Last week, feeling depressed, I found myself in front of a Chinese grocery. I bought a pint of curried rice noodles and sat at the bus stop eating them right out of the box. They were delicious. Just plain little noodles with bits of cabbage, but yum!
As I ate, I noticed my mood lightening. With each bite, I seemed to get happier. I finished the last of the box as my bus came.
For the next three hours, I felt really good. But by that evening, my blues had returned, worse than ever. There was a quarter of a chocolate cake my son had brought over the day before. I grabbed it and ate most of it to feel better.
That’s what refined carbs can do. That’s why carb cravings are so hard to control.
Carb cravings are a big problem for anyone trying to maintain a healthy diet in modern America, but with diabetes, the stakes become higher. Where do these cravings come from, and what can we do about them?
According to WebMD, “[refined] carbohydrates [like sugar] stimulate the release of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin… The taste of sugar also releases endorphins that calm and relax us, and offer a natural ‘high,’ says Susan Moores, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant.” Ah ha. So that’s why I felt so good.
There are also emotional effects. Sweets taste good, and from childhood, you were probably rewarded with sweets when you did something good. So sweets carry a strong built-in positive association.
It’s no exaggeration to say that refined carbohydrates are addictive. On The Huffington Post, Frank Lipman, MD, wrote, “The bottom line is that sugar works the addiction and reward pathways in the brain in much the same way as many illegal drugs… Sugar is basically a socially acceptable, legal, recreational drug, with deadly consequences — and like with any drug addiction, you have to have a flexible but structured plan to beat it.”
I think Dr. Lipman may be overstating his case a bit, but other experts have found sugar addictive. Addiction counselor Kathleen DesMaisons, PhD, author of Potatoes not Prozac, calls sugar the gateway to all other addictions. In her work with alcoholics and drug addicts, she found they usually couldn’t recover from their addictions until they stopped eating sugars and refined flours. Then they could get better. She calls these people “sugar sensitive.”
So how can we get control over sugar addiction and carb cravings? I’d like to hear your strategies, but here are some from online doctors and advisors.
• Have some substitutes handy — when sugar craving hits, grab a stick of gum, or a piece of fruit, or some trail mix. Always have healthy snacks available.
• Distract yourself by doing something — like taking a walk or involving yourself in an engrossing task.
• Avoid cravings in the first place — don’t let yourself get too hungry. Always eat a good breakfast, including some protein. Eat smaller, more frequent meals. Perhaps divide lunch in two parts, and save one part for a mid-afternoon snack.
• Try to have some protein and/or fat with each meal. Make sure the carbs you do eat have a lot of fiber, so they don’t absorb too fast.
• Reduce stress – The Web site Gallbladder Attack says, “When we’re stressed the adrenal glands secrete adrenaline as if we were preparing to fight tigers in the jungle… [This can] deplete the body’s energy reserves… T[he result is] lack of energy, fatigue, and cravings for sweets or caffeine,” to restore our energy.
Dr. Lipman’s article has no fewer than 20 suggestions for dealing with carb cravings. These include:
• Eat natural foods — “The closer a food is to its original form, the less processed sugar it will contain.”
• Add spices such as cinnamon and coriander. These will reduce sugar cravings and give you a nice burst of flavor so you don’t feel deprived.
• Exercise more, sleep more.
• Avoid artificial sweeteners — they can increase cravings
• Recognize that a lot of sugar craving is emotional — like my depression before the noodles. Try to identify your emotional cravings and deal with them without sugar.
• Most of the “complex” carbohydrates we consume like bread, bagels, and pasta aren’t really complex at all. They are usually highly refined and act just like sugars in the body. They will really get your cravings going. If you’re sugar sensitive, it’s probably best to avoid such carbs entirely.
• Sometimes what we perceive as sugar craving is really thirst. Drink water.
Dr. Lipman and others say it’s important to realize that “Cravings usually last for 10–20 minutes maximum. If you can distract yourself with something else, it often passes. The more you do this, the easier it gets and the cravings get easier to deal with.”
It’s also important to pay attention when you’re eating. Really taste the food, enjoy it, and feel what it’s doing to your body. Addiction counselor Judy Chambers, LCSW, says we should plan food instead of grabbing. “Think about what you’re eating,” she says. “Slow down, plan, and eat what you intend to eat, instead of eating when you’re desperate.”
Relaxing, breathing, and meditating can all reduce cravings. Possibly vinegar and a supplement called L-glutamine can too. And sometimes you just have to give in, because it feels so good. But try to keep those times to a minimum.