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SUGAR SUGAR SUGAR sugar sugar sugar CRAVINGS CRAVINGS CRAVINGS cravings cravings cravings
When you want it, it’s hard to think of anything else.
The Crave—Cave—Collapse cycle is something many of my clients go through as they attempt to get high sugar/processed foods out of their diets. My first counsel is always self-compassion:self-compassion tends to shorten the “collapse” phase, in which we say “what the f%&K, I’m going to eat this food until I drop.”
While cravings are complex and certainly have psychological/emotional aspects (we’re all familiar with the concept of “comfort food”), we are coming to understand that cravings have distinct physiological underpinnings.
Here you’ll find some insights, ideas, and specific ways to support your body as you break your dependence on simple carbs.
Fuel yourself. Simply put: high-quality fat, fiber, and protein control cravings, while a lack of any of these essential macronutrients can initiate cravings. If you experience cravings mid-morning and mid-afternoon, check your breakfast and lunch for HIGH-QUALITY FAT, FIBER and PROTEIN content, the blood sugar-regulating trifecta. If you’re drinking a shake in the morning, you may need to add ½ an avocado (great fat and fiber source!), 1-2 TBSP of a nut butter and chia seeds, or some berries, spinach, flax seeds and a dollop of coconut oil. And make sure you’re adding a full serving of protein powder! (See our upcoming Herbal Bam Ball recipe to get a tasty, nutrient-dense answer to your real food cravings!)
Out of sight, out of mind. Just seeing junk food can make you hungry for it, according to research. Subjects reported having greater sweet and salty cravings after looking at pictures of high calorie/low nutrient foods. If you’re not able to clear it out of your house entirely (say, for example your roommate, partner, or child cannot be convinced to eschew chips and cookies in your honor), at the very least store it in a cabinet or at the back of a pantry. Bury ice cream in the freezer under frozen berries.
Sugar begets sugar. This is what I tell my clients when they cannot imagine giving up simple carbs and sugar. It’s hard to imagine how you feel when you actually stop eating these foods—often, the desire for them diminishes tremendously. According to functional MRI imaging, when we consume sugar and simple carbs (in the case of the study, a 50 g glucose or fructose solution—about the amount in an Odwalla juice), it appears that the brain’s reward centers are more primed to seek high calorie/low nutrient foods. We also now know that high sugar processed foods exert a drug-like effect on the brain, engendering dependence and desire for more. Check out Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss for an eye-opening read on the brain chemistry-altering effects of foods engineered to be addictive.
Sleep!! Sleep loss causes blood sugar dysregulation and promotes insulin resistance, which contributes to cravings for sweet foods. Especially the kind of craving you feel at the end of a meal: like, this meal is not complete/I will not be satisfied until I have a sweet something. Subsequently, every cabinet and refrigerator door gets opened and closed 15 times. Of course, sleep is complicated—many people couldn’t sleep more if they tried. Work with a naturopath, herbalist, or acupuncturist to naturally improve your rest, and prioritize sleep: aim for an extra hour per night.
Stress. Cortisol, our long-acting stress hormone, promotes food-seeking behavior. Especially for fat and sweet (think: ice cream, potato chips, salted caramels), flavors which give our bodies the signal “everything’s okay.” We spend a lot of time under the cortisol curve these days, and have the around-the-middle weight gain to prove it. Mindfulness meditation helps you adapt to stress, and puts a little distance between you and a craving. I recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s audio books for an intro.
Sometimes we can use a leg up. There are nutrients and herbs you can take to help curb uncomfortable cravings. I have found this combo to be very effective for my clients craving sugar and simple carbs:
Chromium: The mineral chromium is essential for proper function of the insulin receptor, and deficiency can lead to cravings, appetite dysregulation, and insulin resistance. Deficiency is common–a conservative estimate has it at 25% of the population. After supplementing with 400-1000 mcg of chromium picolinate for 3 weeks, many clients note radical reductions in cravings, and improved energy. I like Thorne Research UltraChrome.
L-glutamine: This amino acid has the added benefit of healing the lining of the gut. I suggest 5 grams (about a tsp) 2-3 x day between meals to help curb cravings.
Gymnema: Known as “Sugar Destroyer” in Ayurvedic medicine, this herb effectively curtails our ability to taste the sweet flavor, rendering that candy bar fairly unappetizing. Compounds in gymnema transiently bind to sweet receptors, blocking the molecules that register as sweet. While blocking your sweet receptors isn’t a great long term strategy, gymnema can be an ally while making a break from sugar.