Processed sugar has some horrific effects on the body and is the associated with many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, cancer and even autoimmune diseases such as MS. It's also the reason people keep gaining weight, feel chronically fatigued, or go through moody slumps throughout the day. And yet, knowing all this, so many of us can't cut the habit.
Sugar has been shown to be just as addicting as heroine, and lights up the same parts of our brain as cocaine and other drugs. So why is it so hard to give up? Research has pointed to the fact that sugar addiction is not just due to a lack of willpower or bad habits- it's very much a biochemical cause! Which means that it can be treated with a few simple steps.
A major factor to craving sweets and carbs is being on the blood-sugar rollercoaster. When we start our day off with no breakfast, or worse- a breakfast full of sugar, you are setting yourself up for a long, downhill ride.
One bowl of "healthy" cereal (we're not even talking about Frosted Flakes here) contains 12 teaspoons of sugar, and no protein or healthy fat to help slow the digestion process or the amount of insulin produced to cope with this sudden flood of sugar. Eating processed foods such as cereal, muffins, bagels, or bread spikes your glucose levels up through the roof, only to come crashing down an hour or so later, which is the reason people often feel the "crash" and are searching for a quick, easy source of more carbs to try to help those levels back up. When you are down in this slump of the ride, when faced with that box of donuts sitting in the staff room, or a plate of veggies and dip, most likely it will be the quick-fix of the sweet stuff that wins that battle.
Are you more of a nighttime sugar addict? Well, that is a result of the rollercoaster as well, and starts from that morning bowl of cereal or toast with jam. It might be easier to curb your cravings throughout the day while distracted, however many are familiar with that uncontrollable urge to snack on processed sugars such as chips, pasta, pizza, cookies, chocolate, or whatever is in sight in the evening when sitting on the couch.
How to prevent this? By balancing your blood sugar levels so they remain steady throughout the day. The way to do this is to eat protein paired with a healthy fat every 3 hours, and avoid processed carbohydrates as much as possible. By pairing your food with protein and fat, your body digests and metabolizes it more slowly, insulin levels are not spiked up, and your brain receives signals of fullness and satisfaction from the healthy fat. An example of a well-balanced day of meals to prevent sugar cravings is:
2 organic eggs with spinach and bell peppers sauteed in butter, with 1/2 cup of sweet potato hash browns
Apple slices with 1 tablespoon of almond butter and a handful of raw cashews. Or a smoothie with banana, avocado, berries, flaxseeds and virgin coconut oil
4 oz of organic chicken with veggies (broccoli, mushrooms, onions, and zucchini) sauteed in virgin coconut oil.
1/2 cup plain greek yogurt with fresh berries, or a couple hard boiled eggs with avocado on sprouted seed crackers.
4 oz Wild Salmon with black bean, bell pepper and cilantro salsa with lime vinaigrette.
An area of our brain that controls appetite is very dependent on zinc. When the appetite center in our brain is low in zinc, it sends out a message to crave sugar after a meal. So if you are one of those people that just has to have a little something sweet after dinner, even though you ate a balanced meal, it could be a zinc deficiency. Other than intense cravings for sweets, some other signs of zinc deficiency include acne, loss of taste or smell, white spots under fingernails, being sick a lot, or being on hormonal birth control. Try supplementing with 60 mg of zinc every day, and fill your diet full of good sources of zinc: grass fed meat, pumpkin seeds, nuts, beans and oats to get your stores back in balance.
Do you have intense chocolate cravings? This could point to a deficiency in the mineral magnesium, often referred to as the "relaxation mineral". Supplement with 300-400 mg of magnesium glycinate, and your cravings for chocolate could disappear within 3 weeks. Other signs of magnesium include migraines, leg or foot cramps, eye twitches, constipation, anxiety, sleep disorders, and depression.
A recent study showed that with just one sleepless night, the brain's frontal lobe (responsible for rational decision making), is strongly effected. In contrast, there was increased activity in the primitive part of the brain which governs increased desire and response to reward. In this study, participants who were sleep deprived showed much higher cravings for sugars and processed carbs, and had less ability to reign in their impulses. Sound familiar? This could help explain why when we're sleep deprived, reaching for that instant satisfaction of the drive-through sounds like an excellent idea. Getting enough sleep can help prevent sugar cravings and weight gain by priming the brains mechanism governing appropriate food choices and reducing cravings altogether.
If you can relate to"emotional eating", or reaching for that bowl of ice cream when you're feeling down, it could very well be related to a serotonin and dopamine deficiency, the two "feel-good" neurochemicals in our brain. Low levels of serotonin has been clearly linked to cravings for processed carbohydrates. Did you know that 95% of serotonin is actually produced in your digestive system? A healthy gut equals a healthy brain, which equals a healthy mood balance and less urges to drown your sorrows in a bag of chips. So how can you help balance these hormones? In order for serotonin to be properly produced, your digestive system needs to be full of the friendly bifadobacteria. These little guys need protein in order to do their job properly, so again make sure that you are taking in a healthy amount of protein several times throughout the day, and eat fermented foods such as cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut to increase their numbers in your gut.
Another brain chemical, Dopamine could be at the root of your sugar addiction. Dopamine deficiency has been linked to many addictive problems and is commonly found in chronic gamblers, alcoholics, and other addictions. If you can relate to the feeling of not being able to stop at one (of anything!), it could be a low dopamine problem. Again, just like with helping increase serotonin, you need to eat protein with meals and snacks to help prevent cravings. Good quality proteins provide our bodies with the building blocks to build these important brain chemicals.
Sugar has actually been shown to be as addictive as drugs such as cocaine and heroine, which is not surprising as it causes the same euphoric effects that trigger dopamine production in the brain. You can find relief in kicking that sugar addiction for good by producing a steady flow of these feel-good brain chemicals, rather than having to have a "hit" of sugar to release them. You can help restore balance by supplementing with probiotics (especially bifidobacteria), and supplements such as L-Glutamine, DHA, and 5-HTP (amino and fatty acids which helps support production of brain chemicals).
We all know somebody who is literally addicted to their diet pop. Some of us may be addicted without even realizing it, since artificial sweeteners such as Splenda, Aspartame and Nutra-Sweet are found in thousands of products on the grocery shelves: diet soda, flavored water, protein bars, cereal, yogurt, candy, chewing gum, ice cream and so much more. Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners interfere with metabolism and brain health, and are another reason you may find it hard to kick that urge to reach for something sweet.
One damaging aspect of artificial sweeteners is the fact that they lower levels of good bacteria in the digestive track. Good bacteria plays a huge role in metabolism function and craving control. These sweeteners have been shown to prevent bifidobacteria from producing serotonin, which ultimately leads to cravings for processed carbs and sugar.
Splenda is made from sugar as the commercials tell you, but also has 3 chlorine molecules attached to it. Chlorine is damaging to the thyroid, and low thyroid function can lead to weight gain, hormone imbalance and anxiety.
Consumption of artificial sweeteners has been shown in many studies to actually increase weight gain in people who frequently consume them. Although these sweeteners are 200-600 times sweeter than sugar, they do not activate the same pleasure reward pathways in the brain as natural sweeteners do. Instead, they "trick" your brain into craving more carbohydrate-dense processed foods to satisfy that craving, which may be part of the reason foods with these sweeteners can be so addicting. Although they taste sweet, your brain does not process that something sweet was consumed, leading to wanting more to satisfy that craving.
Solution? Kick the artifical sweetener habit! There's definitely nothing sweet about adding these chemicals into your body... the many other adverse effects, apart from just sugar cravings and weight gain are simply not worth it. Try sticking to water or home-made smoothies, and always read labels! Artificial sweeteners have many different names so they can be tricky to avoid, but a general rule of thumb is if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it!