Do you constantly crave sugar? Did you know it can be addictive, even as powerful as a drug addiction? Studies suggest that when animals ingest large amounts of sugar, their brains undergo changes similar to the changes seen in people who abuse illegal drugs like cocaine and heroine, including behavioral changes and withdrawal. Bingeing on sugar releases a surge of feel-good dopamine in the brain.
Of course not everyone has a tendency to become a sugar-aholic, just like not everyone has a tendency to become addicted to drugs. If you’re fighting cancer, however-or if you know you eat too much sugar-you probably want to cut back and up your intake of good-for-you fruits and vegetables. Science still isn’t sure whether or not sugar plays any role in cancer, but one study has shown that a certain type of sugar-fructose-contributes to cancer cell growth in the lab. Besides, when you eat sugary foods you’re consuming empty calories when your body desperately needs nutrition. I’ve been off sugar for some months now. You know, after a while, my body doesn’t crave it anymore.
How do you cut back when your body says, “Feed me cake?”
First, let’s get rid of the self-blame. Your body is probably craving sugar for a lot of reasons. Here are a few:
- Stress: When you’re stressed out, your body looks for ways to create more feel-good neurotransmitters. Eating sugar creates a chain reaction that supplies more neurotransmitters (like serotonin) to your brain, satisfying your cravings, but only for a short time, after which you have to eat more.
- Lack of sleep: When you’re body doesn’t get enough sleep, it naturally craves carbohydrates, particularly the refined kind you get from donuts and pastries and white bread.
- Hormones: That time of the month tends to lower not only hormones like estrogen, but neurotransmitters as well, tricking your body into craving sugar to replace those neurotransmitters.
- Insulin resistance: If you’re used to consuming a lot of highly refined and sugary foods, your body can get to the point where it’s resistant to insulin, which helps sugar energy get into your cells. Since the energy isn’t crossing the cell barrier, your body thinks you’re still low on sugar and pushes you to eat more.
- Depression: If you’re feeling low in other areas of your life, you may crave that feel-good feeling that comes with a chocolate bowl of ice cream or a big messy brownie.
There are other reasons for sugar cravings, but the main idea is this: refined, sugary foods give you a quick energy hit that the brain craves, but isn’t so good for the body. The nice thing about knowing why this happens is that you can be more aware of what’s going on. Say you feel like a donut. Ask yourself: Do I really want this donut, or do I just need to get to bed an hour earlier? Or maybe get a massage? Or get out and get some sunshine? Most of the time we eat when we’re not even hungry. Make sure there isn’t some other reason you’re reaching for a sugar treat.
There are other ways to give your body the positive jolts it wants from sugar. Here are a few:
- Strive to eat a balance diet. I know you’ve heard it before, and it can be particularly difficult during cancer treatments, but try to add fresh fruits and vegetables into your daily plan, and keep some high-protein goodies around like nuts, lean meats, yogurt and peanut butter. (Protein helps slow down sugar breakdown, helping your body last longer on a meal.) Diet is all about habits, so the more you eat the good stuff the more you’ll want it.
- Play a game with yourself. See if you can eliminate just one serving of sugar a day. If you normally put it in your coffee, skip it or cut back. If you have a cookie after lunch and cake after dinner, choose only one or the other. If you usually have soda with lunch, choose Perrier with lemon instead. It may feel lousy for a few days, as your body can actually go through sugar withdrawal, but what about after five or six? You may find your system evening out to where you feel much more stable.
- Put protein in the mix. As I mentioned, protein helps slow the breakdown of sugars to help balance blood sugar and insulin levels. Make sure you eat protein with every meal.
- Check for patterns. Do you always have a high-sugar treat before bed? Always down a huge soda at the movies? Always swallow a donut when you get to work? Your brain will pick up on these associations and lure you into continuing them every time no matter what. Try breaking any pattern you notice, and teach your brain to crave variety instead.
- Look for other ways to sweeten your life. Food is so easy, isn’t it? We just buy it off the shelf and enjoy it. However, it’s also one of the least healthy options when it comes to helping you feel good. Take an inventory of other ways you can boost your mood, then commit to adding one or more to your schedule every week, and see if you can make sugar take a back seat to other options.
How do you deal with sugar cravings? Please pass on your tips.
Photo courtesy awynhaus via Flickr.com.