I see quite a few patients in my acupuncture practice who tell me that they crave sugar. Some can’t avoid the candy dish at work, others can’t stop eating sweets after dinner, and some just want sugar all day, every day.
To be sure, sugar has gotten a bad rap. It can be a source of empty calories, lay the groundwork for Type 2 Diabetes, and cause you to get fat. Despite the long-term health consequences of eating too much sweet stuff, so many people crave sugar like it’s water in a desert. What gives?
Chinese medicine has a lot to say about sugar and why so many people crave it. First, while you may think of sugar as the devil in disguise, in Chinese medicine not every sweet thing is necessarily bad for you. Foods that are sweet, but have nutritional value are considered to be full sweet. Fresh and dried fruits, carrots, certain grains, fennel seeds, and even some chocolate with nuts and fruit or carrot cake could be considered to be full sweet. On the flip side, soda, doughnuts and candy would be considered to be empty sweet, because you’d have a hard time finding much nutrition in them.
The reason you crave sweet flavored foods is all about energy. That’s because everything you eat is broken down into glucose—simple sugar—that’s your body’s basic fuel. One of the most important functions of your digestion is to convert the food you eat into glucose, which gives your body the energy to perform everyday tasks. In Chinese medicine that includes providing for immunity, maintaining body temperature, movement, digestion, and mental functioning.
When you’re having cravings for sweets, it essentially means that you’re craving what your body needs to make energy. Your body is down a quart of get-up-and-go, and you’re hungry for the building blocks to refuel. There are a number of reasons why you may not be getting the energy that you need, including:
1. Poor nutrition. You may not be eating enough calories, not eating enough quality food, or not getting the right food for your body. If what you’re eating is leaving your energy stores short, you are likely to crave quick, energy-boosting sweets.
2. Poor digestion. The role of your digestion is to convert food into energy and nutrients. However, if your digestion is compromised in any way, that job is not being done efficiently. How do you know if this is the case for you? Some telling signs include fatigue, lethargy, and digestive symptoms of any kind—from gas and rumbling to nausea, stomachaches, poor appetite, heartburn, and bowel issues.
3. Stress. This is actually a case of poor digestion in disguise. When you’re emotionally upset, anxious, or stressed, it’s common for your digestion to shut down. In fact, it has been said that your gut is your second brain. During times of emotional stress, your body shifts into fight or flight mode and sends energy to the systems that are needed in the moment, but closes down others that aren’t necessary, which includes digestion, immunity, and some memory functions.
4. Our food supply. Wait…what? It’s true, the nature of how our food is made is an indirect culprit in why you want sugar. Basically, you’re not getting the energy you should from your food as it’s currently being grown and manufactured. For example, mega crops that are grown year after year in the same fields deplete the soil of minerals and nutrients, so over time, what’s produced carries less and less nutrition. In addition, much of our food is processed—heated, cooled, denatured, extruded, preserved, and then packaged for mass consumption. This is not the food our grandparents ate, and it’s not delivering the same level of nutrition, either. As a result, many of us crave nutrition and energy in the form of sweets.
5. Finally, we crave sugar because it’s a digestive aid. In Chinese medicine, each of the organ systems have a flavor associated with it. A small amount of that flavor enhances the system, but too much overwhelms it. Sweet is the flavor associated with your digestion, which is the Stomach/Spleen in Chinese medicine. When you’ve finished a meal, most people want something a little sweet as a way to enhance the digestive process. Back in ancient times, that sweet flavor was satisfied by dates or dried fruits, and in small amounts. Today, it’s cheesecake, ice cream, and cookies; foods that only serve to overwhelm your digestion and intensify the need for more sweets.
If you have crazy, out of control cravings for sweet food, all is not lost. Take a look at your digestion. Could it be better? Is your life overly stressful? Are you eating a variety of good quality food? Is your energy up to par? If any of these are an issue for you, it may be time to check in with your practitioner of Chinese medicine. They can help you assess the source of your cravings and help you come up with a game plan to get back on track, which likely will include acupuncture, dietary therapy, herbs, and some lifestyle tweaks.