Why is the brain like a toddler about sugar?

First, let’s get the bad news out of the way: I don’t have the magic once-and-for-all, no-work-required fix for sugar cravings.

We all know the hundreds or maybe thousands of bad things that sugar does to our body. We all know lots of reasons why we have cravings: lack of sleep, hunger, self-soothing, habit, dehydration, that time of the month, overwork, stress. But no matter all the facts that we know, sugar is still present in most of our daily lives. When I type “sugar cravings” into a Google search it comes up with 2,390,000 results. It’s definitely on our mind.

When it comes to reducing cravings, we are working with two parts of our brain. The outer brain is the cortex – our logical, rational, reasoning, conscious mind. The inner brain is our limbic system – our emotional, memory, and subconscious mind. We like to think our rational brain is the boss. But guess what? Whether you like it or not, the inner brain is the boss when it comes to cravings.

Most every form of sugar control out there is calling our rational brain to work: if you just do “this” or just do “that”, all your sugar cravings will go away. But if “this” or “that” is all it took, then why do we still struggle?

Try this: Think of the craving part of your brain as a toddler about three years old.


For example, let’s say this three-year-old has been on the go since 6am, didn’t eat lunch, skipped a nap, and is now throwing a fit because you won’t let her have the cupcake. What do you do?

You could let her have the cupcake, but you know that’s just going to make things worse for both of you in the long run.

You could fight with her and say “because I said so.” But won’t the arguing get old day after day?

You could try to reason with her and say “but, honey, if you eat that, your tummy will be upset.” But doesn’t she still want the cupcake anyway?

Aren’t all three of those scenarios exhausting?! When we have a craving, our inner brain has a need that it wants met.  Yet something is missing in how we match our needs to our solutions. If you think of your sugar craving as a toddler, it might be easier to figure out what the right solution is in the moment.

I’m hungry = I need a cupcake? – Nope! I need to eat some real food.
I’m angry = I need a brownie? – Nope! I need to vent some anger/punch a pillow.
I’m lonely = I need some chocolate? – Nope! I need to call a friend/send an email/say hi to the store clerk.
I’m tired = I need a sweet pick-me-up? – Nope! I need to close my eyes for 10 min./walk around the block/go to bed early.
I’m sad = I need a cookie? – Nope! I need a hug/to cry/to watch a funny movie.

Instead of the sugar, what do you really need right now?

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