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Carbohydrate Cravings

Physical Causes of Cravings

Emotional Eating

Helpful Suggestions

Resources on the Web

Physical Causes of Cravings

The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet

In Carbohydrate Addicts, Drs. Richard and Rachael Heller describe carbohydrate cravings and addiction as a matter of biology, not will-power. They base their programs on controlling insulin and blood sugar swings, which is generally agreed by authorities to be the leading physical trigger for carb cravings. Here is their definition:

  • 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 leads to even more cravings. They also produce higher levels of the brain chemical serotonin -- rather like Prozac. 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". Excessive alcohol consumption also contributes to lowered levels of the brain chemical serotonin.

Tension and stress increase brain chemicals that lead to overeating. When we are tense, the adrenal gland produces more of the hormone coritsol. Dr. Sarah Leibowitz of Rockefeller University found that cortisol stimulates production of a brain chemical called "neuropeptide Y". This brain chemical is a chief factor in turning our carbohydrate cravings on and off. Even worse, Leibowitz also reports that neuropeptide Y also makes the body hang on to the new body fat we produce (apparently this is some ancient biological throwback to the cave days). In other words, tension not only triggers carbohydrate cravings, it also makes it more difficult 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.

Some cravings for food are actually thirst in disguise; often what we perceive as hunger is really a need to drink something. You can test this by drinking a large glass of water, preferably with a slice of lemon, waiting a few minutes and checking to see if you're still hungry.

Emotional Eating

Food is powerfully connected to our emotions. For many people, the mere thought of a favorite food evokes strong associations that blend image, the 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 their 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 when creme brulee has been the soother and comforter of old.

Food cravings often stem from basic unmet needs for fun, excitement, or love - issues most would consider "normal" and within our power to self-heal. Emotional issues connected to food cravings usually fall into one of these categories:

  • Stress, tension, anxiety, fear, or impatience
  • Depression or feeling blue
  • Feeling tired, having low energy levels
  • Unmet needs for fun, play, excitement, or recreation; too much work and not enough play
  • A desire for love, selection, appreciation, romance, or sexual satisfaction
  • Anger, resentment, bitterness, or frustration
  • Emptiness, insecurity, or a desire for comfort

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 honestly facing ourselves. 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?

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 broccoli but relatively easy to binge on sugar or starch.

Helpful Suggestions

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

2. 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 foods rich in fiber such as fresh vegetables and fruits, which level off blood sugar.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. Eat small portions of seasonal 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.

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

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

Resources on the Web

Here are links to some sites you may find helpful as well.

Carbohydrate Addicts Home page

"Constant Craving: Understanding and Healing Your Food Cravings", article 

"Curb Your Carbohydrate Cravings!" article, includes suggestions for nutritional supplements

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