Sugar cravings: causes and remedies without suffering
Raise your hand if you have never had sugar cravings.
Even I, who generally don’t like them (I’m blessed with luck, I know) sometimes feel pervaded by this dominant feeling that for some can be a real daily torment.
Sugar cravings knock at the door most often after dinner, but it is not uncommon to receive the unwelcome guest at all hours of the day.
It may be due to various reasons (most of the time, not very nice ones), but one thing is certain: sugar cravings, especially on a daily basis, should be controlled. Otherwise, getting beach body ready would be the least of our problems: in fact, the frightening increase in cases of diabetes, childhood obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and depression over the past thirty years is directly linked to the frequent intake of added sugar[1,2,3,4,5].
Should we want to live long and preferably without taking handfuls of pills every day, we should be able to put the reins on this real drug: a term chosen not by chance, given the sugar addiction comparable, without a doubt, to that of other drugs such as cocaine or even morphine.
So far, I think I have not said anything surprising; but I bet you did not know that you can also do some good for the planet by giving up sweets!
Curiosity: the environmental impact of sugar
Sugar production, which boasts staggering numbers (more than 180 million tonnes each year), has a considerable environmental impact.
Eighty per cent of the production is sugar cane; and its processing is done using heavy machinery, which causes the soil to be compacted, altering its porosity and consequently reducing its permeability to water: in other words, making it infertile and prone to erosion.
It then becomes a technical obligation to use chemical fertilisers on a massive scale; and as no evil comes alone, in addition to the damage from fertilisation (i.e. contamination of soil, groundwater and air), there is also the damage from overuse of pesticides, herbicides and CO2 emissions from agricultural machinery[7,8].
Although sugar is not only produced for sweets (see e.g. bioethanol), the confectionery and confectionery market plays a significant role. With a global production volume of about 103 million tonnes, including bars, candies, biscuits and more, and generating alone (without considering the other uses of sugar) a turnover of 48 billion dollars, one can easily guess how much our gluttonous sins have an enormous impact on the environment
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Why do we love sweets?
We humans are attracted to sugar from birth: breast milk is a perfect illustration of this (it contains about 50 per cent more sugar than cow’s milk).
During its evolution, the human body has learnt to prefer high-calorie, easily digestible foods such as sugar to ensure the survival of the species. Alas, even though we are ‘choking’ from overeating, the body has not yet metabolised this new reality.
What does it mean to have ‘sugar cravings’?
Let us make a clear distinction: it is one thing to enjoy the sugary taste, it is quite another to lose one’s mind over sweets.
We talk about having sugar cravings, when for no particular reason we long to eat something sweet (even in the middle of the night); and it can prove particularly difficult to resist the temptation.
The causes can be numerous and vary from physiological to psychological reasons: here is a list of them and possible remedies.
THE CAUSES OF SUGAR CRAVINGS AND POSSIBLE REMEDIES
1) Blood sugar imbalance
Very often the first cause is an imbalance in blood sugar. When we ingest some food containing carbohydrates, the blood glucose level starts to rise, at which point insulin comes into play to bring it back down to normal levels, distributing sugar to the cells: blood glucose peak – insulin peak – blood glucose drop – and so on.
When we abuse sweets too much, this ‘yo-yo like’ game, with time gets distorted; and when the insulin starts not being delivered as accurately as it used to be, it triggers blood sugar drops a little too much, causing us to feel dizzy, nervous, confused beside lightheadedness and the irresistible… sugar cravings.
Talk to your doctor about these episodes: a thorough blood test may reveal many things, giving you a chance to get your health back on track.
Certainly good advice is: drastically reduce your intake of foods rich in simple carbohydrates (added sugar, refined cereals, pasta and white bread), and instead increase vegetables and proteins (plant-based or not); keep only a small amount of whole-grain cereals such as pasta and wholemeal bread; start taking moderate physical activity (walking at least 30 minutes every day); all this will bring benefits almost immediately.
2) Hormonal imbalance
In addition to being a key hormone for regulating blood sugar, insuline, along with other hormones called ghrelin and leptin, is crucial for the activation of the ‘brain’s reward system‘, they stimulate the secretion of dopamine and serotonin.
As I explained in the recipe for light chocolate muffins, these molecules make us feel ‘legally’ happy, on a par with a light dose of cannabis; but just as happens in all addictions, their absence generates a strong feeling of depression, thus triggering the vicious circle: I eat sweets to calm the relentless craving, unfortunately doing nothing but increasing this feeling once again.
Among other hormonal imbalances, we cannot fail to mention the altered levels of oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone. When there is a drop, instantly the craving for sweets increases, which is why we are more prone to them during the pre-cycle, menopause and andropause phases.
As recommended in the previous chapter, carry out a blood test to detect any hormonal imbalances; your doctor will know how best to supplement them.
A healthy diet rich in vitamin B6 (spinach, potatoes, legumes, fruit, fish and white meat) and magnesium (legumes, edamame, green leafy vegetables, whole-grain cereals, bananas, apples, watermelon), together with regular physical activity and a good sleep cycle, can be very helpful in these cases.
3) Not ingesting enough protein
As seen in glycaemic imbalance, the body craves sweets when it feels that the batteries are running low: the same situation can also occur when not taking in enough protein.
We know that protein in a meal significantly reduces glycaemic peaks, slowing down digestion; its lack would accentuate the yo-yo effect between glycaemia and insulin, triggering your sugar cravings.
An adult leading a sedentary life needs to consume 0.8g of protein per body weight. This means that if you weigh 70 kilos (155 lbs), you need to take in 56g (2 oz) of protein: as is well known, this can be obtained from foods of animal origin and from various foods of plant origin (with the differences and precautions mentioned in the following link).
4) Frequent use of artificial sweeteners
A large number of people use artificial sweeteners (saccharin, aspartame, sucralose or acesulfame potassium) with the intention of reducing the extra kilos (because these are zero-calorie or near-zero-calorie sweeteners).
However, as I often say, ‘the ways of neurochemistry are mysterious’; thus, there is a paradoxical, as well as tangible, relationship between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and body weight gain.
It should also be borne in mind that these substances are accused of generating various diseases such as diabetes and cancer.
According to various epidemiological studies, the verdict is clear: ingesting a dessert or a drink containing artificial sweeteners, and thus not providing the body and more so the brain with the expected post-ingestive consequences (first of all raising blood sugar and obtaining energy, then satisfying the need for serotonin) through Pavlovian conditioning, pushes the individual to overeat to get even.
Opinions on natural sweeteners such as stevia are still conflicting: although definitely healthier than their fake counterparts, according to some research, even natural sweeteners, failing the mechanism now widely described, can negatively alter the brain’s reward pathway as well as the metabolism of the gut microbiota.
Eliminate the use of artificial sweeteners (and all foods containing them) and drastically reduce the consumption of added sugar (natural sugar and other natural sweeteners). It may seem like hell at first, but slowly you will be able to command the monkey on your back!
5) Sleep deprivation and/or sleep disturbances
Clinical studies show a clear correlation between a lack of quality sleep and a number of serious diseases such as: diabetes/insulin resistance, hypertension, obesity, vascular diseases, stroke, myocardial infarction, depression, anxiety and in severe cases psychosis, as well as increased sugar cravings. In today’s era, 20 per cent of 25-45 year olds sleep 90 minutes less, mainly to work more or to watch television (or surfing on the web). Could this be the reason why numerous individuals suffer from obesity, diabetes and sugar cravings?
Considering that a single night of insufficient sleep can disrupt the proper functioning of the brain and body, immediately increasing blood pressure, blood sugar and cortisol in the circulation, we should reconsider the use of our night time more wisely.
Speaking of cortisol, how could we not mention stress! Many of us lead problematic lives, between work, children, complicated relationships and other causes. We know that stress generates various ailments and the sugar cravings is perhaps only one of the most innocent ones.
If we are unable to change life, work, family and any other circumstances that cause stress, then we can change our approach to life’s difficulties: practising outdoor sports, sunbathing for half an hour to stimulate the production of vitamin D; getting close to nature, organising a vegetable garden at home; meditating, painting, reading, dancing, yoga, are all good remedies… and not only to combat the sugar cravings.
7) Not drinking enough water
As in the case of hunger that is felt without plausible motivation, the sugar cravings may also disappear with a glass of water.
When we are dehydrated, our body tries to find alternative sources of water, and sweet foods help with this.
Drink a big glass of water as soon as you feel the sugar craving arise and wait resolutely for 5 – 10 minutes: most of the time, this trick will make the craving go away.
But make sure you drink enough. How can you tell if the quantity is right? Easy, monitor the colour of your urine: if it’s dark you need to drink more, if it’s almost clear, don’t worry, you can let your guard down.
8) Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
Although there are numerous supplements on the market with different formulations (based on chromium, magnesium, inosylate, iron, etc.) to combat sugar cravings, the scientific literature is mostly sceptical about the benefits of such supplements.
However, we cannot deny the importance of vitamins and minerals: their lack can cause even serious discomfort.
To check our stocks, a simple blood test is enough, at which point your doctor will be able to direct you.
It is clear that a healthy, balanced diet is what we should aim for, such as that proposed by the CHEtarian lifestyle.
9) Drinking too much coffee and/or energy drinks
As mentioned in point 6, cortisol is released in times of stress, so much so that it is also called the stress hormone.
Similarly, excessive consumption of caffeine-containing drinks generates an excessive release of cortisol; thus, by complex mechanisms, causing a significant reduction in the production of serotonin and dopamine, forcing the body to crave sweets to even things out. According to a 2004 meta-analysis, this type of cortisol response is much more pronounced in men than in women.
Reduce coffee consumption to 1-2 small cups ( I mean espresso cups) per day and eliminate energy drinks at all, especially if you are male. Replacing regular coffee with decaffeinated should only be seen as a last resort, because of what has been said about artificial sweeteners.
So what? Try caffeine-free chicory coffee for example, the best existing solution to replace the beloved black drink.
10) Lack of dopamine, serotonin and their precursors
In the light of what has been said in the previous paragraphs, to summarise, the sugar cravings arise in particular when the brain receives the signal of a drop in dopamine and serotonin levels, with the sole purpose of reactivating the reward system.
So why not give what our brains desires by including healthy foods in the diet that can boost dopamine and serotonin?!
Tryptophan, phenylalanine, tyrosine and levodopa (L-dopa) are the precursors needed to synthesise our basal ‘drugs’. Certain foods abound in these miraculous molecules: milk and dairy products, eggs, pulses (primarily soya and dairy products), meat and fish in moderation, nuts, oil seeds, dark chocolate, pineapple, bananas, apples, avocados, green leafy vegetables and broad beans.
However, with this last suggestion I would not like to push you towards a palliative attitude (underestimating the reasons and only treating the symptoms); certainly resort to foods capable of stimulating dopamine and serotonin, but without forgetting to thoroughly investigate what was mentioned in the previous points.
Other practical tips on how to fight sugar cravings
– Prohibition has never been good for anyone! Therefore give yourself a date with your favourite sin: ‘I will not eat the dessert I love today, but the day after tomorrow’. A serene wait will soothe your soul;
– By the same logic, if you are strong enough (to stop in time), instead of eating a whole portion, allow yourself a few bites (no more than 1 or 2) and chew slowly, savouring every little rewarding molecule;
– If you just can’t help yourself, then eat a banana or an apple topped with a teaspoon of peanut butter, or almond butter, and cinnamon or if you want something more, try a healthy nice cream: your body and brain will thank you;
– Never skip meals and try to keep to a schedule, including snacks: your body and brain love regularity;
– Reduce coffee consumption and eliminate energy drinks, they generate an excessive release of cortisol and lower blood sugar, thus triggering a strong craving for sweets
– Do not be hard on yourself; revolution does not happen in a day: sometimes you will fall, sometimes you will win. And don’t forget that depression and a sense of defeat play against us; so smile at life, even for your human errors!
Good luck and good revolution to all
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