“The longing for sweets is really a yearning for love or “sweetness.” -Marion Goodman
In a Tufts University study, 91% of women reported experiencing strong food cravings. You too may have experienced the same intense desire for your “favorite” food at one time or the other. When it hits, willpower goes out the window. You succumb and against your better judgment, you stuff your face with chocolate, cheesecake or whatever comfort food you can lay your hand on. Followed by the inevitable feeling of guilt.
Why are food cravings so strong and overpowering? Are cravings just a character weakness? An attempt to fill a void such as love with food? Or is there more to eat? Turns out that the problem with cravings may be more of biology over behavior. The reason we have cravings is because of a complex interplay of energy needs, hormones, and neurochemicals.
When you eat, your body converts carbohydrates such as starches and sugar to blood glucose. As the blood glucose rises, insulin is secreted by the pancreas to lower the glucose. Insulin drives the glucose into your cells for proper function and to keep you alive and energetic. Insulin also drives calories into fat cells for storage. This action causes the fat cell to plump up and ultimately leads to obesity.
If you eat a meal high in sugar or highly refined carbohydrate, your blood sugar shoots up very quickly. This is because it does not take much for the body to break these foods down. This surge in blood glucose causes a sharp spike in insulin levels. This brings the blood sugar down over the next 2 to 4 hours. Because of the high insulin level, there is a tendency to over correct and the blood sugar may fall too low. The combined actions of over-correction and calorie storage in fat cells leave too little energy for vital cellular function.
The brain senses this and sends out distress signals that lead to release of stress hormones and adrenaline. These trigger the urgent desire to supply easy to process source of energy. As a result, you reach for the chocolate or cupcakes or candy. They supply immediate energy and light up your reward center. You feel great in the short term. Unfortunately, the highly processed food you just consumed spikes your blood sugar. Setting up the whole insulin surge and the cycle repeats itself. It is a trap, and you are caught in it.
How do you end the craving trap? The goal is to lower your insulin response after meals. This will bring your blood sugar down in a smooth and even manner. The lower insulin level leads to less storage of energy in fat cells and makes it easier to lose weight. To end cravings permanently, try the following:
1.Ditch high sugar and refined carbohydrates that are easily absorbed and rapidly raise your blood glucose and insulin levels.
2.Eat more non-starchy vegetables. They are low in calories but rich in nutrients and help keep you full. Also, the high fiber in vegetables is food for the good bacteria in the gut that is essential for weight loss and overall health.
3.Eat complex carbohydrates such as steel cut oats and beans. They are high in fiber and do not cause excessive spike in blood sugar
4.Add more protein to your diet. They keep you full longer and do not impact your blood sugar significantly
5.Eat healthy fats such as olives, olive oil, avocado and nuts. They are filling and again do not raise your blood sugar
6.Eat 3 meals and 2 small snacks. This way you maintain a steady level of calories and energy
7.Eat mindfully. Take your time to enjoy your food. It takes about 20 minutes to feel full. Eat slowly and savor your meal. You will be more satisfied and fill full on less food.
8.Eat until you are full not stuffed.
9.Hydrate well. Drinking enough water can help you fend off the temporary feeling of hunger.
Ife Ojugbeli, MD, MBA