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Conquer Food Cravings

Conquer Food Cravings

You try so hard to be good: you go to the gym, eat smaller portions, walk straight past the Ben & Jerry’s aisle at the grocery store. But still your hand strays to the Cheetos bag, your mouth waters for cheesecake, and your mind fixates on one thought: chocolate. Got cravings?

Whether you’re dieting or simply trying to eat more healthfully, certain foods seem impossible to pass up. But by tweaking your food choices–and your mindset–you can vanquish both the biological and psychological causes of cravings.

The Sugar Cycle
“Most people with cravings crave sweets and carbohydrates,” says Dr. Leo Galland, author of The Fat Resistance Diet (Broadway, 2005). When you eat sweets or refined carbohydrates (like white bread or white rice), your blood-sugar levels spike rapidly. In response, the pancreas floods the blood with insulin, triggering cells to rapidly take up large amounts of glucose–so much in fact that blood-sugar levels plummet and, in a rebound effect, you crave more sugar. To break this cycle, choose unrefined carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to elicit a more moderate, sustained insulin response, and don’t skip meals, which lowers blood sugar levels too much.

People also crave sweets because sugary treats boost levels of serotonin and beta-endorphin, the feel-good chemicals of the brain. “There are people who will have cravings because they become habituated to the endorphin-raising effect of sweets, and they actually experience a kind of withdrawal,” Galland says, when they don’t have enough.

Fortunately, you can amp up endorphin levels without resorting to a box of Krispy Kremes. Working out regularly releases beta-endorphin and gives you an “exercise high.” It also improves the body’s ability to regulate blood-sugar levels by making cells more insulin sensitive. Additionally, eating at least 20 grams of protein at every meal provides the amino acids essential for synthesizing those neurotransmitters.

Along with balancing blood sugar and endorphin levels, Galland suggests reducing inflammation in the body, which inhibits the hormone leptin. “Leptin is produced in fat cells, and when it works properly, it goes to your brain and shuts off cravings,” Galland says. He recommends an anti-inflammatory diet high in fruits, vegetables, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and spices like turmeric.

The Mind Game
Cravings spring just as much from your moods and mindset as from insulin spikes and leptin levels. According to Linda Spangle, RN, a weight-loss coach in Colorado, emotions such as boredom, loneliness, depression, unresolved grief, and stress all can trigger cravings. We reach for the cookie jar to silence an emotion, rather than addressing the underlying distress. “We don’t want to face our emotional needs and would rather say, ‘I just have a chemical imbalance,’” says Spangle.

When she probes deeper with her clients, she usually finds a psychological culprit behind the craving; for example, “They were really angry with somebody or really stressed and just wanted to chew hard (on crunchy, crisp food),” Spangle says. Becoming aware of your emotions and desires can help you uncover the real reason you hanker for a snack–leaving you free to address the actual issue, whether it’s loneliness from a breakup, anxiety about work, or anger over who was voted off the island on Survivor.

Mary Taylor of Colorado, who suffered from anorexia in her late teens, heightened her awareness of her emotions and body–and developed a healthier relationship with food–through yoga. In the past, Taylor yo-yoed between extremes of denial and indulgence, forbidding herself foods but then ‘eating the whole bag of cookies,” Taylor says. She broke the cycle by opening her eyes to it. By increasing your awareness of habitual behavior patterns, especially through practices like meditation and yoga, “you learn to be conscious of what’s actually happening in your mind and your body,” Taylor says–and you gain more control over your munchies.

But even with monk-like mindfulness, peanut-butter parfaits will still occasionally beckon. And occasionally you should answer that call. Balanced eating matters more than strict denial. In fact, the very act of designating a food “taboo” can create a forbidden-fruit allure. “I realized that a huge part of the battle I was having was the tension I was creating between my desire for a food that was arbitrarily defined as being off-limits and the urge within myself to indulge,” Taylor says.

You can break that tension by permitting yourself the food in moderation. If your cravings test moderation, however, try Spangle’s tip of savoring just two bites of the food and then stopping. According to Spangle, the first two bites of any food have the most flavor, and “after those two bites, you’re just eating.”

Another way to satisfy cravings involves substituting healthier versions of whatever taste–sweet, salty, fatty, starchy–you yearn for. No, this doesn’t mean settling for fake-sugar, fake-fat goodies that only remind you how much they’re NOT like the real deal. Rather this involves appeasing your desire for something sweet, for example, with dark chocolate, which improves cardiovascular health and insulin sensitivity, rather than with candy high in refined sugar. Or it involves swapping trans fat-laden potato chips with lightly salted almonds, walnuts, or nuts, shown to satiate hunger and even help with weight loss.

Still longing for a Ding Dong? Try postponement, Spangle says. When a craving hits, she suggests waiting 10 minutes, then another 10. Distract yourself in the meantime: work on a crossword puzzle, play with your dog, read a magazine, take a walk. Usually the craving will fade away after a short while.

Whether you long for a food because of imbalanced chemical levels or because of underlying emotional distress, you can take control of the craving. “Figure out what the real issue is and take care of that,” says Spangle, “and you’ll be amazed, a lot of times, that the food craving will go away.”

Natural Solutions: Vibrant Health, Balanced Living offers its readers the latest news on health conditions, herbs and supplements, natural beauty products, healing foods and conscious living. Click here for a free sample issue.

Read more: Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, Food, Health

By Bruce Goldberg, Natural Solutions

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Natural Solutions: Vibrant Health, Balanced Living offers its readers the latest news on health conditions, herbs and supplements, natural beauty products, healing foods and conscious living.

10 comments

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10:19AM PDT on Aug 26, 2009

Lauren, candida is largely an immune issue. Eating alkaline foods (not dairy!) and using probiotics can be helpful but to kill the cravings nothing beats the amino acids. Dairy contains opiates and is highly addictive.

10:04AM PDT on Aug 26, 2009

Craving sweets can also be caused by Candida overgrowth. The yeasts are craving sugars, so you think you need the candy bar. Avoiding all sugars in this case and eating yogurt will help lessen the craving as the bad yeasts die off.

9:12AM PDT on Aug 23, 2009

I do the same thing as Carol H. I make a smoothie out of frozen fruits. Banana, strawberry, peaches and cherries. I also add OJ and milk. If I want it thicker I just add less OJ and milk.

4:59AM PDT on Aug 21, 2009

Thanks for the tips. I have a sweet tooth though, my main problem is that I just don't do the exercise.

8:28AM PDT on Aug 18, 2009

I think that if someone had enough control and positivity, then the 2 bite rule would be great. I can demonstrate that with dark chocolate. A couple of pieces are very satisfying for me and I am able to pass up the mmmmmm brownies and cupcakes.

7:05PM PDT on Aug 17, 2009

We all crave differently, the trick is learning our own way and dealing with that. It's easier to say "stop feeling guilty" than to actually stop feeling guilty. Maybe what Sharon suggests works, the EFT thing. But if not, keep trying until you find what works to make you happier with yourself. Realize it just may not be for you, and let it go the best you can.
Also, it may be good to give into a craving, as you'll eat around it otherwise. But it may be that giving in, sprouts more cravings. Like stated, processed grains ( white bread or pasta etc.) cause us to crave more. Whole grains also use up about 8 times the calories to digest them than white. And dairy products are just as bad if not worse. It's not just MSG we have to watch out for, milk is designed to get calves to want to nurse. Nature's awesome in that it takes care of its babies, & because of it there's a drug like ingredient in dairy. Eating it makes it very hard to not crave more. W/a pint of ice cream having as much artery clogging junk in it as 24 slices of bacon, that tofu, coconut, or rice cream is starting to look pretty amazing in comparison! Not to mention the taste is pretty danged good! I do seem to crave less too, got to admit, so that makes up for the extra cost financially. Plus milk is full of cow's mucus. If somebody got even a small drop of nose snoogies in your drink, & you're still willing to drink it, you really have to question if you're an addict or not.

2:38PM PDT on Aug 17, 2009

Not all over eating is emotional. It's usually due to an imbalance of amino acids which can easily be fixed. Before you start feeling all guilty thinking you're an emotional failure after reading this article I suggest anyone who suffers from cravings read the book The Diet Cure by Julia Ross. A sweet craving is due to a lack of GABA and most other cravings can be gotten rid of within a few minutes by using L-glutamine.

Food is a necessity and is so often associated with guilt. Stop feeling guilty! If you have proper amino acid balance and drink water and eat real food, possibly take an additional supplement and don't consume chemicals that hurt your brain, you will be fine.

If it truly is emotional you can do EFT www.emofree.com.

10:56AM PDT on Aug 17, 2009

Whenever I want ice cream, I take my peeled frozen banana out of the freezer, maybe some frozen berries, put in the blender with as little milk as possible, and that's my ice cream.

10:12AM PDT on Aug 17, 2009

As a vegetarian phasing out foods containing milk, milk deriviatives, and eggs I have found that cravings diminish. Certain ingredients cause us to crave more of that particular food (like foods with MSG). By simply not eating them I no longer want them.

8:47AM PDT on Aug 17, 2009

When I crave pizza or soup, it's usually due to stress. That said, what is wrong with giving into a craving? Not overdoing it, of course, but if I want a piece of baguette, a slice of 50 grain bread will not do it. Even if I eat the entire loaf of healthier 50 grain bread. I still want baguette. Or ice cream. Or cheese.

It's far worse when you crave something for a week and then go overboard. Simply have that 1 piece of chocolate instead of going nuts! Or a piece of fried chicken or pizza before you decide to devour an entire pie.

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