SUGAR CRAVINGS: Natural reward, unnatural dependence.
Ever felt a desperate need for something sweet? If you love to end a meal with a piece (or more) of chocolate or icecream then you are not alone. What about mid afternoon when you crave a biscuit or reach for a protein bar to keep up the energy levels? Unfortunately for me I have a sweet tooth and I love to finish any meal with something sweet.
But the problem is that sugar or carbohydrates are highly addictive, as studies have shown. Researchers at Yale University revealed that after eating “bad” carbohydrates such as sweets and biscuits, blood sugar falls dramatically, affecting the part of the brain controlling impulse. This leads to a loss of self control and a subsequent craving for more unhealthy, high-calorie foods.
If sugar is a carbohydrate, isn’t that one of the main food groups?
This may come as a surprise, but alcohol, sweets and pasta, vegetables and fruits are all carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are merely different forms of simple sugars linked together.
When you eat carbohydrates your body releases insulin from the pancreas causing a rise in blood sugar. However, it also drives your body to use more carbohydrate, and less fat, as fuel. Insulin converts almost half of your dietary carbohydrate to fat for storage. Diets high in refined sugars release more insulin thereby allowing more sugar to be stored as fat.
Insulin also causes hunger. As blood sugar increases following a carbohydrate meal, insulin rises with the eventual result of lower blood sugar. This results in hunger, often only a couple of hours (or less) after the meal.
Insulin responses can vary greatly from person to person. Generally, more refined foods evoke a stronger and/or more rapid insulin reaction. One reason for this is refined carbohydrates lack the natural fibre which helps minimize the carbohydrate/insulin response.
Consumption of foods with natural fibre eg vegetables with complex carbohydrates can reduce the extreme blood sugar reactions described above. Low-fat diets cause quicker digestion and absorption of carbohydrates in the form of sugar. By adding some fats to the diet, digestion and absorption is slower, and the insulin reaction is moderated.
Cravings, usually for sweets, are frequently part of this cycle, leading you to resort to snacking, often on more carbohydrates. Not eating makes you feel ravenous, shaky, moody and ready to “crash.” If the problem is chronic, you never get rid of that extra stored fat, and your energy is adversely affected.
Does this sound like you?
The best suggestion for anyone wanting to use more of your existing body fats (lose that belly or butt) is to moderate the insulin response by limiting (ideally, eliminating) the intake of refined sugars, and keeping all other carbohydrate intake to about 40% of the diet. Generally, non-carbohydrate foods-proteins and fats-don’t produce much insulin.
By moderating carbohydrate intake you can increase your fat burning as an optimal and efficient source of almost unlimited energy.
Syndrome X or Metabolic Syndrome
Perhaps a third to a half or more of our population is unable to process carbohydrates-sugars and starches efficiently. In many people it’s due to genetics, with lifestyle contributing to the condition.
This can be termed insulin resistance or IR. Like many problems, IR is an individual one, affecting different people different ways. Blood tests will only diagnose the problem in the later stages, but the symptoms may have begun years earlier.
In a normal person, 40% of the carbohydrates eaten is converted to fat. In the IR person, that number may be much higher. Many people with IR have a family history of diabetes.
Don’t think of IR itself as a disease, although left unchecked, it can create problems that lead to disease such as Syndrome X or Metabolic syndrome. Syndrome X occurs when insulin resistance is combined with high levels of blood fats, too much body fat, and high blood pressure. It becomes a diet-caused hormonal problem that interferes with the body’s ability to efficiently burn the food one eats.
Because of the foods now eaten across much of the world, quite simply, we are overdosing on glucose and insulin – and both substances in high doses accelerate the aging of our bodies and encourage the development of disease. Because we evolved from our so called “cave man’s diet,” which consisted solely of meat and vegetables, our bodies are unable to digest and metabolize larger amounts of sugar and starch especially refined sugars. But if we are unable to utilize the amount of carbohydrates we eat, certain symptoms will develop.
Common Symptoms of Insulin Resistance
Below is a list of some of the most common symptoms many of which occur immediately following a meal of carbo-hydrates, and others are constant. Keep in mind that these symptoms may also be related to other problems.
1. Fatigue. Whether you call it fatigue or exhaustion, the most common feature of IR is that it wears people out. Some are tired just in the morning or afternoon; others are exhausted all day.
2. Bloating. Most intestinal gas is produced from dietary carbohydrates. IR sufferers who eat carbohydrates suffer from gas, lots of it. Antacids or other remedies for symptomatic relief, are not very successful in dealing with the problem.
Sometimes the intestinal distress becomes quite severe, resulting in a diagnosis of “colitis” or “ileitis,” although this is usually not a true disease state. However, IR is often associated with true gastrointestinal disease, which must be differentiated from simple intestinal bloating.
3. Low blood sugar. Brief, mild periods of low blood sugar are normal during the day, especially if meals are not eaten on a regular schedule. But prolonged periods of this “hypoglycemia,” especially mental and physical fatigue, are not normal.
Do you or your family suffer from the hungry lion syndrome just before dinner? Feeling angry, jittery, agitated and moody is common in IR, with an almost immediate relief once food is eaten. Dizziness is also common, as is the craving for sweets, chocolate or caffeine. These bouts occur more frequently before meals or first thing in the morning.
4. Brain fogginess. Sometimes the fatigue of IR is physical, but often it’s mental (as opposed to psychological); the inability to concentrate is the most evident symptom. Loss of creativity, poor memory, failing or poor grades in school often accompany IR, as do various forms of “learning disabilities.”
5. Sleepiness. Many people with IR get sleepy immediately after meals containing more than 20% or 30% carbohydrates. This is typically a pasta meal, or even a meat meal which includes bread or potatoes and a sweet dessert.
6. Increased fat storage and weight. For most people, too much weight is too much fat. In males, a large abdomen is the more evident and earliest sign of IR. In females, it’s prominent buttocks, frequently accompanied by “chipmunk cheeks.” Often the increased belly fat for both males and females is impossible to remove unless processed carbohydrates are severely restricted. The complex carbohydrates found in vegetables is different altogether and should be the major source of carbohydrates in the diet.
7. Increased triglycerides. High triglycerides in the blood are often seen in overweight persons. But even those who are not too fat may have stores of fat in their arteries as a result of IR.
These triglycerides are the direct result of carbohydrates from the diet being converted by insulin. In my experience, fasting triglyceride levels over 100 may be an indication of a carbohydrate problem, even though 100 is in the so-called “normal” range.
8. Increased blood pressure. It is well known that most people with hypertension have too much insulin and are IR. It is often possible to show a direct relationship between the level of insulin and the level of blood pressure: as insulin levels elevate, so does blood pressure.
9. Depression. Because carbohydrates are a natural “downer,” depressing the brain, it is not uncommon to see many depressed persons also having IR.
Carbohydrates do this by changing the brain chemistry. Carbohydrates increase serotonin, which produces a depressing or sleepy feeling. This is the reason nice hotels place candy on your pillow in the evening; it literally helps you sleep.
Protein, on the other hand, is a brain stimulant, picking you up mentally. While having a sweet or lolly picks you up quickly, the effect also fades very quickly and leaves you craving for more.
10. Insulin Resistance is also prevalent in persons addicted to alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes or other drugs. Often, the drug is the secondary problem, with IR being the primary one. Treating this primary problem should obviously be a major focus of any therapy.
IR sufferers may have other symptoms as well. However, when a person with this problem finally lowers carbohydrate intake to tolerable levels, many if not most of the other symptoms may disappear.
With the stress of IR eliminated, the body is finally able to correct many of its own problems. It is possible, although unlikely, that so many of these symptoms can be found in someone who tolerates carbohydrates quite well.
Rules of the Road to Stop Sugar Cravings
Sugar addiction is real as the brain becomes tolerant to sugar and wants an ever increasing ‘high’. The first few days of a sugar free ‘adventure’ can be a little rough as I found out but then the cravings stopped and I started tasting the flavours again.
1. Protein. Know how much protein your body needs. This amount varies depending on whether you exercise, have a desk job or maybe you are an athlete.
You should aim to have protein at EVERY meal but vary the source ie from dairy, nut or meat. Carbohydrates and fats are still vital but avoid sourcing from processed foods.
I have found that if you start the day with something savoury and fresh (I like eggs either boiled or in omelettes), then you last many more hours before you feel hungry. Another bonus is that you don’t have the sugar cravings later in the day.
2. Carbohydrate. If you are insulin resistant, ie have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or are overweight, then you need to specifically restrict your carbohydrates to those from fresh vegetables (more) and fruit (less), rather than processed foods.
No matter how consistently you follow this dietary strategy, you are bound to make mistakes. This is especially true at parties or when traveling. Remember, if you’re only unbalanced for a short period of time, you’re only one meal away from rebalancing. It’s like falling off a bike-you just get back up and continue your journey.
3. Fat. An excellent natural source of fat is avocado and also from good oils such as coconut oil. Use this for all cooking as well as adding to morning smoothies. Fish is a good source of EPA which is a beneficial fat that will help balance out your hormone levels and decrease inflammation.
4. Water. Try to drink more water – at least 1 litre of pure water per day. If you are a heavy caffeine user, gradually reduce caffeine intake to zero whenever possible as the breakdown products of caffeine will tend to increase insulin levels. Replace with water.
5. Exercise. Try to get 30 to 60 minutes of walking in four to five days a week if the weather permits. If you are seriously debilitated you will have to wait until your health improves. As you become healthier and if you are blood type O or B you can shift to more aggressive exercises.
The take home message of sugar cravings:
Sugar cravings are just a symptom that something is going wrong for you internally.
If you find yourself hungry and craving sugar or sweets two to three hours after a meal, you probably consumed too many carbohydrates that last meal. Whenever you have a problem with hunger or carbohydrate cravings, look to your last meal for a clue to the reason why.
Making simple changes to what you eat – increasing protein and fats and eliminating processed foods – will make a big difference to your overall health and wellbeing.