If you crave sugar after a meal, standard advice will tell you to look at your habits or blood sugar levels. While this is not wrong, it completely skips over some very interesting points about eating psychology and even Traditional Chinese Medicine. After years working as an eating psychology coach and also working alongside an herbalist, I’ve learned a thing or two about that nagging question, Why do I crave sugar after a meal?
Today, we’re digging into ALL possible reasons for post-meal sugar cravings. Sure, some of them will be surface-level like habits and blood sugar because I want to be thorough. But I encourage you to stick this out until the end, because the eating psychology and Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective is super interesting.
The Whole Picture: Why Do I Crave Sugar After a Meal?
Cravings, including the desire for sugar after a meal, are honestly part of our humanness. Biologically, our bodies are wired to seek out pleasurable and energy-dense foods, like those high in sugar.
This is an evolutionary survival mechanism that can be summarized by our primal need to “seek pleasure and avoid pain.” Sugar-rich foods provide quick energy, and our bodies have developed mechanisms to signal cravings for such foods.
From a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspective, imbalances in the body’s energy systems, specifically “spleen qi deficiency,” can lead to cravings for sweet foods. The spleen plays a crucial role in digestion and nutrient absorption, so when it’s not functioning optimally, the body craves quick energy sources to compensate for a lack of energy. (More on this later.)
Psychological factors also play a significant role in craving sugar after a meal. Emotions, habits, and experiences can influence our cravings for comfort foods, including sugary desserts.
Understanding your unique triggers is the first step toward answering that nagging question, why do I crave sweets after a meal? Let’s explore the full picture by taking a closer look at each factor.
Biological Triggers for Craving Sugar After a Meal
Although eating psychology is my speciality, I said I wanted to be thorough. Let’s start by exploring some of the biological/physiological causes for that nagging question, Why do I crave sweets after a meal?
Blood Sugar Imbalance
Consuming a meal high in refined carbohydrates or simple sugars causes a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. The body responds by releasing insulin to bring them back to normal. Sometimes, this process overshoots, resulting in reactive hypoglycemia – low blood sugar levels. This drop triggers hunger and cravings, often for sugary foods that provide a quick energy boost.
To manage blood sugar levels and reduce post-meal sugar cravings, opt for balanced meals that include a combination of complex carbohydrates, fiber, lean protein, and healthy fats. These foods help stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent drastic spikes and crashes.
I’m sure you’ve read about the link between sugar and dopamine before, where scientific journals liken the addictive qualities of sugar to that of addictive illicit substances – and they’re not wrong.
Sugar causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward in the brain. This dopamine release creates a positive sensation that reinforces the desire for sugar. Indulging in sweet treats after a meal results in a temporary surge of pleasure, which can lead to future cravings.
Habitual Sugar Snacks After Meals
Over time, a pattern of ending meals with sweet indulgences can become a deeply ingrained habit. This routine forms an association in the brain between completing a meal and the reward of sugar. There’s a great book on the science of habits called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
While the science behind habit formation is strong and I fully support it, I also find that it over simplifies the issue with sugar addiction. Most people that struggle with overeating are not weak nor do they lack willpower, so to attribute sugar cravings with “merely a bad habit” is almost insulting.
That’s why I created a workbook that dives straight into the psychology of sugar cravings called Stopping Sugar Addiction the Psycho-Spiritual Way. If you know in your heart that sugar addiction is about something deeper than “habits,” then you will love my workbook.
Stress and Sugar
Stress can contribute to post-meal sugar cravings thanks to the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can influence your food preferences and even increase the desire for sweet and high-calorie foods as a means of emotional comfort. Stress is one of the biological triggers for post-meal sugar cravings that I find highly relevant, because it exacerbates the psychological triggers, too.
I personally found minimalism and intentional living to be an effective way to reduce stress. As Geneen Roth once said, “The way we do one thing is the way we do everything.” A once-per-day meditation wasn’t enough. In order to de-stress my life, I needed to slow everything down.
Related YouTube video: How minimalism can help with compulsive eating:
Sleep and Sugar
Sleep deprivation, along with stress, is another powerful factor in post-meal sugar cravings. Inadequate sleep can disrupt your balance of hunger-regulating hormones, such as ghrelin and leptin. People that are sleep-deprived may experience an increase in appetite and cravings for high-reward foods, which are often those high in sugar and carbohydrates.
How Eastern Medicine Views Cravings for Sweets After a Meal
I like to dig into the biological factors because it appeals to our brains’ need for logic and “sense.” Now that I’ve hopefully quelled your brain’s need for a linear answer, let’s explore something more abstract: how Traditional Chinese Medicine views craving sugar after a meal.
Keep in mind, this specifically addresses non-compulsive sugar cravings. If you heal biological sugar cravings through Eastern medicine, it's still possible to struggle with psychological compulsion around sweets. While Eastern medicine goes a step beyond dieting by moving beyond the surface-level of food, it does not capture any of the psychology behind overeating. We will discuss that part soon.
With that said, let’s dive into how Eastern medicine views cravings for sweets after a meal.
“Spleen Qi Deficiency”
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the spleen is considered one of the key organs responsible for digestion and nutrient absorption. In TCM, the spleen is not viewed in the same way as it is in Western medicine. Rather, the spleen is believed to transform and transport the nutrients derived from food, extracting energy (or “qi”) and distributing it throughout the body.
When there is a deficiency in spleen qi (commonly referred to as a “spleen qi deficiency”), it is believed to cause poor digestion and inadequate nutrient absorption. This deficiency often manifests as craving sugar after a meal.
Unfortunately, a spleen qi deficiency can lead to a vicious cycle as overconsumption of sweets damages the spleen, which further increases the cravings for sweets, especially after mealtime. If you find yourself wondering, Why do I crave sweets after dinner?, this could be part of the reasons.
Personally, I am a big fan of a combined and holistic approach to health. Every modality has its strengths. Western medicine excels in its own area (like measuring blood sugar) while Eastern medicine excels in other ways (like the abstract but widely-accepted phenomenon of ‘spleen qi deficiency.’) I have worked with my herbalist for almost five years now, and it has done wonders for my digestion.
Which Herbs Stop Cravings for Sweets?
To address spleen qi deficiency and reduce sugar cravings from a TCM perspective, focus on supporting the spleen’s function and promoting healthy digestion. This can be achieved by incorporating specific foods into the diet that are believed to strengthen the spleen, such as lentils and squash.
You can also ante-up your holistic regimen by consulting with a qualified herbalist and getting personalized recommendations for spleen-boosting herbs. Codonopsis, for example, is a Chinese herb known for its ability to enhance and tonify the spleen.
Codonopsis is a Chinese herb famous for its ability to "tonify" (or boost) the spleen
Be very careful when experimenting with new herbal regimens. My journey with herbalism actually got started because an acupuncturist recommended some herbs to me, and while they healed my digestion overnight (no joke) it also made my face really puffy. Although I was able to eat anything and everything without any symptoms, it looked like I had gained 15 pounds only in my face. And she didn’t know why!
Once I sought out a well-trained herbalist, she explained to me what happened (too much spleen-tonifying herbs can create excess heat and thus a “puffy” face) and she added some cooling herbs to my regimen for balance. This is why I am so passionate about getting personalized advice. TCM is powerful, but only when used properly.
Psychological Triggers for Sugar Cravings After a Meal
Now we’ve almost painted a full picture that answers the common question, Why do I crave sugar after a meal? It could be blood sugar, or it could be a spleen qi deficiency. But what about the psychological reasons for overeating? Let’s dig into those next.
If you prefer videos over written text, watch my YouTube video below where I explain the psychology behind sugar cravings after dinner:
Making Sugar “Off Limits” Makes You Want It More
The concept of ‘permission to eat‘ is a vital element in addressing the issue of sugar cravings after mealtime. If you forbid dessert completely, it psychologically makes you want it even more due to the scarcity factor.
I personally was always afraid of allowing myself to eat whatever I wanted because I thought that I would start eating and never stop! But I was genuinely surprised that giving up dieting and letting go of the food rules actually made me crave sweets less.
Sugar After Dinner Can Be Emotional Eating
Personally, I find that the desire for sweets after dinner is usually an indication of emotional eating. By the time dinner is over, I have had enough to eat for the day, so any cravings after that likely stem from uncomfortable emotions rumbling around that need my attention.
That’s my theory behind Psycho-Spiritual Wellness: whenever there’s a desire to eat when you aren’t hungry, there is always and uncomfortable emotion waiting for attention. When I have cravings for sweets after dinner and I pause to drop in first (by doing the Stop, Drop, & Feel) something juicy always comes up.
Fortunately, once these uncomfortable feelings get the attention they need, they lose their edge. Although they don’t go away completely, the edginess is gone, and in that space, we have access to free will, and we can choose not to eat the sugar if that’s what we really want.
Unsatisfying Meals = Craving Sweets After Dinner
Have you ever had a craving for something (labeled as) “unhealthy” and forced yourself to eat something more healthy instead? Did you end up eating something else after that meal because it didn’t “hit” the craving you had?
Satisfaction is an important factor in fullness, and if we don’t feel satisfied after a meal, we may compulsively seek more food even when we aren’t hungry any more. Fullness is a physical sensation while satisfaction is emotional – and we need both.
Dissatisfaction can stem from a lack of variety, flavor, or nutrient balance in the meal. For example, if you’re on a ketogenic diet (which limits carbs) and your meal consists of only veggies and protein, it would not be the least bit shocking to crave sweets after dinner. When a meal lacks carbs, your body will find a way to get what it needs (a balance of all macronutrients) through cravings.
Personally, back when I was on a keto diet (before I found peace with food by giving up dieting altogether) I always craved sweets after a meal. But instead of “giving in” to those cravings, I would make myself eat something else that was still “healthy.” But after a while, I just couldn’t take the deprivation anymore and I would binge on sweets late at night. In this way, I ended up eating more food and sugar altogether than if I were to just enjoy a balanced meal that includes some carbs and enjoy dessert guilt-free after.
I hope you can see why giving up dieting actually heals our relationship with food instead of making us go “off the rails” like we’re afraid we will. Ultimately, we end up eating less when we eat exactly what appeals to us in the first place. Satisfaction is important.
Biology, Psychology, & TCM: Why You Crave Sweets After Dinner
If you crave sweets after dinner and find yourself frustrated with the cycle, it’s important to take a holistic approach.
Western medicine asks you to check your blood sugar levels, and you should definitely talk to your doctor to get any potential health issues diagnosed and treated. Then, Eastern medicine takes a completely different approach by treating cravings for sugar after a meal as a symptom of ‘spleen qi deficiency’ and offers herbal remedies to help.
Ultimately, I’ve found that post-meal sugar cravings go away when I allow myself to eat sugar whenever I truly want it (so long as I am hungry and stop when I’m full). Permission to Eat is critical for addressing the psychology of eating, too.