Do you struggle to focus during the day because all you can think about are chocolate chip cookies, ice cream, or the kids’ sweet treats? Do you feel urges to reach for carbs in the late afternoon and evening? And when you do indulge you feel a loss of control and get overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame?
If this is resonating, this article is for you.
There are many misconceptions when it comes to sugar cravings, particularly in the context of PCOS-related sugar cravings. Many women experience a sense of shame and self-criticism regarding their cravings, often believing that if they just had more willpower, they could make better choices.
As a Registered Dietitian specializing in women’s health, I want to reassure you that your cravings are not something to blame yourself for. There are actual scientific and physiologic reasons why your body is urging you towards sugar if you live with PCOS.
In this blog post, I dive into why you have sugar cravings in PCOS and provide you with easy strategies to overcome them.
Does PCOS make you crave sugar?
One of the most common symptoms I see in my PCOS patients is the incessant urge to seek out carbs and high sugar foods. In fact, 99% of people with PCOS report having sugar cravings!
Why is this, you ask? Well, the main culprit is insulin.
What is insulin?
After you eat, the carbs in your food are broken down into glucose, which enters your bloodstream. This causes your blood sugar levels to rise. In response to elevated blood sugar, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream.
Insulin allows glucose to enter cells and be used for energy. Without insulin, glucose remains locked out of cells and remains in the bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar levels and unusable energy.
Insulin plays a very important role in the body! Problems start to arise, though, when insulin levels get too high, or when cells become resistant to insulin (insulin resistance).
What is insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance builds up over a period of years in women with PCOS. It is also seen in type 2 diabetes.
It originates partly from eating high amounts of simple carbs, especially when they are eaten in isolation and in excess. Eating a substantial amount of sugary foods without including protein or fat allows for sugar to rapidly enter the bloodstream.
To tame blood sugars, the body responds by producing a massive amount of insulin.
- High levels of insulin (hyperinsulinemia) can trigger appetite. High levels of insulin cause rebound low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) which is a very powerful trigger for hunger and cravings, especially for quick sources of energy like sugary snacks.
- High levels of insulin can also lead to leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that helps regulate appetite and body weight. In leptin resistance, your brain doesn’t respond well to leptin’s signals, which can lead to increased appetite and a reduced feeling of fullness, making you want to eat more and more.
Eventually, the body’s cells get tired of these massive amounts of insulin. They eventually become unresponsive to its signals. This is insulin resistance.
The reason why diet, lifestyle, and physical activity are key to managing food cravings in PCOS is because you can directly control your body’s response to insulin.
By eating balanced meals, eating three meals per day, exercising, and taking insulin-sensitizing supplements (like inositol), you can maintain steady blood sugars and have a direct impact on your PCOS cravings.
How to stop PCOS sugar cravings
A common trigger for PCOS sugar cravings is low blood sugar brought on by high levels of circulating insulin. To avoid a vicious cycle of intense cravings, binge eating episodes, and even further insulin resistance, you need to build a sustainable, healthy, and satiating eating pattern.
Let’s talk simple strategies for preventing PCOS sweet cravings.
Eat well-balanced meals and snacks throughout the day
This is the cornerstone of managing food cravings. Hear me out.
When you go 6+ hours between meals (like in intermittent fasting) your body depends on stress hormones like cortisol to stabilize your blood sugar. This imbalance can lead to insulin resistance and exacerbate sugar cravings.
Skipping regular meals can also result in:
- Huge fluctuations and drops in blood sugar levels throughout the day
- Late-night binge eating and hunger
An ideal, well-balanced meal or snack contains a mix of carbs, fiber, healthy fats, and protein. Such a meal not only aids in regulating blood sugar levels but also provides lasting satiety. Fiber and fat help to slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream and protein keeps you full for longer.
For example, a balanced dinner might look like homemade easy enchiladas made with whole wheat tortillas (for fiber), chicken breast and black beans (for protein), cheddar cheese (for fats), and bell peppers, jalapenos, onion, garlic, and cilantro (for fresh veggies).
A balanced snack might look like apple with peanut butter (carb + healthy fat), pita and hummus (carb + healthy fat), or Greek yogurt with berries (carb + protein).
There is no denying that most PCOS-related sugar cravings stem from insulin resistance, but you might be surprised at how much restriction plays a role too.
When we physically restrict food, our bodies initiate a series of biochemical reactions that literally drive us to eat more. Ghrelin and the neuropeptide Y are released in response to food deprivation, which increases our appetite and our drive to seek out and crave carbs.
Not only this, but when we mentally restrict food, we become obsessed. You may still eat the food you see as “bad” or “forbidden”, but you feel shame, guilt, and frustration for eating it. You might feel the need to work harder at the gym or eat less the next day to make up for it. This is “pseudo-restriction”.
If you constantly tell yourself that you need to avoid dessert or sugary foods, it can become nearly impossible to resist indulging in them when the opportunity arises.
The key lies in trying to strike a balance. Experiment with regularly integrating a dessert with your balanced and nourishing snack or meal. Have a sweet treat occasionally! It’s okay. Give yourself permission.
Inositol is a nutrition supplement that has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS. It can help to fight carbohydrate cravings through blood sugar stabilizing effects.
To learn more about using inositol in PCOS, consult my blog post on the best supplements in PCOS.
Regular physical activity can have a profound effect on your blood sugars and food cravings!
Your muscles use glucose for energy. This is why exercise helps to lower blood sugar levels and reduce the fluctuations that can trigger cravings for sugary foods.
Exercise also impacts hormones that control appetite and cravings. It increases the release of endorphins and serotonin, which can improve mood and reduce the urges for comfort foods. Additionally, physical activity can regulate ghrelin and leptin, which are involved in hunger and satiety.
Lastly, physical activity is a natural stress reliever! Stress and emotional eating can lead to cravings for high-sugar and high-fat foods. Regular exercise can help you cope with stress in more productive ways and reduce the likelihood of turning to food for comfort during stressful times.
Consult a Registered Dietitian
If you’re looking for guidance on where to start with curbing cravings, fostering trust within yourself and your body, and building confidence in your everyday eating with PCOS, I’d love to support you! Book in for an initial assessment to get started.
Getting rid of PCOS sugar cravings for good
Overcoming PCOS cravings can be really tough. But gaining an understanding of the root causes behind your urges can empower you to manage them more effectively and free of judgement.
The main cause of PCOS-related cravings is insulin resistance. To conquer PCOS cravings, consider the following simple strategies: eat frequently, eat balanced meals, avoid restricting, try inositol powder, and exercise regularly. Incorporate a greater variety of whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and protein into your diet and make delicious homemade meals to promote satiety.
If you’re seeking support from PCOS symptoms like acne, fatigue, and hair growth, while looking to gain control over your intense sweet cravings, I’m here to help!
Why do people with PCOS get cravings?
The most common reason why people with PCOS feel intense hunger and urges to reach for sweets is high levels of insulin and low blood sugars.
Do I have a PCOS sugar addiction?
If you feel addicted to sugar, you’ve likely pseudo-restricted it your whole life. When you mentally restrict food, you become obsessed. You may still eat the food you see as “bad” or “forbidden”, but you feel shame, guilt, and frustration for eating it.
If you feel addicted to sugar, I suggest you consult a Registered Dietitian who can help you foster trust within yourself and your body, build confidence in your everyday eating, and help you manage sugar cravings.
How many grams of sugar should I eat a day with PCOS?
Most Canadian adults should aim to eat less than 24 grams of added sugars each day. The same recommendation applies to you if you have PCOS.
How can I stop my PCOS sugar cravings?
To conquer PCOS and sugar cravings, consider the following simple strategies: eat frequently, eat balanced meals, avoid restricting, try inositol powder, and exercise regularly. Incorporate a greater variety of whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and protein into your diet and make delicious homemade meals to promote satiety.