Q: I suffer constant sugar cravings that make it impossible to keep my weight down. Is there anything I can do to stop them?
Incessant sugar cravings that seemingly nothing has the ability to satiate can make life miserable. Fiona Workman (B. Health Science, B. Commerce, Dip. Nutrition, Cert. Ayurveda) from Sydney Nutrition, shares some advice gleaned from her extensive clinical experience in dealing with this problem that will help you overcome them.
Cravings for sugar in all its forms are the most common one we see today. And the most notable in this category is chocolate, thanks to its unparalleled mouth feel. Chocolate originated in Mexico, but the way they used cacao was quite different from the way we use it now, adulterating it as we do with copious amounts of sugar and other additives that exacerbate cravings.
One of my favourite studies relating to sugar addiction comes from Bordeaux University in France. When the research team offered rats a choice of sugar or cocaine, without exception they chose sugar. Figuring this must be an anomaly, the scientists brought in some cocaine-addicted rats – but even this group went for sugar over cocaine, despite having to negotiate a maze to reach it.
So this is indicative of the strong psychological and physical addiction that exists with sugar for all animals. Numerous studies show we have no control over what we eat once it reaches the brain and the nucleus accumbens, which plays a central role in the reward circuit through the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin’s effects include satiety and inhibition, whereas dopamine promotes desire: it makes us feel good and so we become addicted very easily.
However, the good news is that there are some really simple ways to gently ease away from the sugar cravings, although I need to stress this doesn’t mean you’ll wake up one morning finding you never want anything sweet again.
Celtic sea salt
One thing I use when I suspect a client’s minerals are out of balance – evidenced in a constant, ravenous appetite all day long, or perhaps they’re grazing throughout the day without getting the nutrition they need – is to add just a tiny pinch of Celtic sea salt to a glass of water.
This mineralised water is what the body may be craving. Clients tell me that they sleep better having done this, and many comment that it eradicates all sorts of strange symptoms they might have experienced throughout the body. This is because it works systemically.
But the big thing with this is if you’re trying to lose weight but are dealing with this incessant desire to eat, you’re not only receiving the minerals you need through your drinking water, you’re also meeting your thirst requirements, and so are less likely to reach for food as a way of boosting your mineral status. It’s one of those little short cuts that works an absolute treat.
I need to point out that table salt won’t have the same effect. The difference between table salt and Celtic sea salt is that the former is sodium chloride: just two minerals, or three if it’s iodised. Celtic sea salt, depending on the brand and whether it’s hand-harvested and dried in the sun, has 84. So it’s really a misnomer to call this full spectrum of minerals “salt”. A bonus is that it doesn’t increase blood pressure in the way table salt does.
While I haven’t seen any research papers on this, anecdotally what seems to work amazingly well with sugar cravings is magnesium: there appears to be an inverse relationship with sugar cravings and magnesium levels. Most of the Australian population is magnesium deficient because our soils lack magnesium – and the only way obtain any minerals from food is through the soil.
Stress also severely depletes the body’s magnesium reserves. Most of us today suffer adrenal exhaustion, so we’re just pushing our bodies beyond their limits. We think everything is fine and we rationalise our lives, but from an evolutionary perspective, we’re performing way beyond anything our bodies have evolved to over the past 150 to 160 thousand years. The way this manifests is in cravings for sugar, and also salt. These are the two flavours for which we have a natural predisposition because salts are the electrolytes and sugar gives us energy. Adrenal exhaustion forces us to seek out those stimulants.
So we’re really in a Catch-22 situation because we’re feeding our bodies what we believe we need to operate on a day-to-day basis, whether caffeine, or tannins, or sugar – substances that in fact further exacerbate and drain the adrenal glands pumping out the stress hormones. And of course stress hormones increase our blood sugar levels, so the pancreas is working to regulate blood sugar.
A wonderful source of magnesium is dark green leafy vegetables, so aim to get them into your diet. One way to do this – without making huge changes – is through pesto: spread it on your morning toast as a substitute for jam or peanut butter. Ensure the pesto is made with nuts or seeds for an added magnesium hit.
Over the short term, though, most people will need a magnesium supplement. Take it at night as it promotes muscle relaxation, it’s wonderful for the heart, and it will help you to sleep better, which is a bonus as research shows that poor sleep increases cravings and increases the risk of obesity.
As for the form of magnesium, the most effective is a supplement that contains a combination of different types of magnesium, for example aspartate, orotate or citrate, as each has a slightly different function. Your natural medicine practitioner will advise you on this.
Increasing protein may also help overcome cravings. One research paper looked at the amount of protein students ate for breakfast. Those who consumed high levels managed the stress associated with the battery of tests they were put through better than if they’d eaten, say, a bowl of cereal.
If you can’t imagine starting the day without your cereal, that’s fine: simply add some almond meal or other ground nuts and seeds to boost the protein content so you have a sustained blood sugar release rather than the highs and lows.
And as a bonus, those nuts and seeds also provide magnesium.