“…while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Sugar plums? Try pizza, donuts, cupcakes and potato chips! There are times in my life when I can do nothing else but think of food. Sometimes the desire for a particular food has been so intense that I’ve gone to great lengths just to satisfy my craving. In fact, I can remember a time that I wanted an iced blueberry cake donut so badly that I drove to three different Krispie Kreme locations until I found that specific flavor. Why is it that when we have cravings it is always for high-sugar or high-fat foods? Why can’t we crave things like broccoli or brussel sprouts? Through researching remedies for my own cravings I’ve found that the general consensus among experts is that emotional and hormonal issues are typically contributing factors.
I have often noticed that hormonal changes tied to my menstrual cycle will trigger food cravings. Evidently, a few days before our “monthly visitor”, estrogen levels drop as well as serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is commonly referred to as the “feel-good hormones” of the body. When serotonin drops we often feel tired and depressed. That would certainly explain the mood swings that I subject my husband to on a monthly basis. Apparently, as serotonin levels drop this signals the brain to provide some sort of pick me up, often in the form of a simple sugar or carbohydrate. Problem is, if we feed those cravings with the donuts or cookies that we are craving, although they provide a rapid increase in serotonin, the peak is short-lived and our bodies will once again crash.
Another culprit that triggers food cravings is low blood sugar. Low blood sugar is often the result of going too long between meals and snacks, or the result of consuming too few calories. I know a number of women guilty of this, myself included. I can recall countless efforts in the past to lose weight on restrictive diets. I had always heard that it was a basic principle of calories in versus calories out. I only wish it were truly that simple. Unfortunately, the type of calories matter as well, or trust me, I would be the donut queen.
The carbohydrates in our food are converted to glucose and then absorbed into the bloodstream, providing us with energy. The more refined the carbohydrate, meaning processed and stripped of nutritional value, the more quickly it is absorbed. While that surge of energy may feel great, such a rapid rise causes our bodies to compensate by suppressing blood glucose levels below normal, often leading to mood swings and strong cravings for more sugar. Knowing that carbohydrates can potentially induce a sugar spike might tempt us to restrict carbohydrates all together, much like the popular Adkins diet of the past, but many experts advise against this approach. Glucose provides fuel for our cells, particularly our brain cells. It is no coincidence that some bodybuilders are referred to as mindless Neanderthals. Although this is a horrible generalization, it likely spurred from interacting with extremely carb depleted athletes just prior to competition. I can recall a time personally during my second competition when I tried restricting carbohydrates and managed to turn down the wrong street twice going home and I had lived there for years.
Another common trigger for cravings is stress. Stress can really wear on a person, both emotionally and physically. It is not uncommon for a person who is under stress to look for an “attitude adjustment” in the form of sugar or caffeine. Problem is, these quick fixes, though temporarily mood-boosting, can exacerbate your cravings by creating a cycle of ups and downs. I had a co-worker years ago who suffered from chronic fatigue. In retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I would have suggested that she take a look at her diet. At the time, a doctor prescribed her with an anti-depressant to boost her mood and increase her energy. Thing is, most of these anti-depressants work by manipulating levels of serotonin in the body. Serotonin, though derived from protein, needs insulin from carbohydrates to release the feel-good hormones in our brain. I am willing to bet that regular meals of complex carbohydrates, quality protein and minimal fat would have helped regulate her levels of serotonin. For me personally, eating in this manner has played an integral role in increasing my energy and well-being.
Speaking of well-being, people who are unhappy with their lives often find themselves craving sugary snacks and processed foods. Though many may think that it is just a lack of will power, misery in our lives can actually have a biochemical effect on our bodies. Eating sweets provides us with a sort of a natural high. It fires beta-endorphins in our brain that can instantly lift one’s mood and settle anxiety, giving a false sense of well-being. Once the happiness fades, we come back down to earth, feel miserable about what we just ate and then attempt to fight the urge to indulge for a quick fix again. It can be a horrible cycle, leading to excessive weight gain and further misery down the road.
So, how do we avoid persistent cravings? That can often depend on your own personal chemistry and even your current hormonal and emotional state. One thing is certain though, we can all benefit from eating regular meals spaced evenly throughout the day. It is also important not to drastically restrict your calories because this can wreak havoc on your metabolism. On that same note, do not deny yourself carbohydrates. They help regulate your blood sugar and keep you thinking clearly and feeling good. Choose high fiber foods and complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, apples and beans. Whenever possible, combine a healthy fat and protein to slow the digestion of carbohydrates. One of my personal favorites is all natural peanut butter on Ezekiel bread.
Another way to potentially avoid caving into your cravings is to work on breaking past habits. For example, years ago my dad (a.k.a. The Cookie Monster), would instinctively reach for a cookie after nearly every meal at dinnertime. This little ritual rubbed off on me and I often found that I would reach for a cookie, even if I was stuffed to the gills, out of instinct and habit. It took some doing, but we replaced that habit with a walk around the block and an occasional decaf coffee. If you find that there is a time of day when you are most susceptible to eating out of habit, then plan activities to preoccupy yourself. Exercise is one of the best options because it increases endorphins and creates the same sort of high that a high-fat or high-sugar food might. Also, our strong emotional connection to food can make cravings super intense around holidays. Have the resolve to create new habits for the holidays. Bake less and get out more.
While we may never be able to eliminate the occasional craving from our lives, applying some of these tactics may make them less frequent. The important thing is to know that falling victim to a craving is less about will power and more about a lack of preparedness. With a sound nutrition plan and a resolve to live happy, hopefully your cravings will be fewer and farther between. Edward W. Smith, author of “Sixty Seconds to Success” wrote… “the will to win is not nearly as important as the will to prepare to win.” If we are going to win the battle against cravings, we must prepare and plan to fight a good fight.
About the Author
Jamie Eason Middleton is one of the most recognized faces in the fitness industry. She holds several fitness titles, most notably Hardbody Entertainment’s World’s Fittest Model, and has been featured as a writer and a model in hundreds of magazine layouts. Jamie has a bachelor’s degree in communication, is the official female spokesperson for Bodybuilding.com and the creator of the popular fitness program, the 12-week LiveFit Trainer.
Jamie, joined Team Labrada in September 2013 and shares her extensive experience with tens of thousands of women in the bi-weekly Labrada Newsletter. Check out her own line of supplements at Labrada, which can be found here: www.labrada.com/jamieeason