogramme your brain. So that could be a lovely warm drink, such as herbal tea or a healthy flapjack, for instance. Next, you can use a technique often used in smoking cessation called ‘surf the wave of cravings, which essentially means waiting five minutes before giving in, and sitting with the discomfort of that or distracting ourselves (because, inevitably, after a certain amount of time the craving passes). During that time, check in with yourself, name the emotion you’re feeling and think about alternatives to soothe yourself. Alternatives could include calling someone for support put on some upbeat music, try taking a brisk walk, read a good book, watch a funny TV show or turn to a hobby you enjoy (if you want to embark on a new hobby, check out our blog about this here). If you feel that your emotions are hard to manage as a result the challenges of living with arthritis, consider calling our helpline on 0818 252 846 to talk to someone who understands 


  1. Lack of awareness: Manufacturers are mostly focused on making a profit and, to do that, they have to make their foods taste good. That often means pumping foods with sugar or added salt or fat. So, as individuals, we need to take back the control and be more conscious of what we’re putting into our shopping trollies. The problem with sugar is that it’s highly addictive so the more we eat, the more we want. Hidden sugar seems to be the major challenge these days as it can be present in energy bars, fizzy drinks, yoghurts, salad dressings and even pasta sauces without us realising it. Hidden sugars can be present in even a seemingly harmless tin of soup (a typical can of tomato soup, for instance, can contain a whopping 20 grams of added sugar, which is equivalent to 5 teaspoons of sugar). Remember that products labelled as ‘low in fat’ can, in fact, be high in sugar. How to stop: Pick up a product and look at the back of the packaging, where the ingredients are listed in order of their descending weight. If sugar (or the other names for sugar sucrose, glucose, glucose syrup, fructose, glucose-fructose syrup, maltose, maltodextrin, invert sugar, golden syrup, maple syrup, molasses and honey) is listed high up, then be aware that this is a high sugar food and, therefore, should be consumed in small amounts 


  1. Stress and/or low motivation: When living with a long-term condition, there can be times when our motivation is low, or when we are feeling very stressed. This is perfectly normal, but stress can actually exacerbate your symptoms so, as soon as you possibly can, it’s important to address it. Stress can also lead to poor decisions and habits and to the feeling that you are out of control. How to stop it: Remind yourself that, sometimes, just surviving day-to-day really is enough. Setbacks are normal and do not mean that you’re failing overall. It’s important to try to catch yourself and to replace negative thoughts with more positive self-talk, such as ‘This is a difficult time, but I am doing my best. It is only a setback. I’ll get back on track soon.” With regards to managing your condition, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and to think that you have to do everything at once, but you really don’t. Breaking it down into small, manageable tasks is the first step. Better still, book yourself onto one of our in-person or online Living Well with Arthritis courses to learn about all the self-management techniques that have the biggest impact on how you feel. Getting on top of stress will have a significant impact, not just on your mood, but also on your sugar cravings.  

For more information, visit the healthy eating section of our website or download the Healthy Food for Life guide.