We've all been there - it's three o'clock in the afternoon, and we are crashing - fast. We need a boost before we fall asleep right at our desk. So, what do we turn to?
Sugar - in all of its nasty forms.
In this next part of the series on what your body is trying to tell you, we are talking all about sugar cravings: what are they, what causes them, and how do deal with them!
First off - what are sugar cravings, and why do they leave us feeling tired and irritable?
Sugar cravings are an intense bodily desire to consume sugar. Sometimes, we can feel our sugar cravings coming on, other times, they appear out of nowhere.
Either way, sugar cravings due to so much more than a lack of willpower. In fact, I'd argue that willpower has very little to do with sugar cravings at all. On the contrary, sugar cravings are often due to an underlying physiologic cause that is fueling your desire for sugar. And, like all things going on with your body, it takes time to discover exactly what is the root cause of your sugar cravings.
Sugar cravings can be the result of many causes, most of which we are familiar with: hormonal fluctuations or changes, stress, lack of sleep, etc.
However, there are stronger players in the game of sugar cravings, including insulin resistance, low serotonin levels, and low calorie, low fat diets.
Insulin resistance is the result of a long term diet high in refined carbs and low in micronutrients. In this state, glucose (a form of sugar that carbohydrates are broken down to) cannot enter your cells and stays in your blood.
This means your cells aren’t getting the fuel they need (even though it is in your body), so they signal to the pancreas to increase the level of insulin to help get that glucose into your cells for energy.
This results in a craving for sugar even if you are eating enough calories. Your cells aren’t able to access the food because you aren’t eating the micronutrients alongside that are necessary to help get glucose into cells and out of your blood stream.
Eventually, when your body makes that call for insulin so many times, it takes more and more of a signal to get insulin to be secreted. It’s like the body who cried wolf- eventually when the wolf came, no one came to help the boy.
In this case, eventually, insulin stops coming, and we have high amounts of sugar in our blood, creating problems more severe than sugar cravings, like diabetes or heart disease.
In addition, low serotonin levels can contribute to sugar cravings. Serotonin is our "feel good" hormone, and when we don't have enough in our bodies, we can start to feel down and depressed. And what better way to make us feel better than a big dose of sugar, right?!
While yes, sugar does trigger a serotonin release, it isn't a solution to the problem, as it results in a viscous cycle of cravings, blood sugar swings, and mood problems.
And what doesn’t help this cycle is the advice we are given about our diet: eat every three hours, eat yogurt, keep calories and fat low, etc.
When we follow this dogma of eating low calorie, low fat foods every three hours, it is inevitable that these foods will be loaded with sugar, whether natural or not (most of the time, it’s not natural sugars!).
Sweetened “fruit” yogurts, pretzels, candy, 100-calorie packs, granola bars (my LEAST favorite of them all) are just making the problem worse! These foods raise your blood sugar, causing you to send the signal for insulin. And when you are sending these signals every three hours or so, you are fueling the fire for the development of insulin resistance.
On the other hand, if you do find yourself needing a snack between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, stick to real foods, foods that aren’t artificially made to be low in calories or fat (I’m looking at you skim milk and fat free yogurts!). Try a hard-boiled egg and some blueberries. Or, maybe carrot sticks and a few raw almonds.
Whatever you choose, aim to get a bit of each of the macronutrients – protein, fat, and carbs. Avoid eating carbs, even natural carbs like fruit, alone to avoid blood sugar spikes. Balance the blood sugar reaction with protein and fat. Trust me, it will make a difference.
Before we move onto how to alleviate sugar cravings, I want to bring up one last possible cause of sugar cravings: a lack of "sweetness" in your life.
Now in this case, I am not talking about sweetness from food. Instead, I'm talking about sweetness from life: your relationships, career, spirituality, and exercise.
If we find ourselves going through the motions in life just to get by without ever stopping to enjoy the moment, we are setting ourselves up for sugar cravings.
If we are in a stressful job or situation at work, we are setting ourselves up for sugar cravings.
If we are struggling to relate to our friends or develop those deep, lasting, heartfelt relationships with other people, we are setting ourselves up for sugar cravings.
If we are not connecting with our soul on a deeper level through journaling, quiet time, and prayer, we are setting ourselves up for sugar cravings.
If we are not moving our bodies through exercise that feels good for us several times a week, we are setting ourselves up for sugar cravings.
I know - all of those reasons seem very unrelated to sugar, but in reality, that is far from the truth. Our body is an amazing system that works together and tries to heal itself internally. But, when we aren't giving it the right external inputs, it can't do its job, leading to sugar cravings, depression, and an imbalanced life overall.
Okay, enough with the depressing information, how can we fix sugar cravings?
1. Eat nourishing real foods with balanced macronutrient ratios and high micronutrient levels.
Like I mentioned above, stop listening to the low calorie, low fat advice. STOP RIGHT NOW! That is causing your sugar cravings because your body isn't satiated from those foods. It is left still hungry for more because it hasn't received the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) it desperately needs from real, whole foods!
So, stick to foods from the earth - veggies, fruit, animal protein, and healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds. Avoid processed vegetable oils, processed foods, low fat products, and sugar sweetened beverages. Just eat real food!
2. Try eliminating added sugars from your diet for 21-30 days.
This may seem hard, and you will experience withdrawal symptoms (nausea, shaking, fatigue, etc) from removing sugar from your diet, but these are not lasting symptoms. These are temporary while your body adjusts to real foods, natural foods. These are the reactions that these chemically processed foods cause our body to have. Is that natural?? I think not!
If you want a strutured guideline to follow, I recommend one of the two programs, which are both excellent and have an amazing record. They are not starvation diets either - they are based on real food with no caloric restrictions. Click on either of the links below to see more information:
The 21 Day Sugar Detox by Diane Sanfilippo
The Whole 30 by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig
Please note that you don't need to purchase the full programs to get the benefits of these programs, the print books will be sufficient!
3. Enhance your primary foods and life.
Remember our discussion of primary foods (spirituality, career, exercise, and relationships)? Work to rebalance your life in these areas, as they could be hidden causes of your sugar cravings. Read more in my post about primary foods here.
4. Keep your blood sugar stable.
Eat complete meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that are composed of adequate amounts of protein, fat, and carbs. Avoid processed foods, and don't eat carbohydrates alone. Always aim to pair them with protein or fat or both.
5. Drink water.
When in doubt, drink a huge glass of water. Often we mistake cravings for dehydration, so by keeping our bodies hydrated, we may mitigate the problem.
If you want more tang to your water, add berries, lemon, or cucumber to switch it up!
6. Exercise and move your body.
When you feel a sugar craving coming on, get up and move! If you can, go take a 10-15 minute walk. Or, simply get up from your desk and walk to the nearest bathroom or up and down the stairs once or twice. Whatever you do, just get moving!
Plus, exercise also helps boost serotonin levels, so if that is the root cause of your sugar craving in the first place, that may just help the problem!
Wow, who knew that sugar cravings could be so involved? And really, there are so many other causes and effects of sugar cravings that I didn't even touch on today. But, what is important is that you are now knowledgeable on the basics of sugar cravings, common causes, and how to fix them.
Now it is your job to get to the root cause of your cravings - dig deep inside yourself! Use a journal if you have too - each time you get a sugar craving, take 1 minute to write down what you are feeling, what you want, and why you want it. Keep tabs on this and see if any patterns emerge.
Good luck, and eat real food!