It’s 9 p.m. You’re in your cozy clothes, done with the duties of the day, and the DVR is waiting with your favorite show. Now, there’s only one thing missing…
You toddle off to the kitchen in search of your bliss – that glass of wine, the pint of ice cream or, if you’re being really good, the square of dark chocolate. One way or another, chances are you’ll land back on the sofa with sugar of one form or another.
We’ve got a bit of a problem.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), Americans eat too much sugar. In fact, studies show we eat an average of 22 teaspoons of sugar each day. That’s in comparison to the AHA’s recommendation that women eat no more than 6 teaspoons. And we’re not only talking about that brown sugar you sprinkled on your oatmeal. The truth is, sugar is everywhere – the second ingredient in many yogurts and “power” drinks, the first in a lunchtime granola bar, and a star ingredient in savory snacks ranging from cheese puffs to organic peanut butter crackers. Sadly, even the healthy glass of red wine can be a culprit, since alcohol converts to glucose (or sugar).
“The food industry has been masterful in creating thousands of products, tastes and textures that push sugar, fat and excess salt into our diets,” says Maxine Barish-Wreden, M.D.M, a Sutter Medical Group internist specializing in complementary and integrative medicine. “It’s everywhere. We’re surrounded.”
And for women, the oft-lost battle against sugar can be complicated.
Blame it on our DNA, says clinical nutritionist Sharon Meyer of California Pacific Medical Center’s Institute for Health and HealingOpens new window. While men were out on the hunt, women worked in groups, gathering and tasting foods for their families. The ability to find edible, tasty sources of nutrients was a matter of survival.
“I really think we’re hard-wired to focus on food,” says Meyer who is emphatic that sugar cravings are a much larger issue for women than men.
And then there’s PMS.
“So much boils down to hormones,” she says. Before our periods, estrogen levels drop which then lower our serotonin levels. Since serotonin is one of our primary feel-good hormones, we respond to this drop by craving nature’s quick fix – simple carbohydrates. We then eat that sugar or starchy carb only to see our blood sugar plummet an hour or two later, setting us up for more cravings.
Women also tend to be low in iron and magnesium, especially around the time of our periods, says Meyer. So it’s no surprise we yearn for chocolate, a food that combines fat, sugar, iron and magnesium. In fact, Meyer has found that for some of her female patients, magnesium supplements can help curb those PMS cravings.
“So, we’re looking at brain chemistry, blood sugar and nutrient deficiencies all coming together,” she adds. Our hormones influence our brain chemicals; spikes and drops of blood sugar trigger cravings and binges; lack of nutrients leave our body wanting for more.
Make no bones about it. Sugar is addicting. The more we have it, the more we want it. And the more we eat it, the harder it is to stop.
Some people are able to reduce their sugar consumption through smaller portion sizes, say a square of chocolate instead of a whole candy bar. Many more, however, find that once they start, they can’t stop. The single piece leads to the entire bar, which then triggers a hankering for chips, which then . . . Well, you know the story.
Food manufacturers know our weakness for that salty, sweet two-step, which is why they layer foods with novel combinations of salt, fat, sugar and texture. The only real escape is to quit cold turkey.
“If a food is highly addictive for you, it’s like Alcoholic Anonymous where you have to just stop it,” says Dr. Barish. She points to David Kessler’s book The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. In his book, Kessler, a former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, explained how “highly palatable” foods actually change our neuro circuitry, creating cues to eat increasing amounts of unhealthy foods.
“You have to look at what it is for you that stimulates the pleasure centers of your brain,” adds Barish. “Indulging in it will keep that circuit of consumption going, whether it’s food, sex, cigarettes or alcohol. You have to break that circuit and create a new one that allows you to make change.”
Barish has learned first-hand that a modified cold-turkey approach works best. With a family history of diabetes, she decided a few years ago to eliminate sugar from her diet. She started by fasting from sugar three days a week.
“At first that really helped, because I knew I could have sugar the next day,” she says.
But over time, the three days naturally grew into a whole week and then months. Today, she follows the advice of The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan: “Eat. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Like Barish, many people find that once they consciously cut sugar and processed foods out of their diets, they no longer crave those foods and begin to make healthier choices all around.
As our MyLifeStages medical experts have explained, lasting change comes not from willpower or gimmicks but honest self-evaluation, strategizing and problem solving.
No, we’re not going to tell you that what you’re really hungry for is self-love. Instead, experts today encourage us to take that 1980s thinking to a new place when looking at our addictions and compulsions.
“What can you do to bring yourself into the present moment, so that you know what’s going on in your body instead of just responding to the urge?” says Dr. Barish.
Bringing mindful awareness to our cravings and our response to those needs can be enlightening and even amusing, adds Meyer who encourages us to observe ourselves with a little levity.
What is happening when we crave sugar? Does it happen at a certain time of the day? What are the thoughts going through our head when we’re standing in front of the refrigerator? Are we using it as a reward?
“We’re really quite funny when we watch ourselves,” says Meyer who finds that many people rely on sugar as a reward. “Because we have such a stressful lifestyle, we have a powerful need to use sugar as a reward and source of energy. But what if we found other ways to reward ourselves?”
The answer to Meyer’s question is an important part of the practical problem solving and planning that lie at the heart of successful change. As weight management expert Karen Handy has explained, so much depends on our ability to be honest with ourselves about our triggers and then develop strategies around those.
For specific suggestions to overcome sugar cravings, read our 13 Great Ways to Beat the Sugar Cravings.
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