Craving carbs? Avoid the cave-in!

Dr Nancy Tice
Medical Practitioner and Psychiatrist

So, you want to start a low carbohydrate diet but cravings keep getting the best of you. What can you do? Carbohydrate cravings are a matter of biology and not just willpower.

A carbohydrate craving can be described as a compelling hunger, craving or desire for carbohydrate-rich foods; an escalating, recurring need or drive for starches, snack foods, junk food or sweets. In addition, carbohydrate act-alikes (sugar substitutes, alcoholic beverages and monosodium glutamate) may trigger intense or recurring carbohydrate cravings and/or weight gain.

High-sugar, refined starch, convenience and comfort foods feed the addiction like a drug. They produce correspondingly high blood sugar and insulin levels, which lead to even more cravings. They also produce higher levels of the brain chemical serotonin. In sensitive people, particularly those who may have low serotonin levels to begin with, a carbohydrate binge is the equivalent of self-medicating - just to get the sugar "high."

To help break this cycle, eating regularly is important. If too many hours have passed between meals, your blood sugar will drop. Your body will crave carbohydrates. These are the foods that will provide the quickest supply of energy. However, by the time your sugar has dropped and you are starting to feel symptoms such as weak knees, headache or extreme carbohydrate cravings, it is often difficult to control what you eat. Instead of reaching for your planned snack of low fat cheese and crackers, the chocolate bar seems much more appealing.

Though many people recommend dealing with cravings by having "just a little" of the food you crave, this is not always a great idea. While it may work for some, this sets up a cascade of biochemical processes in sugar-sensitive people that invariably translates to an overwhelming desire for more of the same. For sugar-sensitive people, one simple bite of a chocolate chip cookie is almost impossible. It's like an alcoholic having just one drink. Notice, by the way, that it's nearly impossible to binge on steak or buttered carrots but relatively easy to binge on sugar or starch.

Biology isn’t the only reason we eat. Food is powerfully connected to our emotions. For many people, the mere thought of a favourite food evokes strong associations that blend image, senses, emotion and memory into a mixture that is nearly impossible to separate into the different parts. And this is exactly the trap that many folks attempting to change eating habits fall into. In other words, when you've just had your heart broken, green beans and baked fish aren't going to cut it if ice cream has been the soother and comforter of old.

Some of us eat when we are tense but tension hurts our weight loss efforts in several ways. Tension not only triggers carbohydrate cravings, it also makes it more difficult for us to lose any additional weight. Cortisol also stimulates insulin, which leads to blood sugar dips and fat storage. It's a vicious cycle that feeds on itself, over and over. The more we try to ignore a feeling, the stronger it grows. It's so much easier to deal with an issue while the emotion is still in a "fixable" stage. But our denial system is incredibly effective in shielding us from things we don’t want to face.

Denial stems from a fear of admitting, "Yes, this bothers me." The consequences of this admission are even scarier "Now I must take responsibility for making changes to correct the situation." But honestly admitting to ourselves, "Yes, this is the emotion underneath my food craving" is such a tremendous relief! That emotional relief then reduces, or even eliminates, the urge to overeat. If the food you crave is associated more with pleasure and immediate gratification than it is with pain, it's going to be hard to stop eating it. So, now the question has to be, "How does that short-term pleasure stack up against the long-term pain and guilt of eating food that keeps you fatter than you want to be?"

So, what are some practical things you can do?

1. Practise waiting. Postpone your instant gratification when hunger hits. Tell yourself you'll wait 15, or better 30, minutes to eat. Chances are good if your cravings are stress-related; they'll disappear when you allow yourself to become distracted.

2. Eat small meals or snacks containing some protein every few hours to keep blood-sugar levels steady. Skipping meals causes blood sugar levels to drop, which leaves you yearning for processed carbohydrates and sweets for energy.

3. Be selective about the carbohydrates you eat. Avoid nutrient-stripped foods made of white flour, white rice, refined sugar and highly concentrated sweeteners. Look for healthy foods rich in fibre, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, which level off blood sugar.

4. Don't skimp on protein and fat to "make room" for large amounts of carbohydrates. Protein and fat give the body extended energy, help balance blood sugar and keep cravings at bay.

5. Limit your intake of alcohol, fruit juice and caffeinated drinks. These cause abrupt blood-sugar highs followed by troublesome blood-sugar lows, leaving you starved for energy.

6. Eat small portions of goodies AFTER protein-containing meals or snacks. If you eat sweets on an empty stomach, you'll experience blood-sugar lows that trigger the desire for more sweets.

7. Avoid becoming famished during shopping trips and while travelling. Carry protein-rich snacks such as nuts, cheese slices or hard-boiled eggs. These high-power foods are great when you feel your energy drop.

8. Get enough sleep. When the body and mind are well-rested, cravings for carbohydrates often vanish.

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