Sugar Cravings: Causes & 15 Ways To Cut Down

Why do we love sugar so much? Get to the root causes, apply 15 strategies to cut down on sugar effectively and kiss the cravings goodbye.

by Jo-Kym New

Let’s be real. Malaysians love sugar in everything. In fact, sugar consumption in Malaysia has significantly increased over the past 15 years. With our cultures getting more diverse, we’re seeing a growing trend in new dessert frenzies like bingsu, bubble milk tea, mochi and so on. This is trouble for both our wallets and our tummies. The treats may be sweet, but the consequences aren’t. It’s important to know how to fight the sugar cravings for the good of our health. But first, let’s take a look at why we have sugar cravings and what they might do to our bodies.

Why do we have sweet cravings?

Let’s unpack the reasons behind our love for sugar. These can either be psychological or physiological. Here are some potential factors:

1. Poor diet choices

Poor diets like high-carb and high-fat diets can trigger sugar cravings. 

A high-carb diet, as the name suggests, is a diet that contains a larger proportion of high glycemic carbohydrates of more than 60 percent of one’s daily diet. On the other hand, a high-fat diet is where one’s diet consists of more than 35 percent fat intake. 

The reason is that white rice, processed foods and butter can create an imbalance of good bacteria in your gut, making you feel hungry and crave sugar.

2. Stress

Stress is another contributing factor to our sugar addiction. 

When we are stressed, we tend to reach out for “comfort foods” that are high in fat and sugar like ice cream or cake. This is because our stress hormones (cortisol) signal our bodies to look for ways to dampen the stressful feeling, and sugar-filled foods work to trigger the “happy” hormones known as dopamine.

For this reason, people have conditioned themselves to look for sugar to get that feel-good sensation and cope with the stress in a behaviour we call “stress-eating”. 

3. Bad habits

Another possible reason is bad habits. 

Some bad habits often get overlooked. These include adding sweeteners to our beverages, chewing gum or candy, or using a tablespoon instead of a teaspoon to add sugar. Before you know it, you would have already exceeded the recommended sugar intake.

4. Hormonal changes

Hormonal changes can also drive our desire for sugar. This often happens in women during their menstrual cycle (periods).

Sugar cravings begin the week prior to their period when progesterone levels drop and oestrogen rises. This can cause blood sugar levels to also decline and signals the body to replenish the sugar in your body.

5. Nutrient deficiencies

Lastly, a lack of nutrients would also lead to an increase in sugar intake.

When the body is not getting enough nutrients like zinc, chromium, iron, calcium, and magnesium, the individual’s mental health is affected. This will cause him or her to experience symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. 

As a result, they may look for quick fixes in sugar for a boost of energy to keep running throughout the day.

Consequences of having too much sugar

Eating too much sugar can contribute to excess calories that turn into weight gain if not burned off. On top of that, weight loss becomes harder with age. If you maintain an inactive lifestyle, it could eventually lead to obesity over time.

Too much sugar can also cause some serious health complications to an individual. Consuming sugar increases insulin levels as well as high blood sugar level, resulting in type 2 diabetes. As a matter of fact, 1 in 5 Malaysians are living with diabetes according to the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019.

diabetes trends
Source: National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019

Besides obesity and diabetes, too much sugar can heighten one’s risk for other chronic conditions like hypertension, fatty liver disease and various heart diseases like heart attack and stroke. Several studies have also found a link between high-sugar diets and depression.

Diagnosed with Diabetes

Diabetes is a medical condition where the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin or the body is unable to use the insulin at an optimum level. If you have recently been diagnosed with diabetes, read this article on questions to ask your doctor, how to tell your family, and planning for your future.

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How much sugar is recommended?

While the recommended intake by the World Health Organization is no more than six teaspoons a day (30 grams or less), the average Malaysian consumes seven teaspoons a day

Having said that, going cold turkey on sugar isn’t the most effective solution either. It could lead to withdrawal symptoms like lightheadedness, brain fog and fatigue. Besides, sugar isn’t all bad – it is a great source of energy for your muscles and nervous system. 

The best way to go about this is to practise moderation by choosing the good sugars and cutting down on the bad.

Which sugars are good for you 

Not all sugars are bad for you. Natural sugars can be found in whole, unprocessed foods. For instance, fructose (found in fruits) and lactose (found in milk). These good sugars are rich in important nutrients that provide sustained energy, keeping your body energised for the day.

15 ways to cut down on sugar

It can be challenging to kick off bad habits in our daily routines, but a little goes a long way.

Ready to have a healthy relationship with sugar? Try these 15 simple but effective ways to fight your cravings reduce your sugar intake:

  1. Clear your pantry

Get ready for some pantry-edition spring cleaning. It’s time to toss out the snacks, candies, artificial sweeteners and additives. 

  1. Try sugar alternatives

There are tons of healthier substitutes for sugar like stevia, molasses, honey and maple syrup. Swap your sugars with these herbal goods that contain zero calories.

  1. Avoid unhealthy foods

Avoid any unhealthy foods that are high in oil, salt, sugar or fats. These include processed foods which also contain more refined sugar than we know, like canned beverages, protein bars and barbecue sauce.

  1. Eat some fruits

Did you know that fruits are a great source of natural sugar? Some of the best ones that are packed with vitamins and minerals are strawberries, raspberries, grapefruit, and peaches. 

  1. Practise mindfulness

Mindfulness is an amazing method to dealing with stress and anxiety. Find moments in the day to ground yourself in the present with some breathing exercises or meditation. These can take your attention away from stress as well as sugar.

  1. Drink more water

Water is a natural resource that lowers one’s blood sugar levels by diluting the sugar in the bloodstream. It is also effective in reducing your cravings for unhealthy foods. 

  1. Pre-plan your meals

Planning your meals ahead of time will not only save you a lot of time and money, but makes you more intentional about what you put on your plate. If you have diabetes, create a diet plan that is well-suited for your dietary requirements.

  1. Control your portion sizes

Another smart way to break your sugar-eating habits is to practise portion control. Simple ways to do this include using smaller plates or portion-control plates, chewing your food properly, and using hand measurements.

Hang guide - portion control
Source: verywellfit

  1. Read the nutritional labels

Kicking your sugar habit can begin in the supermarket. A nutrition facts label will tell you what the amount of protein, available carbohydrates, total sugars and fat in a particular food product. It also informs you of the recommended serving size so you can ensure a well-balanced meal.

  1. Swap rice with quinoa 

Quinoa is a type of whole grain that is rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. It is a great substitute for rice as it contains fewer calories and carbohydrates. Quinoa may also help you lower blood sugar levels as well as lose weight.

  1. Use virgin coconut oil

Virgin coconut oil is packed with healthy saturated fats with low GI that helps lower your blood sugar levels. Moreover, it is effective in reducing one’s appetite, burning body fat and fighting against diseases. 

  1. Opt for low glycemic index (GI) foods

The glycemic index (GI) is an effective tool that tells you how quickly food can increase your blood sugar levels. Low GI foods—beans, lentils, legumes and barley—-can help reduce your blood sugar levels, especially those with diabetes.

Glycemic Index | Homage

  1. Take spirulina

Spirulina is a blue-green algae that may improve insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels naturally, among other health benefits. This secret ingredient can be incorporated into the juices and smoothie bowls.

  1. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise can curb food cravings. Not only are you burning calories, but exercise is scientifically proven to increase your dopamine levels and blood sugar in the brain. When this happens, you have a lesser tendency to reach out for junk food.

  1. Sleep well

Clocking in your Zzz’s can do wonders for your physical and mental health. Better quality sleep of 7-8 hours per night helps regulate your cortisol levels and prevent sleep disorders in the long run. Improve your sleep by reducing your screen time and sticking to a night routine.

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When to seek help

It’s okay to give in every once in a while. Don’t be afraid to give yourself a little treat as a reward for your accomplishments. If you’re struggling to keep up with the changes, remember that these things take time so go easy on yourself! Figure out what works for you and work towards a healthier relationship with sugar.

Do you find yourself depending on sugar to relieve symptoms like fatigue, stress, headaches or dehydration? This may indicate that you have a more serious health issue like hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar found in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes). It could be time to seek professional help at your nearest healthcare facility.

If you are battling sugar addiction, you’re not alone. There are many resources available online to help you overcome them. Perhaps find a friend to lean on and provide practical support in your journey to break the cycle. Just remember to take one step at a time.

Diabetes Support & Care Options in Malaysia

If you have diabetes, check out these helpful support groups available in Malaysia:

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  2. Cleveland Clinic. (2014). Fat: What You Need to Know. Retrieved from 
  3. Doheny, K. (2018). Low Carb, High Carb, Bad Carb: How Much is Best?. WebMD. Retrieved from 
  4. Fletcher, J. (2019). What to know about low-carb, high-fat diets. MedicalNewsToday. Retrieved from  
  5. Glycemic index and diabetes. (2020). In A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia [Internet]. Johns Creek (GA): Ebix, Inc., A.D.A.M. Retrieved from 
  6. Southern, L. (2018). Sugar and the Menstrual Cycle. London Gynaecology Ltd. Retrieved from 
  7. The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. (2020, July 13). Study links stress hormone with higher blood sugar in Type 2 diabetes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 14, 2022 from
  8. World Health Organization. (2015). Guideline: sugars intake for adults and children. Retrieved from
About the Writer
Jo-Kym New
Jo-Kym is an inbound marketer who is deeply passionate about mental health and family relationships. Her creative outlets are journalling, mobile photography, food and fashion.
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