When a client wants to break his or her sugar cravings, I start by asking if their cravings feel emotional, habitual, physical, or a combination of all three. It’s essential to understand the source of the craving as each type requires a different strategy for breaking it.
Emotional cravings are tied to your state of mind. An example is rewarding yourself with a cookie for making it through a tough day.
A habitual craving occurs when sugar is associated with an event. Foraging through your co-worker's candy drawer at 3pm everyday can be a habitual craving.
A physical craving feels visceral and out of your control. From my experience as a nutritionist, these are four physical reasons why you may be craving sugar and what to do about it.
1. You’re eating foods you’re sensitive to.
Rarely does someone eat sugar straight from the packet. It’s typically disguised as cupcakes, carrot cake, blueberry muffins or ice cream, which is sugar attached to flour (and gluten) and/or dairy — two of the most common food sensitivities.
When you eat foods you are sensitive to, you initiate an inflammatory response which can interfere with the brain chemistry and intensify your sugar cravings.
What to do about it: Ask yourself which food you couldn’t give up: bread or cheese? If it’s bread, it’s likely you have a gluten sensitivity. If it’s cheese, it’s likely you have a dairy sensitivity. If it’s both, then you might have both! If it’s neither, this might not be your issue.
Remove the offending food for four weeks to see if the cravings dissipate.
2. You have a low diversity microbiome.
The greater the number of microflora species in your GI tract, the less likely you are to have cravings. The fewer microflora species, the more likely you are to be controlled by a species request for it’s food source.
For instance, your good bacteria species, bifidobacteria, like fiber, while pathogenic yeast likes sugar. I find that 75% of my clients that crave sugar have pathogenic yeast in their GI tract.
What to do about it: Remove the pathogenic yeast and improve the diversity of the GI micrbiome by eating and drinking fermented food such as coconut kefir, kimchi and sauerkraut, and take a probiotic with a minimum of 12 stains of bacteria.
3. You have neurotransmitter imbalances.
If you’ve been stressed (even just mildly) your adrenal hormones and neurotransmitters become dis-regulated over time. I've observed in my practice that serotonin is often the first neurotransmitter to become depleted. The quickest way to increase your serotonin levels is to eat sugar! But it’s a burst (like a caffeine jolt), so you’ll often find yourself wanting more and more sugar to keep the serotonin levels elevated.
What to do about it: If you’re not taking an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or anti-depressant), try taking 50mg of 5-HTP (the precursor to serotonin) before bed to see if it helps decrease your sugar cravings. As an added bonus, you may get a deeper level of sleep and feel a little brighter.
4. You’re eating (or drinking) foods with high-fructose corn syrup or artificial sugars.
The rodent studies suggesting that sugar is more addictive than cocaine were based on water sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (think soda).
We don’t fully know why high-fructose corn syrup is more addictive than regular sugar but if you want those sugar cravings to dissipate, it’s time to ditch all of the foods and beverages with high-fructose corn syrup. Artificial sweeteners aren’t any better. They prime the taste buds (and brain) for sweet foods and perpetuate a sugar dependence.
What to do about it: If you want a little sweetness, add coconut sugar, maple syrup or raw honey to your food. Ditching sugar is not about avoiding it, but rather using it wisely and choosing the sweeteners with properties beyond a sweet taste.
Raw honey, for example is a probiotic with 5 billion microorganisms per teaspoon. That can help with the diversity of the microbiome (see point 2).
For more on breaking your sugar craving (and delving into the emotional and habitual traits), check out my video course, How To Ditch Sugar.
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