When you’re trying to keep your added sugar intake to a minimum, you know to steer clear of the obvious temptations: the office vending machine, the ice cream freezers at the supermarket, and the dessert porn that come across your Instagram feed. (And just a refresher, the recommended daily intake of added sugar for women is six teaspoons, according to the American Heart Association.)
But some sugar triggers are a lot more subtle than that, altering your physiology without you realizing it and leaving you with a strong need to rip into a party-size bag of M&Ms. If you’ve noticed that your appetite for the sweet stuff has surged, one of these three food-related factors might be to blame. Here’s how they activate your sweet tooth—and how you can get control of your cravings.
You take in too much caffeine
That double espresso you pick up on the way to work every morning might be doing more than fueling your energy. A recent study from the Journal of Food Science found that caffeine can switch up our taste buds so we perceive foods as less sweet than they actually are. When you can’t taste sweetness as well, you’re apt to consume more in order to satisfy your natural sweet tooth, the researchers suggest.
It’s a preliminary study and more research is needed to back up the findings and provide a better understanding of how caffeine alters taste buds, cautions Vandana Sheth, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (Sheth was not involved in the study.) But if your sugar jones tends to rage mid-morning after you’ve finished your morning joe, it may be worth trying a switch to decaf.
You consume artificial sweeteners
Call it the catch-22 of calorie-free drinks and low-sugar desserts. “Because non-nutritive sweeteners, or artificial sweeteners, are many times sweeter than sugar, [consuming them] trains your taste buds to appreciate hypersweet flavors,” says Atlanta–based nutritionist Marisa Moore, RD. “This may make it difficult for fruit and other less-sweet foods to measure up to that expectation.” In other words, after a steady diet of fake sugar foods, regular sugar is a letdown for your taste buds. So you finish off that tub of mint chocolate chip to try to make up for it.
A review of previous studies on artificial sweeteners published in the journal Neuroscience supports this idea, with the author of the review noting that “artificial sweeteners, precisely because they are sweet, encourage sugar craving and sugar dependence.”
Nutritionists see this effect anecdotally as well. “I can say I’ve heard from past clients that they’ve have seen a change in their tastebuds when they reduce their artificial sugar intake and eat a more balanced diet,” says Los Angeles–based Megan Roosevelt, RD.
You load up on the wrong carbs
The glycemic index measures how specific foods affect your blood sugar level. High-glycemic foods such as processed white bread, pastries, crackers, and cookies cause your blood sugar to spike soon after consuming them . . . and then crash quickly as well. With your blood sugar down, your body seeks a fast energy fix, amping your appetite for sugary sweets like a donut or candy bar, says Moore.
The trick is to consume foods that keep your blood sugar level on an even keel. So skip the high-glycemic empty carbs and load your plate with low-glycemic carbs, like fruits and veggies, minimally processed grains such as quinoa and bulgur, steel-cut oats, brown rice, and whole grain bread. These items keep your energy steady, so you don’t experience the sudden crash and subsequent craving.
High-glycemic carbs are also high in fiber, which can help promote fullness and further keep blood sugar steady, says Libby Mills, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.