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.
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.
A: This is such a great question and one that is getting more and more media attention.
Dairy does not agree with everyone (lactose, whey or casein sensitivities are common) but for those of you who enjoy a serving or two of dairy every day, what should you be choosing? We’ve heard for so long that cutting fat from dairy products is the way to a slimmer waistline and better overall health but is this necessarily the truth? We’ve also heard that the saturated fat in dairy products is going to clog our arteries and lead to the development of heart disease. Regardless of what we've heard, at this point in time the evidence suggests that saturated fat has a neutral effect on heart health.
Research is continuing to emerge regarding the importance of consuming full-fat dairy products over its non-fat counterparts.
First let’s look at the facts from recent studies (I won’t bore you with the details – we’ll just summarize):
So how can this be? If it’s the equation of calories in versus calories out that dictates our weight, shouldn’t we cut the calories from dairy products by reducing the amount of fat in the product (fat contains 9 calories per gram, so reducing fat from a food can reduce its calories significantly)? If you remember from my post last week, calorie counting is not always the solution.
At this point there is not a definite reason as to why this link between high-fat dairy consumption and reduced risk of obesity exists – some researchers hypothesize that it is the satiety factor of fat (meaning it helps to keep us fuller longer) and therefore we don’t feel the need to consume an excessive amount of food. Another hypothesis relates to the effect the fatty acids in dairy products have on our hormones and gene expression, which alters the amount of energy our bodies burn and store.
We often hear recommendations to go with a full-fat variety over a fat-free variety due to the sugar that can be added to low-fat products to make them more palatable, however this is not the case with milk or cheese. Both the full-fat and low-fat products contain the same number of grams of sugar per serving. The only true difference between the two is the fat content. Contrary, if we were to compare full-fat versus low-fat ice cream, we would likely see a difference in the sugar content per serving, with the low-fat version containing more grams of sugar per serving than the full-fat variety. Always be sure to take a look at the nutrition facts panel and the ingredient list when determining how much added sugar a product contains.
I want to touch on one important point before we finish our discussion today. I want you to keep in mind that the research studies conducted on high-fat dairy products and obesity or weight gain are observational studies rather than randomized controlled trials (the gold standard). This means that we are unable to say that low-fat dairy consumption causes weight gain or that high-fat dairy consumption prevents weight gain. From this research we can only conclude that consumption of high-fat dairy is associated with reduced risk of obesity or weight gain. Although researchers do their best to remove all other variables that may impact this relationship, we are still unable to conclude a cause/effect relationship between the high-fat dairy and obesity risk.
Recommendations: If dairy products agree with you I recommend going with the full-fat variety and simply watching the number of servings you consume in a day.
Thank you for submitting your question! If you have a question that you'd like answered, please submit a question here.
Yours in Health,
When you're looking for a decadent dessert to prepare for your next dinner party I suggest giving this pudding a try! Feel free to spice this pudding up however you'd like - adding nuts, coconut or dark chocolate chips for a simple twist. This pudding is fantastic because it contains NO refined sugar and contains lots of healthy fats from the avocado and nut butter. This treat will keep you satisfied much longer than the traditional sugar-laden chocolate pudding. Enjoy!
Stable blood sugar levels are important for everyone, not just people with diabetes. When our blood sugar levels are stable, we have stable energy, stable moods and our hunger remains under control. We’ve all had that feeling before, we have a sugary treat and feel a burst of energy but then before we know it we are feeling tired, hungry or irritable (sometimes all three at once – yikes!) What if I told you that you could prevent (or at least mitigate) these feelings just by combining your foods appropriately?
This term may be new to many of you – the glycemic index refers to the measure of how foods affect your blood sugar and insulin levels. Foods with a high glycemic index will affect your blood sugar and insulin levels more than foods with a low glycemic index.
When we are looking at the glycemic index of different foods, we see that foods are rated on a scale of 0-100. Pure glucose is given a glycemic index of 100 and all other foods are rated in relation to pure glucose. Since foods made up of only fat and/or protein don’t affect blood sugar levels (because only carbohydrate-containing foods affect our blood sugar) they would automatically receive a rating of 0.
High Glycemic Index Rating: 70+
Moderate Glycemic Index Rating: 56-69
Low Glycemic Index Rating: 55 or less
Let’s begin by discussing which foods have the biggest impact on our blood sugar levels. Foods that likely comes to mind are candies, cookies, and chocolates. These foods absolutely have an impact on our blood sugar and insulin levels but other foods that also our impact blood sugar and insulin levels include fruits, vegetables (some more than others), grain products and dairy products. We don’t often think of foods other than indulgent sweet foods as having a significant impact on our blood sugar levels but remember, natural sugar, added sugar and starch breakdown the same way in the body once they are consumed.
Let’s look at some of the numbers:
Grapes - 59
Carrots - 35
Potatoes - 82
Yam - 52
Green peas - 51
Fruit Roll-Ups - 99
You can see a more comprehensive list here.
In order to understand the glycemic load we need to have a good understanding of the glycemic index. So now that we’ve discussed the glycemic index and how different foods affect our blood sugar levels, let’s dive a little deeper and talk about the glycemic load.
The glycemic load is calculated by dividing the glycemic index rating by 100 and multiplying this number by the number of grams of available carbohydrate in the food (the amount of available carbohydrate is found by taking the total number of carbohydrates minus the number of grams of fibre). In simpler terms, glycemic load takes into account how much of a food we will actually consume. Let’s use watermelon for example; the glycemic index of watermelon is 72, which is high. However, the glycemic load of watermelon is only 7, which is low. Why is this? Well, if we eat the whole watermelon (approximately 5 cups), yes our blood sugar and insulin levels are going to be impacted significantly, but if we eat a cup of cut up watermelon (an appropriate serving size) it is not going to have a huge impact on our blood sugar and insulin levels. Make sense?
High Glycemic Load Rating: 20+
Moderate Glycemic Load Rating: 11-19
Low Glycemic Load Rating: 10 or less
Now let’s discuss the components of food that can fight the blood sugar spike caused by simple carbohydrates (sugars) – protein, fat and fibre.
An easy comparison to make would be to compare fruit juice versus a piece of whole fruit. The glycemic index and glycemic load of orange juice versus a whole orange is 50 and 40 respectively. The major difference between fruit juice and a piece of whole fruit is the amount of fibre each contains. One cup of 100% real orange juice contains 0 grams of fibre, whereas a whole orange contains an average of 3 grams.
So what does this tell us? Fibre reduces the glycemic index and glycemic load of a food.
Let’s use yogurt as our second example. The glycemic index and glycemic load of regular plain yogurt is 14 and the glycemic index and glycemic load of plain Greek yogurt is 5. The major difference between these two types of yogurt is the amount of protein they contain.
From this example we can see that protein reduces the glycemic index and glycemic load of a food.
For our last example we will use a slightly different comparison – fruit juice versus a chocolate bar. I use this example because I have heard from many diabetic clients over the past few years that often times they will keep a chocolate bar on hand to help bring their blood sugar up if they are having a low. When I suggest against using a chocolate bar I get the same question, “but one chocolate bar contains ___ grams of sugar, shouldn’t this help bring my blood sugar up quickly?” If we are trying to bring our blood sugar up as quickly as possible (which is only really necessary for diabetics experiencing a low blood sugar level and for athletes manipulating their blood sugar prior to or during an event) we want to have as little fat in the food/meal as possible because fat, like fibre and protein, also slows down the release of sugar into our bloodstream.
In summary, protein, fat and fibre all slow down the release of sugar from food into our bloodstream and therefore reduce the insulin response that these foods cause the body to have.
This is easy and once you start implementing these rules you will notice a huge difference in your energy, mood and hunger levels throughout the day.
At a meal, be sure to have a food that fits into each of these three categories: protein, fat and complex carbohydrate and at a snack have a food that contains fat OR protein WITH a food containing complex carbohydrates.
At a meal this combination of protein, carbohydrate and fat could be:
butter/olive oil/coconut oil on the vegetables (fat).
At a snack this could look many different ways:
Challenge this week: look at your meals and snacks to determine whether or not you are optimizing your blood sugar levels with your food choices. Use some of the snack options above and see how you feel at the end of the day. The goal is to make a small tweak with your meal and snack options to maximize your energy, improve your sleep and stabilize your mood.
Do you have some balanced snacks that you love that I didn't list above? Comment below and share!
Yours in Health,