Why some people do have sugar cravings whereas others do not?
Have you ever wondered why or have envied people who say easily “no” to a chocolate bar or a deliciously looking cake? Why some can say “no” without feeling deprived and others can’t? It’s a combination of factors, it’s partly because of your genes and partly because of your environment which includes what you eat, how you sleep, how stressed you are, how you feel emotionally, physically and mentally.
People who crave carbs have following in common:
- Low serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that quiets the brain. Most of it is produced in your gut. One explanation you may be prone to low serotonin lies in your genes. For example, by having a single nucleotide polymorphism a so called SNP (pronounced “snip”) in a MAOA gene (monamine oxidase), you may be more susceptible to carb cravings. This gene plays a role in metabolism of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine and therefore relates to mood swings and carb cravings. If you have a “fast” MAOA gene, you will process serotonin quickly resulting in low serotonin which can make you feel down, helpless, and pessimistic. Low serotonin will make you crave carbs and sweets to get a temporary serotonin boost. The precursor of serotonin is tryptophan.
- Blood glucose swings. Western diets rich in simple sugars and starch (grains) lead to unhealthy glucose blood swings and high production of insulin which has negative short and long term effects on health. When you eat foods made up of simple carbohydrates (sugars and starches), your blood glucose rises and your body releases insulin, a hormone responsible to get the glucose into your cells. Too much glucose and too much insulin affects growth and functioning of many organs, including brain and pancreas, it promotes inflammation, and eventually may lead to insulin resistance and to diabetes type 2. Children are particularly vulnerable, being exposed to processed and sugary foods early in life when their bodies need nutritious building blocks to promote their health and not to undermine it. Glucose blood swings can lead to a vicious cycle of sugar/foods cravings & hunger & thirst, energy picks, tiredness, or restlessness. In addition, the body needs extra micronutrients (vitamins & minerals) to deal with high sugar intake (B-vitamins, chromium, zinc). For example B-vitamins (such as vitamin B3) are involved in sugar metabolism and sugar-addicts are prone to B-vitamins deficiencies. When the blood glucose levels are stable there is less need and cravings for snacks, sugar and carbs.
- Low beta-endorphin. Beta-endorphin is a neuropeptide (peptide hormone) that is associated with hunger, pain, self-esteem, and reward cognition. People with low beta-endorphin tend to to feel insecure, helpless, inadequate, unworthy and overwhelmed. Low beta-endorphin results in low self-esteem so to feel better about yourself, you experience drug-seeking behavior (including sugar cravings, exercise, alcohol, codeine, gambling or sex). So, if you have low beta-endorphin you will go for what makes you feel better: sugar for example.
How can you combat carb cravings?
First, you need to work on a strong foundation consisting of nutritious foods, adequate sleep, positive mindset, emotional support and manageable stress levels. The tips below worked for me, my family, friends and my clients.
The key elements you should consider are:
Find your motivation. To make the changes happen, define an important enough reason for you for a sugar-free/sugar-low life. Find something that motivates you. Do you want to feel better and have more energy? Do you want to be healthier? Do you want to prevent having a chronic illness? Do you want to be an example for your children?
Address your emotions. Feeling inadequate, having low self-esteem, feeling that life is out of control can make you more vulnerable to addictive behavior. Looking into emotions and asking yourself why you do it - may help on a journey to break up with sugar cravings.
Eat Real Food and Nourish your body. Have a good nutritional foundation. The quality of the food you eat—and most importantly, the nutrients it contains—is what determines whether you simply survive or thrive. When you don’t nourish your body, it can’t function as it should -cravings begin and disease may develop. Base your diet on real, whole foods like vegetables and fruits, meat and fish, nuts and seeds, and starchy plants like potatoes and sweet potatoes. If your food comes in a bag or a box, be skeptical and read the labels, as often it has nothing to do with real food.
Keep your blood glucose stable. Eating balanced meals will help you to keep your blood sugar stable and neurotransmitters in balance. Thrive for adequate protein, healthy carbohydrates and healthy fats every time you eat. Limit foods with high glycemic index such as refined grains flour and flour products (pasta, bread, crackers), sugar and other sweeteners, processed and refined foods, unhealthy snacks AND have adequate amount of protein with your meals, especially with your first meal (breakfast). This will reduce your food cravings, mood swings, a tendency to binge eating and it will promote more restful sleep.
Distinguish between “good carbs” and “bad carbs”. "Good carbs" are those that are both unrefined and nutrient-dense, such as vegetables, fruits and starchy plants like potatoes, sweet potatoes, plantains, taro, etc. "Bad carbs" are highly processed, refined, and nutrient-poor, like most things made with flour and sugar. Eating sweet potatoes and whole fruit does not equal eating cookies and cakes.
Have adequate sleep. You need sleep for basic maintenance and repair of the neurological, endocrine, immune, musculoskeletal and digestive systems. Allow between seven and eight hours for sleep each night. Sleep deprivation is associated with low grade chronic inflammation and worsening insulin resistance, dysregulation of hormones, as well as increased emotional reactivity, more carb and unhealthy food cravings. The hormone melatonin, a key hormone to good sleep, naturally increases after sundown and during the night in a normal circadian rhythm. To make melatonin we need serotonin so if you are low in serotonin, you may as well have low melatonin and therefore more difficulty to fall and stay asleep. If you eat balanced meals with adequate protein through the day, your neurotransmitters and hormones will be more stable. More stable serotonin = more stable melatonin.
Monitor your stress levels. When you are feeling stressed (emotionally, physically, mentally) you often crave more carbs, right? Stress affects a lot of processes in your body, for example it impairs the production of serotonin from tryptophan (amino acid). Stress can steal your tryptophan. Earlier I have mentioned that low serotonin can increase carb cravings. Now imagine, when you are under a lot of stress - your body instead of making serotonin from tryptophan makes quinolinic acid from tryptophan. As a result, you have low serotonin (=carb cravings) and you have high quinolinic acid (=mood swings, mood disorders). By managing stress, you allow your body to work more optimally, to have more balanced hormones and neurotransmitters; you also promote turning your tryptophan into a happy hormone serotonin and a sleep-well hormone melatonin instead of into brain-damaging quinolinic acid. Stress management is as important to your health and carb cravings as a solid breakfast and proper nutrient intake.
Team up. If you find it difficult to go through the process of reducing/eliminating sugar too challenging, team up with other people who go through it. Look for support groups and friends who have the same challenge.
It’s easy to get into a vicious cycle of carb cravings when you are on a poor diet, when you are under a lot of stress, when you are sleep deprived and when your genetics make you sugar sensitive but there is a lot you can do about it. My take home massage for you to significantly decrease or eliminate sugar and starch cravings includes eating right (adequate protein), reducing sugar and starch intake, finding an emotional balance, managing stress and sleeping deep.
If you need more support, seek some professional help.