The good news about the link between body chemistry and cravings is that there are other ways to stimulate the release of your well-being hormones and to keep them at steady levels. Here are some suggestions:
1. Exercise regularly. One of the healthiest ways to experience better living through better brain chemistry is to exercise vigorously, an average of 20 minutes a day. I never realized how much endorphins could be stimulated by exercise until I experienced this phenomenon. During the planning of this book, I was treated for colon cancer. One day, at the peak of my double-whammy dose of chemotherapy and radiation, I experienced a common side-effect of these treatments: extreme depression. It was the most awful feeling I have ever had, yet I was determined not to let the depression propel me into inertia. I wanted to do something about it. I forced myself to do a vigorous 20-minute workout on my home treadmill. At the end of the 20 minutes, I felt like a new person. The endorphin rush was obvious. The wonderful thing about the brain’s natural narcotics is that they give you the feelings of well-being without the unpleasant side effects. So, when you feel a carbo craving coming on, go take a brisk walk outside instead of running to the refrigerator. Do this often enough and you’ll find yourself craving the exercise rather than the sweet snack.
2. Graze on good foods. Instead of bingeing on three high-carbohydrate meals a day and snacking on junk sugar foods in between, eat smaller, more frequent meals. Concentrate on eating complex carbohydrates throughout the day. Keeping your stomach satisfied, but not too full, reduces cravings. When you overeat, the feeling of fullness is usually followed by a feeling of emptiness 4 to 6 hours later, just in time for another round of overindulgence. If you’re just a little bit full (i.e., satisfied) throughout the day, you’re less likely to crave a sugar jolt. The key to weight control is to graze on foods that keep you full and aren’t fattening.
NUTRITIP: No Sweet Rewards
How many parents, desperate to get some broccoli into their preschooler, promise candy for dessert if the vegetables get eaten? This is an unwise nutritional bargain. It teaches children to dislike their veggies and value their sweet treats. Besides, when your child gets older, there will be no one standing over her to encourage her to eat the good food first.
3. Drink, drink, drink. Not alcohol, but water. Your stomach doesn’t have to be full of food to suppress cravings. Water will do the trick. Drinking at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water throughout the day will trick your body into thinking it is satisfied. Carry around a bottle of water to sip. Herbal teas are also good.
4. Eat a healthy breakfast. Give your brain the best start by beginning each day with a balanced breakfast of complex carbohydrates and proteins, the biochemical partners that not only enhance learning and behavior for school and work, but also stimulate the brain’s neurotransmitters to contribute to a feeling of lasting well-being. People who start the day with a healthy breakfast are less likely to experience a blood sugar dip and carbo craving later in the morning. People who skip breakfast are more likely to overeat the rest of the day.
5. Cut back on caffeine. Caffeine can trigger a drop in blood sugar. That morning doughnut with coffee can leave you desperate for another doughnut an hour later. Substitute fruit juice or herbal tea for the coffee, and the doughnuts won’t look so tempting.
If your sweet tooth still craves sweets, switch from junk sugars to fruit sugars, preferably in the form of whole fruit, such as an apple or orange. Fructose sugars do not cause the blood levels of sugar and insulin to bounce around, and the fiber in the fruit will satisfy your stomach.
6. Develop a tart tooth. Instead of a sweet tooth, develop a tart tooth. As you explore new ways of eating, you will notice a difference in sweetness between traditional American desserts and those from other cultures. Many American desserts are sickeningly sweet, a taste we have become accustomed to. European desserts tend to be more tart, a taste that once you get used to it, becomes more palatable without the after-dessert blood sugar plunge. These delicacies are also better for your mood. When you’re making desserts, experiment with different amounts and different kinds of sweetness according to the tartness you desire and the natural tartness of the food. For example, if you’re baking an apple pie, some apples are sweeter than others, requiring varying amounts of sweeteners.
7. Develop a sweeter gut feeling. Change your sweet tooth to a tart tooth and your intestines will thank you. After a few months of less added sugar in your diet, your intestines, your body, and your mood get used to the more comfortable after-meal feeling of complex carbohydrates. Eventually, you will shun frostings, candy bars, and sugar- sweetened cereals and will be put off by how you feel if you eat a packaged sweet treat, especially one that is in the junk food category. Once your tongue gets used to a tarter taste, you’re well on your way to enjoying a healthier relationship with the sugars in your life.
8. Try non-food subs. The best way to break any habit, including a food craving, is to substitute an alternative pleasure. Write down what conditions trigger your cravings, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and develop other ways to perk yourself up. Try exercise, a hobby, music, or just close your eyes for a few minutes and visualize something that relaxes you before going back to your every day tasks.
9. Compromise a bit. It’s okay to give into your cravings occasionally. Your body is forgiving – within limits. If you continually resent giving up a food, you will eventually give in and eat it. You don’t have to have a perfect diet. If you believe you can’t live without ice cream, you can’t. Just cut down on how often and how much you eat and try some alternatives, such as lower fat ice cream or frozen yogurt. Eventually, as your body becomes wiser, you will crave what’s good for you and the high-fat premium ice cream will seem far too rich.
Food cravings, like other habits, don’t change overnight. It may take several weeks before these crave-curbing techniques feel natural and satisfying. Choose the ones that you think will work for you and try others as needed.
THE CHEMISTRY OF CRAVINGS
Do you have a hard time putting your body on crave control? You are not alone, as many of us crave certain foods. The wisdom of the body principle says you’ll crave the nutrients you need. But years of unwise eating and a lot of cultural conditioning have taught our bodies to crave foods they don’t need.
New research suggests there is a physiologic connection between carbs and cravings. Sweets trigger an increase in the hormone serotonin – a mood-elevating hormone. The body and brain get used to this higher level of serotonin and even depend on it for a sense of well-being. So, when the serotonin level dips, the craver dips into the chocolate to “correct” the situation. The cycle continues, and in time the sweet-eater makes the association between food and mood and believes that sweets insure well-being.
Another group of hormones-endorphins-are also implicated in food cravings. Sweets trigger the release of endorphins (named for endogenous morphine), the brain’s natural narcotics, helping you to relax when stressed. Endorphins are another part of the biochemical explanation for feelings of well-being. Exercise and sex also trigger endorphin release, and one or the other of these may be a better choice than another slice of cheesecake.
Besides serotonin and endorphins, many other neurochemicals are being found to affect cravings. One such neurochemical is neuropeptide Y (NPY), whose job is seeing that your body (especially your brain) gets enough carbohydrates for energy. As your sugar stores are used up, the blood sugar dip triggers the release of NPY, which prompts the brain to crave more carbs. This is the neurochemical explanation for why most people prefer a high carbohydrate breakfast after using up their carbohydrate stores during a 10-12 hour overnight fast. When your fat stores are being depleted, a fat-craving neurochemical called galanin is released. Crash dieting and stress can also trigger the release of these neurochemicals that urge you to heed your body’s demand for fuel.
As you might expect, given the wisdom of the body, levels of food-craving neurochemicals fluctuate throughout the day. The carbohydrate-craving chemicals (e.g., NPY) are highest in the morning, stimulating you to eat a high carbohydrate breakfast. Fat-craving neurochemicals are highest in the evening when the body needs to store fat for the overnight fast.
Nutrient craving hormones can also play tricks on adolescents. Besides the mood changes associated with hormonal shifts during puberty, hormones also may explain some bizarre adolescent eating habits. Rising estrogen levels prompt females to crave sweet and creamy foods, such as chocolate and ice cream. Males may lose their childish preferences for sweets and come to prefer protein-rich foods, which is why a 15-year-old boy may wolf down three beef sandwiches at one meal. Girls tend to put on more fat during adolescence in preparation for childbearing and males tend to build more muscle.