This post comes at a good time – right after our homes have been plagued with glorious Easter chocolate… if only we didn’t consume SO much of it and if only it didn’t CALL to us as it sits leftover and forgotten in our children’s baskets.
This is probably one of the top questions I hear from my clients - they want to know WHY their sugar cravings are so strong and what to do about it. We've all heard that sugar is "addictive" and we've talked about the impact of sugar on brain chemicals here but did you know that you can make some lifestyle, nutrition and supplement changes to help balance your brain chemistry and reduce sugar cravings?
Let’s discuss some surefire ways to get your sugar cravings under control. Some of these are obvious and others may be a new concept for you.
We will start with some of the most obvious tips. These may sound insignificant but I can assure you, they will make a huge difference in whether or not you’re back at that candy dish at the office or the basket full of chocolate in your home.
1. Eat on a regular schedule and include protein with all meals and snacks.
We’ve all had those moments where we allow our blood sugar levels to plummet and as a result we make poor nutrition choices (hello jelly beans). Would you believe me if I told you that we make those poor nutrition choices because the blood flow to our brain is actually REDUCED when our blood sugar levels are low?
If we let our blood sugar levels drop below optimal levels (you will likely feel tired, irritable and/or dizzy) it is a protection mechanism for our body to crave simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates will bring our blood sugar level up high and fast, exactly what our body thinks we need at this time. The issues with these cravings are that we typically don’t go for something naturally sweet like a piece of fruit, we instead go for something highly processed made with large amounts of refined sugar.
One study that demonstrates how stabilizing blood sugar levels reduces the urge to consume carbohydrate-rich foods focuses on women dealing with bulimia. 20 research subjects were put on a sugar stabilizing diet and within 3 weeks all 20 women had stopped binging (Dalvit-McPhillips, 1984).
One of the best ways to combat these low blood sugar levels is to eat on a regular schedule and to include protein at every meal and snack. Protein helps to keep you fuller longer and slows the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Let’s put this into practice – instead of choosing JUST a piece of fruit for a snack add some nuts, nut butter, a hardboiled egg or some leftover meat from your last meal. This combination of carbohydrate and protein will help keep your blood sugar levels stable longer.
2. Eat 25-45 grams of fiber per day.
Fruits, vegetables and whole, unprocessed grains contain fiber but one of my favorite ways to get fiber in is by incorporating chia seeds in my diet on a regular basis. Let's look at the nutrition profile for chia seeds and why they're such a great addition to your nutrition plan.
1 ounce (approximately 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds contains the following nutrients:
• 11 grams fiber (throw 2 tablespoons of chia seeds in your smoothie and you’re almost half way to your daily goal!)
• 4.7 grams protein
• 9 grams fat
• 178.9 mg calcium (18% of your recommended daily intake)
• Excellent source of antioxidants (we talked about antioxidants and health here)
Chia seeds absorb over 10 times their weight in fluid (1) making them extremely filling, as they form a gel in our bodies when we eat them. The research linking chia seed consumption and weight loss is limited right now but including chia seeds in your diet on a regular basis is going to be extremely advantageous to your health.
Chia seeds also act as a prebiotic (food for the beneficial bacteria living in our intestines). We must supply nutritious food for these good bugs in order to keep them thriving.
I recommend adding 2 tablespoons of chia seeds in your smoothie or to your yogurt daily for optimal benefits. You can buy chia seeds at most grocery stores (likely in the "natural foods" section).
3. Spice things up!
Adding cinnamon to your food can actually help you to stabilize your blood sugar levels and prevent the spike (and subsequent plummet) in your blood sugar levels after a carbohydrate-rich meal. Research shows that cinnamon can reduce blood sugar levels by 3-5%, which is comparable to older generations of diabetic medications (2).
The type of cinnamon you use matters. Most cinnamon that we find in the grocery store is Cassia cinnamon and can cause liver toxicity in large doses (I do not recommend doing the cinnamon challenge – the European Food Safety Authority suggests that 1 teaspoon is a daily maximum of Cassia cinnamon for people sensitive to a component of cassia cinnamon called coumarin). The cinnamon you want to purchase if you are trying to stabilize your blood sugar levels is ceylon cinnamon. You can find ceylon cinnamon at most health food stores.
4. Get quality sleep. We’ve discussed the importance of sleep for weight loss and carbohydrate cravings over and over again. Haven’t read these posts yet? Check them out here and here.
5. Be sure you’re taking a vitamin D supplement – especially if your sun exposure is limited. When Vitamin D levels are low, levels of ghrelin (the hormone that tells us we're hungry) is affected making us feel hungrier more often, which leads to excess consumption (3). Read more about vitamin D here.
6. Adequate omega-3 intake. As we’ve discussed previously when we’ve covered inflammation, regular intake of a good quality omega-3 supplement is key in keeping inflammation under control. Omega-3 fats are beneficial fats for our brain and they also play a role in insulin (our storage hormone that we produce when we consume carbohydrates) control.
7. Chromium picolinate. Chromium picolinate has been shown to reduce cravings for fat and carbohydrates. In one double-blind placebo-controlled study, study subjects supplemented with 1000 mcg of chromium picolinate daily for a two-month period. Compared to the placebo group, the subjects supplementing with chromium picolinate had a decrease in appetite and fewer fat cravings (Anton, 2008).
If you’re following all of the tips above and still not getting any relief, your sugar cravings may stem from an imbalance in brain chemicals due to suboptimal gut health. Our gut is literally our second brain and without a healthy gut, the balance of our brain chemicals suffers.
Without getting too deep into the chemistry, let’s look at what may be beneficial. Remember – do not begin taking any supplements without consulting your physician or pharmacist. Supplements can interact with various medications. Please also be sure to take a pharmaceutical grade supplement to ensure you are actually getting what is written on the label.
8. Supplementing with l-glutamine and a good quality probiotic. L-glutamine is an amino acid that plays a major role in healing the gut lining. Taking l-glutamine and a good quality probiotic are the first steps in healing the gut and establishing a thriving population of good gut bacteria.
How does gut health impact our sugar cravings you may ask? Well, believe it or not, sugar cravings can be caused by a simple imbalance in brain chemicals and because it is in our gut that many of these brain chemicals are produced, our gut health is imperative if we want to balance our brain chemistry to combat cravings. An example of this is serotonin – serotonin is an excitatory neurotransmitter that reduces our appetite and most of our serotonin is produced in the gut. Many obese patients have lower levels of serotonin than non-obese patients, meaning that the obese patients will have a more difficult time controlling their appetite than the non-obese patients (4). If we want to have adequate serotonin production, we must have good gut health.
When taking a probiotic, I recommend taking it at the end of the day with your last meal (read more about probiotics here). Your current health status will determine the dosage of l-glutamine (I recommend working with an integrative dietitian or naturopath to determine dosage).
I hope these tips are helpful and will assist you in combating the post-Easter sugar cravings.
Still have sugar cravings? Whip up these DELICIOUS refined sugar-free brownies . Thanks so much for reading. If this information was helpful please share ☺
Yours in Health,
Dalvit-McPhillips S. A dietary approach to bulimia. Physiol Behav 1984;33:769-775
Anton SD, et al. Effects of chromium picolinate on food intake and satiety. Diabetes Technol Ther. 2008;10(5):405-12.
Docherty JP, et al. A double-blind, placebo-controlled, exploratory trial of chromium picolinate in atypical depression: effect on carbohydrate craving. J Psychiatr Pract. 2005 Sep;11(5):302-14.
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