Many of us believe that we know what it means to eat healthy. Nonetheless, we find ourselves drawn to eating foods we know are far from good including chocolate, biscuits and sweet treats. Some people attribute their succumbing to such temptation to a weak will and lack of self-control. In reality, the cause of food cravings is much more physiological than psychological. Understanding this, and what to do about it, can cure a ‘sweet tooth’ and make healthy eating a breeze.
For most people, cravings for sweet and sometimes starchy foods [such as bread and rice] are rooted in an imbalance in the levels of blood sugar. The cycle can start when you eat food that causes a considerable surge of sugar. In response to this, your body secretes copious quantities of insulin—the hormone chiefly responsible for lowering blood sugar levels. The problem is that a glut of insulin can cause blood sugar levels to plummet typically 2 – 3 hours later.
The sweet roller-coaster
When blood sugar levels drop to subnormal levels [referred to as hypoglycaemia], it’s natural for the body to crave foods that replenish sugar quickly into the bloodstream. It is this mechanism that normally triggers cravings for sweet foods. For some, it can trigger cravings for other foods as well including alcohol. Of course, consuming more of these can cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket again, only to come crashing down some time later. And so the cycle repeats.
The impact of this blood sugar ‘roller-coaster’ can be profound. Not only does it predispose us to unhealthy food cravings, it can also affect your mood. Low blood sugar can starve the brain of much-needed fuel and precipitate low mood, mood swings and anxiety. A lot of people who engage in comfort eating suffer from blood sugar imbalance. But when they eat in a way that stabilises blood sugar levels, their tendency to comfort eat reduces considerably and sometimes disappears altogether.
Peaks of blood sugar can be damaging too because surges of insulin drive fat into the body’s fat cells [insulin is fattening]. In particular, fat deposited in this way tends to accumulate in and around the abdomen—so-called abdominal obesity. It is this form of fat that is strongly linked with chronic conditions such as heart disease and type-2 diabetes.
Not only does the blood sugar ‘roller-coaster’ predispose us to unhealthy food cravings, it can also affect your mood
How to quell cravings
The key to quelling cravings and comfort eating is to eat in a way that stabilises blood sugar levels. This involves limiting those foods in the diet that tend to be disruptive for blood sugar. Foods with added sugar qualify here, but so do many starchy carbohydrates such as bread, potato, rice and breakfast cereals. Many of these ‘starchy staples’ are actually as or even more disruptive to blood sugar levels as table sugar. Plus, when we eat them, we tend to eat them in quantity, which increases the risk of significant disruption.
To combat cravings, scale back on the consumption of disruptive carbohydrates and emphasise foods that help ensure blood sugar stability. Increase your consumption of appropriate foods—meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, paneer and other cheeses, natural yoghurt, vegetables [like okra, spinach, cauliflower], beans and lentils. Basing the diet around these helps stabilise blood sugar levels. But what we eat is only part of the solution—when we eat is important too.
Imagine not eating all day only to eat a huge evening meal. Irrespective of what you eat, this pattern of eating won’t help blood sugar stability. To stabilise blood sugar levels, eat regularly. This means eating three meals a day, but some people benefit from eating healthy snacks in between. Going too long between eating can cause blood sugar levels to fall and really sharpen the appetite. Once hunger bites, it can be difficult to resist the very foods we know are not good for us. This will again destabilise blood sugar levels.
What we eat is only part of the solution—when we eat is important too
One time of the day when a healthy snack can have enormous value is in the late afternoon—to tide you over between lunch and dinner. Fruit is often recommended as the snack of choice, but I don’t rate it at all. First of all, fruit is quite sugary, and not necessarily an ideal food for blood sugar balance. But the other thing is that, for many people, fruit does not do a very effective job of sating the appetite.
Nuts make a much better snack. They actually help with blood sugar stability, and have quite powerful appetite-sating properties. Some people imagine that nuts are fattening and highly calorific. However, studies show that nuts do not promote weight gain, and often actually help lose weight. How can we explain this?
Well, to begin with, nuts are a satisfying food. This means we may not need to eat many of them to feel satisfied, and they may cause us to eat less of other foods later on too. Also, fat storage in the body is not simply down to the balance of calories going in and coming out of the body. The flow of fat into and out of fat cells is under hormonal control, and the key player here is the hormone insulin. Insulin is secreted most plentifully in response to carbohydrate and least in response to fat.
Nuts, being a naturally fat-rich, protein-rich and low-carbohydrate food, actually help temper hunger and insulin levels and therefore may actually assist weight loss.
Nuts help with blood sugar stability, and have quite powerful appetite-sating properties
Blood-sugar balance depends on the supply of specific nutrients, the most important of which is the mineral chromium. Supplementing with this nutrient does seem to help stabilise blood-sugar levels and, importantly, can help to curb carb-cravings. In one study, overweight women treated with 1,000mcg of chromium per day saw their hunger [and food intake] fall significantly compared to women taking a placebo [inactive medication]. In another study, chromium supplementation was found to reduce carbohydrate cravings specifically.
Some supplements offer a blend of nutrients designed to help stabilise blood sugar. In addition to chromium, these often include magnesium and B-vitamins. Such a supplement, or even straight chromium, can be useful during the initial stages of transition to a lower-carbohydrate diet. Whether in combination with other nutrients or alone, I recommend 400mcg – 800mcg of chromium daily, spread out over 2 – 3 doses during the day.
Another natural agent that can help quell cravings is the amino acid glutamine. This nutrient provides ready fuel for the brain and in practice can extinguish carbohydrate cravings. I suggest buying glutamine as a powder and dissolving one teaspoon [about 4g] in about 500ml water.
Sip this liquid throughout the day, particularly between meals as food cravings are more likely to strike then. And, also because the body absorbs glutamine better on an empty stomach.
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