After receiving a box of scrumptious cookies, 2 hours later you are sitting alone in a pile of crumbs. Are you a bad person? Did your willpower fail you? Have you done something wrong? No, no and no. Sugar is complex. It interacts with the brain similar to highly addictive drugs. It plays on emotions and it tastes so darn good. However, excessive consumption can lead to a decrease in overall health and is linked with many chronic lifestyle diseases. Learning to stop sugar cravings starts with an understanding of where they come from. Let’s explore the root cause of sugar addiction and how you can decrease your reliance on it.
What causes sugar cravings?
While a relationship with sugar is complex, there are the four areas that I focus on with my clients to get to the root cause of a sugar addiction.
- Imbalanced Diet
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is rich in carbohydrates. Foods like chips, french fries, pizza, hamburgers, cookies, bbq sauce, corn, peas and soda are staples of the SAD and are quickly turned into sugar in the body. Large amounts of quickly digesting carbohydrates increase sugar in the blood stream and insulin is released. This is great news because insulin pulls sugar into the cells to create energy, however, high levels of sugar provide too much energy in which case the sugar is stored as fat. Once sugar is quickly pulled into cells, the body feels the need for more energy and will start to signal the brain to crave quickly digesting carbohydrates. This is one part of the sugar addiction pathway.
It’s also important to take into consideration the quality of our food. With conventional farming methods, the nutrient content of the soil is not what it used to be. There are many key minerals in vegetables, whole grains and fruit, but if they are not present in the soil, they will not be present in these foods. Chromium is an important mineral in insulin pathways and research shows that it may help people with insulin resistance process carbohydrates more efficiently.
Solution: Eat a balanced diet. I tell clients to aim for 1/2 of their plate filled with veggies, ¼ plate with a clean source of protein, ½ cup of complex carbohydrates and 1-2 tbsp of high quality fat. If you experience cravings immediately after you eat that usually means you consumed insufficient protein or fat and you had too many carbohydrates and too much salt. If your cravings hit in the afternoon timeframe, this could indicate insufficient protein. In addition to a balanced diet, some may benefit from a multi-vitamin that can help fill in any nutritional gaps the diet is lacking.
I work with clients to assess personalized needs for individual nutrients. In some cases, clients that are experiencing insulin sensitivity will be recommended certain products that contain beneficial trace minerals.
- Fast-Paced Lifestyle
It seems like everything we could ever want or imagine is at our fingertips which is both exciting and overwhelming. Constant connection means higher expectations of what we can accomplish in work, in our relationships and in social media. With so much going on it can be hard to make the time to prepare balanced meals or find the right foods to eat. Leaning on convenience foods like chips, candy and pre-packaged meals is a great solution when hunger hits, but it is not fueling health in the long run. Convenience foods are filled with empty calories; calories that don’t nourish our bodies but rather keep us feeling satiated for a short period of time.
Solution: Arm yourself with quality snacks. While you won’t always have time to whip up a snack in your kitchen, having some things on hand can ensure that you keep your blood sugar balanced and don’t eat foods that spike insulin levels. These are some of my favorites: Epic bars, Dang Unsweetened Toasted Coconut Chips, Brick Bars, Epic Jerky, Apple or Pear + Almond Butter To Go Packs
- Bacterial Imbalance
If you follow me on social media, read my blog or have met me in person, then you know my obsession with poop and gut health. I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t enthusiastically talk about the gut microbiota and the benefit of healthy bacteria. Well guess what? An imbalance in good bacteria and bad bacteria, much like an imbalanced diet, can lead to a cycle of sugar cravings. We all have bad bacteria, or yeast, in our bodies. They live there synergistically with the good bacteria. However, bad bacteria are opportunistic and will flourish in response to stress, medications (antibiotics and contraceptives), and an imbalanced diet. Signs that you can have imbalance in bacteria include sugar cravings, digestive irregularity, reflux, thrush, skin rashes, psoriasis, rosacea, brain fog, fatigue and detoxification problems.
Solution: The most effective way to treat this overgrowth is through diet modification and supplements. Following a balanced diet, eliminating all processed sugar and decreasing fruit intake to 2 times per day is the best place to start. A functional medicine practitioner can help get you on the right balance of botanicals and enzymes to break down the yeast and bad bacteria and clear it out of your body. When the removal is complete, it’s important to repopulate the gut with healthy bacteria. I like to focus on increasing fermented foods in the diet like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, miso and yogurt.
It’s also extremely important to examine levels of stress in your life. Stress releases cortisol, a hormone that directly impacts digestion. Taking time to breathe deeply, meditate, take a bath, get a massage, sit with your legs up against the wall or color are all important methods to decrease daily stress.
- Emotional and Behavioral Attachment
This is probably one of the harder areas of sugar addiction to address. It is very personal and can manifest in different ways. From an emotional perspective, it’s important to understand that sugar acts in a similar manner to a drug. Neurons in the brain fire in relationship to sweet, salt and fat intake. When sugar is ingested it stimulates the release of opioids and dopamine creating a fleeting high. The body builds a tolerance and continually need a larger hit to feel the high, hence a dependency on sugar. We often need that hit when stress levels are high, boredom sets in, or there is an overall feeling of sadness or depression. Sugar can provide a quick change in our emotions based on the chemical reactions that take place in the brain. MRI scans show pleasure centers of the brain lighting up more so when they are given sugar vs. cocaine!
Behavior attachments get a little more complex. Some cravings are related to habits that create an expectation for sugar at a certain time. For example, eating sugar after a meal can become more habitual than craving centered. Sometimes the anticipation of completing the habit is more powerful than the actual sugar consumed. Social settings or parties are centered around the need to let loose and celebrate, using sugar as a reward is very common.
Solution: Define your WHY. When you embark on a lifestyle change it is very important to identify WHY you want to make this change. Think about this from an internal point of view, how do you want to feel, why is it time to make this change, how do you want to transform your life? When your answer reflects a deeper emotion, ie: to feel happy, to feel empowered, to feel whole, there is a better chance of sticking to the change when the going gets tough. Reminding yourself you are making this change because you want to shift your feelings, can help you stay on the right path.
Retrain your habits. Habits are not something we were born with, they are something we were trained to do. Just like we were taught to ride a bike, we can train ourselves to use something other than sugar as a reward.
Sugar is complex and in order to stop sugar cravings you must examine your diet, your bacterial balance and your habits. It is not easy to make lifestyle changes, but awareness is the best place to start. Now that you are empowered to make these changes, think about the easiest place in your life to get started. Remember change is slow and can be uncomfortable. Surround yourself with a supportive community, define your WHY and start your journey to stop sugar cravings today!
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