How to Combat Cravings and Take Back Control
Are your sugar and carb cravings so distracting that there are days you can’t even think straight until you have a glazed donut, a bagel or something with chocolate in front of you? Do you find that no amount of willpower helps keep your hands out of the cookie jar? And if you’re a woman, do you notice that your desire for sweets increases exponentially right before your period?
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand that cravings are not your fault! There’s actually a big mental and oftentimes even hormonal connection! So, when your body is biologically hardwired to want sugar, using positive self-talk to overcome your cravings isn’t always a surefire way to overcome them. In these instances willpower isn’t enough, and getting to the root of your cravings is key to overpowering them!
Eating too much sugar elevates stress. And stress elevates cravings.
You might be thinking to yourself, “is this some kind of trick?” The answer, unfortunately, is no. When we eat too many refined sugars and simple carbs we increase insulin, inflammation, and the production of cortisol - your “stress hormone.” So, even if you’re not stressed when you initially open up that pint of cookie dough ice cream, too much sugar in one sitting can actually increase your cortisol levels. This, ultimately, leads to increased stress levels...which in turn can turn around and make you crave more sugar. Talk about a vicious cycle!
When your body is under acute stress from sources such as an argument with your partner, tax season, holiday travel, etc., your brain requires approximately 12% more energy in order to better manage and combat the effects of these stressful moments. Because glucose is a quick energy source, your body can actually signal your body to crave simple carbs and sugar-laden snacks. The ensuing results being blood sugar crashes and hanger later on. This cycle of reaching for sugar and carb everytime we feel stressed or giving into our cravings can actually lead to hormonal imbalances over time. You could begin to experience increases in weight, mood swings, anxiety/ depression, fatigue and even more serious conditions like insulin resistance, PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and diabetes.
Is this why a woman craves more sweets before her period?
Yes! Well, more accurately stated - yes, in part! After ovulation, during the luteal phase (the 10-14 days) before a female starts her period, her resting cortisol levels increase and she becomes less resilient to stress and more prone to experiencing those comfort food cravings. Additionally, levels of serotonin (the “feel good” hormone) drop. Because eating carbohydrates increases the release of serotonin, it’s normal on any given day to have an uptick in cravings for sweet and salty foods. But intense cravings when coupled with bad PMS (terrible cramps, mood swings, sore breasts, etc), are a loud and strong warning sign from your body that your hormones are out of whack. Balancing your blood sugar levels is going to be key to relief.
What is insulin resistance & how does it impact my weight?
Insulin is produced in the pancreas and is also known as the “fat storage” hormone. It’s released whenever you eat; and it is released in higher amounts when the foods you are eating are sugar and carb heavy. When digested food is broken down, it enters your bloodstream as sugar (or “blood glucose”) and it’s insulin’s job to move that sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells for energy that fuels the brain and body. Any extra glucose is stored at that time for future use. When this process is well balanced, your brain and body have a steady supply of glucose to utilize for energy. But when there is too much glucose in the bloodstream - this comes from dietary habits that are rich in sugar and empty carbs - the cells can become resistant to insulin. If it helps, think about insulin resistance as the pizza delivery guy who repeatedly knocks on the door and nobody answers. Insulin signals that fuel (pizza) is coming, but your cells (door) do not open up to receive the fuel. So, the sugar stays in the bloodstream (outside the door), and after a while your body simply stores it as fat because it has nowhere else to go.
Different from your traditional pizza man, though, if nobody answers the door when insulin comes knocking, then your body sends more pizza delivery guys knocking. Your pancreas produces more insulin to turn up the volume on the signal that your cells should absorb glucose. And we want to be clear that this isn’t always necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes a little more insulin is actually just what your cells need to respond. But if your cells are already overloaded with glucose, then the signal falls on deaf ears - resulting in insulin resistance. Your pancreas can only keep up with so much insulin production. If it’s constantly overworked, then it can eventually fail to meet demand. When this happens, you could eventually up with severe hormone imbalances that result in PCOS, pre-diabetes, or diabetes (insulin deficiency). All of these conditions cause various degrees of poor blood sugar regulation and pesky fat storage that comes on quickly and is incredibly difficult to rid from the body.
A note on PCOS: Polycystic Ovary Syndrome affects as many as five million women in the United States and is one of the leading causes of infertility. Symptoms include: weight gain, weight loss resistance, acne, absent or irregular periods, thinning hair on the top of the head and excess hair on the face and chest. Needless to say it’s a condition that’s annoying at best and debilitating at worst.
High androgens (male hormones Testosterone & DHEA) and insulin resistance are almost always involved in a PCOS diagnosis. So, it’s crucial to look into levels of these hormones in addition to insulin levels. This will help you prioritize blood sugar balance. We’ll discuss more on this below.
How quickly does insulin resistance (IR) happen?
To be clear: IR doesn’t just pop up after a weekend getaway with a few glasses of wine and another helping of freshly baked bread (so you don’t have to cancel all of your holiday plans). Rather, it is the result of a lifestyle that’s filled with sugar that’s quickly absorbed (sugary sodas are a major contributor that are often overlooked) and simple/refined carbs such as white pasta, white rice, white bread, crackers, cookies and tortillas. Your cells gradually become resistant to insulin over continued and frequent consumption of these foods over time, and that’s when things start to take a turn for the worse intracellularly. The higher your insulin levels become, the more severe the insulin resistance. Over time, this can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, rapid aging, constant sugar cravings, extreme fatigue, and other diseases. Improving insulin sensitivity (e.g., responsiveness to insulin) can help you reduce insulin resistance and the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even dementia. It’s important to note that carrying extra weight, especially the kind that likes to hang out in the belly area, reduces insulin sensitivity and can actually raise the risk of type 2 Diabetes. Belly fat in particular is tied to insulin excess and can produce hormones that promote insulin resistance in the muscles and liver. This is why dietary interventions in addition to stress reduction tactics are a must when combating insulin resistance!
MRC’s Hormone Imbalance Quiz can help you determine if hormones are a likely culprit for your weight loss struggles.
What lifestyle changes can I make to reverse insulin resistance, reduce sugar cravings, and lose weight without a constant struggle?
Don’t worry, there is absolutely good news when it comes to answering this question! The good news is that there are numerous simple steps that you can take to bring about positive change. But, be aware that it takes a commitment to understanding how to balance your blood sugar levels, manage your stress levels, and nurture your hormones. Here are some of the action steps you can take that will make a marked difference:
Balance Blood Sugar Levels: This one is simple enough in theory, and comes down to eating meals and/or snacks at regular intervals throughout the day and not skimping on calories to try to lose weight. While restricting calories may provide short term results, in nearly all cases, these actions backfire later on. And it makes sense because when the body goes into a hypoglycemic state (or “starvation mode”), blood sugar levels drop and intense hunger and cravings ensue. To help avoid blood sugar drops throughout your regular day-to-day, it can be helpful to have healthy meals prepared the night before a busy day and even an emergency snack bag with protein rich options to grab on-the-go. We’ve all had those nights when we’re caught late at work or stuck in an airport with zero nutrient rich options - so, having a plan in place is the first step to coming out of them victoriously!
Build better meals: when putting together your meals, it’s important to include a complete protein source (e.g., meat, eggs, fish), fiber rich vegetables (e.g., artichokes, broccoli) and a small amount of anti-inflammatory fat (e.g., olive oil, nuts, avocado). This will help turn off hunger hormones and keep your brain and body nourished for 4-6 hours so that you’re not constantly thinking about food and feeling ravenous for sweets all the time!
Swap packaged processed foods for whole food alternatives: Fill your grocery basket mostly with items that you can find on the outer aisle of the store (fruits, veggies, meats, seafood, etc) before going to the inner aisles where all the snack foods, packaged meals, sweets, breads and sauces are in plain site. Also, make a habit of checking package labels for “added sugars.” You’d be surprised at all the places where sugars are added. Cut unnecessary additions to your diet where you can to help curb cravings for sugary foods.
If you travel a lot for work or you’re going home for the holidays, setting yourself up for success should be a priority! Pack a bag filled with your favorite (blood sugar balancing) snacks and talk to your host about the plan for meals while you’re away. Swing by the grocery store and pick up a few staples for your Airbnb or hotel. If you’re staying with family offer to cook a couple meals (or bring side dishes) so you have a say over the ingredients and can make something everyone will enjoy!
Get In Those Beauty Zzz’s!
When you don’t get enough high quality sleep (high quality sleep is considered to be 7-8 hours per night with at least 90 minutes in an REM state), your body actually increases levels of the “hunger hormone” ghrelin. Ghrelin’s primary function is to regulate your appetite and tell you when you are hungry. On the other hand, leptin “the satiety hormone” communicates to your brain that you are full, helping you to maintain your weight. If you suffer from sleep deprivation, this can cause a spike in ghrelin and a drop leptin - creating a situation where your body signals you are hungry and doesn’t tell you that you are full as soon as it should. This is often why insomniacs can often have a harder time losing weight and keeping it off. Ever feel ravenous after a poor night’s sleep? This could be why!
Create calming sleep rituals: turn off overhead lights instead use warm lighting, Himalayan salt lamps, and/or candles at least 1-2 hours before bed. Wear blue light blocking glasses if you’re working on your computer or phone in the evening. Blue light is known to halt melatonin production (your “master sleep hormone”) and make it harder to fall and stay asleep. Try to keep disturbing movies, breaking news, and social media to a minimum in the few hours before bed; these images can raise cortisol levels and make sleeping soundly a much tougher task. Save stressful conversation topics like finances for earlier in the day and try deep breathing, meditation, or reading a fictional book that relaxes you before bed instead.
Make Mindfulness & Self-Care Non-Negotiables
As we’ve already touched on, when we deal with chronic or unrelenting stress, it tells our body to enter "fight-or-flight" mode. This stimulates the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. The stimulation of cortisol can make the body more resistant to insulin. Put aside time at the start of every week to intentionally schedule time for yourself and inject more FUN into your life! Write a list of all the things that make you feel happy, calm and grounded (even if it’s been a decade since you’ve done them!) and commit to one thing every single day. Some ideas to get you started: meditation using free app such as Insight Timer, deep breathing, exercise you enjoy (dancing, skiing, hiking, swimming, walking, biking), restorative stress-busting movement (yoga, pilates, walking, stretching), arts and crafts, painting, playing with kids and animals, scheduling a day trip, going on a special date night, or other activities!
Challenge yourself to eat one meal or snack away from distractions daily: Prepare your food and then enjoy it somewhere peaceful and away from your phone, TV, computer, and maybe even other people. Undistracted eating can help lower stress levels, improve digestion and nutrient absorption, elevate your mood, reduce cravings, and help create more feelings of satiety following eating a meal or snack, setting you up for success between now and the next meal!
Sugar and carb cravings go hand in hand with hidden hormone imbalances. So, while we may oftentimes feel frustrated by our lack of “self-control,” the root of your cravings may be partially rooted in the biological (rather than only the psychological). Therefore, getting to the root of your cravings through imbalance testing is both necessary and empowering!
Testing your hormones (in saliva) to get to the root of your imbalances can also help you to understand where your cravings are coming from and to what your imbalances may be contributing. Metabolic Research Center’s “Body in Balance” program incorporates this testing in addition to a guide to rebalance in a way that’s tailored to your unique body and hormones. Your “Body in Balance” program is coupled with professional support and accountability from a team of dedicated MRC Coaches; ensuring that you’ll be able to make changes in a way that is both doable and long lasting! Connect with an MRC Team today to learn more and get started!
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