Why do we get afternoon sugar cravings?

Afternoon sugar cravings used to be my achilles heel. I could just about get through the mornings by dodging the office biscuit tin and drinking endless cups of tea. By lunchtime I was either having to utilise the will power of a saint (which I don’t possess), or I was adding “just a small” piece of cake or a chocolate bar to cheer up both me and my shop-bought sandwich. However, an hour or so later the afternoon sugar cravings would start big time.


I don’t know about you, but my sugar cravings were HUGE. Once they started it was all I could think about until I silenced them with sugar. This wouldn’t have been so bad if my sugar monster had been happy with a couple of biscuits or one bar of chocolate, but she wasn’t. Sugar cravings are EXHAUSTING and they sabotage our best efforts to eat more healthily. When I work with clients we tackle sugar cravings in two ways. Bottom up and top down.

Blood sugar and sugar cravings

When I talk about bottom up, I am talking about body and brain biology. Sugar cravings can occur when our blood sugar drops. This is a biological response, it has absolutely nothing to do with emotions or willpower. When our blood sugar drops below a certain level our brain panics, because blood sugar is the ONLY source of energy for our brain cells*.

This means that when blood sugar drops too low, our brains literally become starved of food. Now, from an evolutionary perspective our brains are pretty important and starvation equals death. Once our brain thinks it is being starved, it isn’t going to be sending us polite food messages: “Oh, excuse me, I’ve flipped into starvation mode up hereI wonder if you would be so kind as to send me up some steamed veg and salmon or maybe a nice colourful salad….” HA. No. Our brain is going to be SCREAMING at us “GET ME SUGAR NOW, I AM DYING HERE…..And if we don’t oblige it just shouts louder until we listen.


Emotions and sugar cravings

To be honest, once we get the bottom-up bit sorted a lot of the worst sugar cravings can disappear. For me, and for many of my clients it is completely life changing. You go from obsessive food thoughts, emotional eating and sugar binges to controlling your food choices. It’s completely liberating. It’s much easier to make peace with food and stop emotional eating when your brain isn’t screaming starvation at you.

But, if we still have afternoon sugar cravings even with blood sugar on an even keel, then we need to dig a bit deeper. Top-down cravings means exploring our mind and our emotions. These kinds of triggers are very individual and can sometimes be hard to spot on our own as they are so ingrained into our subconscious brains.

Habit, boredom, anxiety, fear, frustration, anger, depression, numbing, distraction, trauma, hormonal chaos and lack of sleep (which actually drives the bottom-up biological cravings), can all trigger sugar cravings and sugar binges. This is where we would work together closely to figure out what exactly your trigger is and what you need in order to help you overcome it.


6 tips to stop the afternoon sugar cravings

1. Don’t get too hungry

Okay, this may sound obvious, but it is an easy one to overlook, especially if you are someone used to calorie counting, restricting or yo-yo dieting. Getting too hungry can mean your blood sugar drops, and as we have already seen that is the fastest way to trigger sugar cravings. So don’t skip meals; eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. And if you get hungry between meals, then plan to have a healthy mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack.


2. Eat protein at lunchtime

This can make a HUGE difference to afternoon sugar cravings. Protein helps to keep us full and satisfied and can help to keep our blood sugar more stable. Protein foods include eggs, fish, chicken, turkey, tofu, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils. One portion of protein is roughly the size of the palm of your hand, which might look like a tin of tuna fish or two eggs.


3. Manage your environment

Keep chocolate, sweets, biscuits and cakes out of sight. Hide them away. Sugar cravings can often be triggered just by seeing our favourite treat food (I noticed my sugar monster wake up just from adding pictures of chocolate and cakes to this post!). Even better, don’t keep your treat, crave or binge foods in the house at all. If you really want them, go and buy them. We are innately lazy creatures, if we make something harder for ourselves, we are much less likely to do it.


4. Allow yourself to eat your “treat” foods when you really want them

The minute we tell ourselves we can’t have something our brain panics and becomes obsessed by having the very thing we are trying to deny it. Try talking to yourself differently. Tell yourself you can still have the chocolate bar when you want it, but that first, you are going to eat a healthy snack.


5. Break the habit loop, do something different

Afternoon sugar cravings can become a habit loop, buried deep into our subconscious brains. Habit loops are when we run on auto pilot and are why we sometimes can’t remember locking the front door or switching off the iron or some days even the drive to work. Disrupt your habit loop by doing something different.

Pre-empt the craving and do somehting different. Go for a walk or meet a friend for a coffee or a gym class. If you’re at work switch desks, get outside and walk around the carpark, do some air squats, do a 3 minute meditation or breathwork practice.

If you’re home alone and bored, plan in some activities. Take a short walk or do an at home yoga or relaxation class or take a bath. Avoid the telly and instead do a jigsaw puzzle (our brains love a good jigsaw), listen to music, read, knit, draw. Get inventive.


6. Prioritise sleep

Not getting enough sleep can have a big knock-on effect the next day, significantly increasing carbohydrate and sugar cravings. While it can be really tempting to stay up late binge watching your favourite Netflix series your body, brain and mind will thank you for a good night’s sleep.

I hope you have found this helpful. Please do get in touch if there is anything I can help you with.

Helen x

*Unless your brain is ketone adapted – which means you have trained your brain to burn fat as a fuel.

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