Are you wondering what causes sugar cravings? It’s not your fault, says study.

When life gives you lemons, do you crave a sweet lemon drizzle cake rather than sour lemonade? According to new research, women who feel lonely experience more intense food cravings for sugary treats – so don’t be too hard on yourself, scientists say.

A study by researchers at UCLA in the US found that women who perceive themselves to be lonely showed activity in the parts of the brain that are associated with food cravings and a motivation to eat.

The brain activity was especially pronounced when the women were shown photos of high-calorie foods, such as sugary foods. The same group of women also had a history of unhealthy eating habits and poor mental health.

Study on What Causes Sugar Cravings

This small-scale study on what causes sugar cravings, which was published in JAMA Network Open, surveyed 93 women about their feelings of loneliness and isolation and whether they had a support system.

It found that women who had higher levels of social isolation tended to have increased levels of anxiety and depression and lower quality diets, as well as higher fat mass, greater cravings and reward-based eating habits.

The women were shown a series of photographs, including sweet food versus non-food photographs and savory foods versus non-food photographs. While they looked at the images, MRI scans recorded their brain activity.

Results of Sugar Craving Study

The results showed that the group of women who saw themselves as lonely had more brain activity in regions of the brain associated with more intense cravings for sugary foods, and decreased activity in the brain region associated with self-control towards eating behaviors.

Arpana Gupta, PhD, researcher and senior author of the paper, conducted the study in order to research the negative impacts of loneliness and how the brain links social isolation, eating habits and mental health.

“These findings are interesting because it provides evidence for what we intuitively know,” Gupta said. “When people are alone or lonely, it impacts more than how they are feeling. They underreport what they eat, their desire to eat, and their cravings especially for unhealthy foods.”

Xiaobei Zhang, postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study, described the brain pathway as a “vicious cycle between unhealthy eating and negative mental symptoms”.

“If you have more cravings, you eat more and may have more anxiety or depression, which may lead you to eat more,” Zhang explained.

In order to help women who feel lonely cope with these cravings, the researchers said holistic mind-body interventions may be the solution to help break the cycle.

Being aware of how lonely you feel and seeking connection with others, as well as practicing more compassion towards yourself, can help women begin to address the issue.

The researchers also recommended making healthier food choices, even if the craving for sugar is strong. “Instead of grabbing that highly addictive, sweet, high-calorie food that you’re craving, maybe [try] to go for healthy foods versus those bad foods,” Gupta said.

However, it can be very hard to forego sweet treats altogether as many people report feeling “addicted” to them. TV medic Dr Michael Mosley explained in 2020 that eating sugary treats triggers the release of “feel-good” chemicals, making them very addictive and difficult to quit.

Dr Mosley, the host of BBC’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor and creator of the Fast 800 programmed, told Yahoo UK at the time that cutting out high-sugar foods is the only way to “truly maintain a healthier diet”.

Psychologist Dr Jen Nash has a different approach. She emphasized that craving sugar isn’t something anyone should feel guilty about. “Cravings are natural and most of us deal with them at some point,” she told Diabetes UK.

“Often, just the insight of what you are truly craving loosens the grip of power that it has over you. So rather than saying to yourself, ‘What’s the matter with me, I just can’t resist sweet food’, you can instead start to see the craving as an attempt to get an important ‘inner’ need met.

“You can begin to have a different conversation with yourself, ‘Ah, I see, I’m craving this sugary food because of XYZ’.”

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