Do you get cravings? I do! In fact, right now I am diving in to a bag of my favorite tortilla chips – Late July Sea Salt by the Seashore multigrain tortilla chips. It’s been a long day at the computer, writing my newsletter for July which is due out the end of this week. Yikes! I needed some easy energy and the brand new bag was calling my name. Does that ever happen to you?

What else do I crave, food-wise? Well, I was craving green veggies this week. I had been out of town and meals were – light, scattered, and not full of green stuff. So I wanted salads! Besides, it’s hot and salads make a cool, no cook meal often in our house. Sometimes I crave chocolate – just a piece of a good quality, dark chocolate bar. Wine – I sometimes crave a nice glass of red wine with pasta, or while I’m cooking. (I have a small poster of Maxine saying “I love to cook with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food” hanging on my refrigerator!) About four or five times a year I crave a good burger – usually I avoid beef but when this one hits, it’s pretty strong. Peanut butter calls me at lunch now and then – a good PB&J never hurt anyone, right? Soups when it’s chilly or I’m not feeling well. Cheese is another food I usually avoid but sometimes I’m driven to buy a hunk of cheddar and dig in. Not to say I don’t eat these foods other times, just that sometimes the pull is strong.

Do I indulge? Normally, yes, for two reasons. One, I feel like my body knows better than my mind at times, and I should listen to it. Maybe I’ve been unknowingly short-changing some nutrient element of food or using it up more than usual, so my body says “get some of this.” Two, I believe moderation is best in most things, so a little treat of chocolate or a burger is good for the soul. Asceticism generally leads to even stronger cravings. We always want what we ‘can’t’ have, right? It’s why so many ‘diets’ fail – they are too restrictive and often not right for the person trying the diet.

That said, these cravings don’t rule my life, they don’t cause guilt – because they are not constant, overwhelming, and harmful. When people have any kind of addiction, it can be so powerful they give over control of their life to the addiction. The cravings of which I speak are not addiction-related. If you crave something now and then and aren’t restricted medically, then go ahead and indulge! If the craving begins to rule your life, that’s another matter. But an occasional splurge is harmless and only you can decide the degree of its strength. Mostly, I think you’ll feel pretty darn good and move on with life.

So what if you have cravings for something you should not eat due to a medical condition? Like diabetics who crave dessert after every meal, or lactose intolerant individuals who really want some cheese or a glass of milk? Or what if you swore off alcohol (not addiction related) and really want to join a friend in a glass of wine, or you decided to switch to a plant based diet but that burger smells so good?

  • Willpower is essential. Many people believe they don’t have any but really what is often lacking is conviction, not willpower. If you don’t really believe in the reason you are avoiding a food it will be harder to pass on the craving.
  • Substitute something else. I might go for peanut butter on crackers when a cheese craving hits, or a handful of fresh or frozen berries instead of that ice cream dessert.
  • Distract yourself. When I am staying away from wine but feel the urge, I will make a cup of tea. The preparation occupies my mind – filling tea kettle with fresh water, getting the mug out, choosing a flavor of tea. Then I can peacefully sip the tea and no longer care about the wine.
  • Support and accountability are helpful. Maybe your friend will agree to help you by not having dessert when dining with you, and will remind you why you aren’t eating sweets.
  • Know your limits – can you have a little bit or none at all? If none, don’t keep any of the food or beverage you need to avoid nearby, and try to steer clear of places it is featured. If you are diabetic and absolutely love ice cream, don’t keep any at home and stay out of ice cream parlors! If you are refraining from alcohol, stay out of bars.

Mostly, just don’t let a craving make you feel like a failure, even if you give in to it. It’s normal! You’re human! Let it go and carry on.

20150616_SweetsMmmmmmmm, sweets! Who doesn’t like sugary treats, at least once in a while? I know some people who don’t like chocolate (what??!!) but they probably like cheesecake or sugared, spiced nuts or strawberry shortcake. Humans are attracted to sweets and the attraction is said to go way back in the development of our species – because sweet foods in nature are seldom poisonous. Therefore ancestors trying to find food sources had less to fear from sweet finds. (I chuckle at recipes for ‘Paleo Chocolate Muffins’, though!) Plus, eating sugar causes our brains to produce the hormone serotonin (calming) and the chemical dopamine (rewards).  Vendors at farmers’ markets and craft shows don’t mind being close to the caramel corn or spiced nuts vendors because the aromas coming from those stands attract people to the area! I think of that bag of red licorice twists – how once I opened it, I couldn’t stop until it was empty. Think how hard it is to evenly share that dessert you agreed to split with a dining partner or three once you take your first bite. Or how every afternoon at work the candy machine calls your name, always at the same time. I do a pretty good job of avoiding sugary foods most of the time, but once I open that door – it’s harder to stay away. A French study showed that rats given a choice between saccharin-sweetened water, and sugar-sweetened water in a second test, and cocaine preferred the saccharin water to the cocaine! Same thing when the cocaine dosage was increased, even if the rats had been cocaine addicts. This is addiction.

While the hormones and chemicals released by the brain make us feel good, we need carbohydrates for energy. Our bodies deal well with the sugar we consume from carbohydrate foods, until we overload them. Sugar is ingested by the stomach, absorbed by the small intestines, and detected by the liver and pancreas. These organs constantly determine if there is enough, too much, or too little sugar in the blood and then handle it appropriately. If blood sugar is too low, the hormone glucagon is produced to tell the body to find more; if blood sugar is too high, insulin is produced to store it off, out of the blood – short term as glycogen, long term as fat. When energy is needed by the body, it first takes from glycogen, then turns to stored fat if more is needed. When we consume too much sugar, our bodies can use the short-term storage and do not need to go to the longer-term storage for energy, yet they keep adding to the long-term storage. When cells are constantly bombarded with insulin they can become insulin-resistant, less willing to open up to the command of the insulin and take in the glucose. Then more insulin is produced to manage the excess blood sugar, the pancreas begins to tire, and round and round we go, getting heavier and beginning to suffer internally from the effects of type-2 diabetes.

Cane sugar has taken a huge rap for sugar addiction, increase in diabetes, and weight gain. Because of that rap, artificial sweeteners have grown in popularity. But there is a lot of disagreement over the results of studies of artificial sweeteners – some parties claim the studies prove safety, others claim the studies prove harm. What does seem clear though is that rather than helping with weight loss and blood sugar balancing, these sweeteners actually increase the problems. “…rather than promoting weight loss, the use of diet drinks was a marker for increasing weight gain and obesity. Those who consumed diet soda were more likely to gain weight than those who consumed naturally-sweetened soda. Animal studies have convincingly proven that artificial sweeteners cause body weight gain. A sweet taste induces an insulin response, which causes blood sugar to be stored in tissues, but because blood sugar does not increase with artificial sweeteners, there is hypoglycemia and increased food intake. So in the experiment, after a while, rats given artificial sweetener have steadily increased caloric intake, increased body weight, and increased adiposity.”* Another hypothesis is that, since these products are many times sweeter than honey or refined sugar, extended use can alter how taste buds perceive flavor and how the brain’s pleasure centers respond, driving one to consume even more calorie-heavy, sweet tasting foods. And, these sweeteners are no less addictive – after all, it’s the sweet taste we learn to crave.

The World Health Organization recommends that less than 10% of daily calories come from added or ‘free’ sugars, and that consuming less than 5% of calories from free sugars has even more health benefits. (Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose, fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates, not those sugars occurring in fruits and unrefined grains.) How does one reduce the sugar when addiction, or call it habit, is so strong? Here are some tips.

  • Eat regularly. Eat small meals throughout the day. For many people who don’t eat regularly their blood sugar levels drop, they feel hungry, and are more likely to crave sweet snacks.
  • Choose whole foods. The closer a food is to its original form the less likely it is to contain processed sugars and flours. Foods in their natural form, including fruits and vegetables, generally present no metabolic problems for most people.
  • Have a breakfast of protein, fat and phytonutrients. The typical breakfast of packaged cereal, bagels, muffins or other processed-carb foods will set the path for more sugar all day. Eating a good breakfast is essential to prevent sugar cravings.
  • Incorporate healthy protein and/or fat with each meal. This helps control blood sugar levels.
  • Add spices. Coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom will naturally sweeten your foods.
  • Take supplements.  Some nutrients seem to improve blood sugar control including chromium, Vitamin B3, and magnesium.
  • Get some movement. Walk, run, dance, or do some yoga. Movement will help reduce tension, boost your energy, and decrease the need for a sugar lift.
  • Get enough rest. When tired, our addicted bodies may think sugar provides the energy to counteract the exhaustion.
  • Do a cleanse/detox. When you do a detox, your body eliminates a lot of the collected effects of too much sugar, and will often remove the desire for sweets.
  • Remove sugary snacks from your house and office. It’s difficult to snack on things that aren’t there!
  • Don’t substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar. They just contribute to the addiction to the sweet.
  • Learn to read labels. Know the many names of sweeteners both “natural” and artificial and avoid products with them. And check the grams of sugar, and choose products with the least sugar per serving.
  • When cravings hit: Eat some fruit – berries are best. Drink a large glass of good water. Take a 10 minute walk. Have a handful of nuts. Distract yourself.

The power of the addiction diminishes quickly once you set your mind to breaking it and take some steps to help yourself. The time varies per person, but two to three weeks of commitment to reducing sugar in your diet seems to be the average time needed to get past the cravings. With all the evidence of the health effects of too much sugar in one’s diet, it is certainly worth objectively reviewing your sugar intake and your health and taking action sooner than later.

* https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198517/

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