How To Better Manage Cravings
A craving is an absence of something that fills a need in the body. Most of the substances we crave have a particular function in the body or connect with specific receptors in the brain, and as such, the brain thinks we need that substance.
Although the basic principal is similar to most things we crave including caffeine, tobacco and many other drugs, today let’s talk about sugar.
The brain cannot function normally without sugar, or more specifically glucose. After only a few mins of glucose deprivation neurons (brain cells) begin to die. This is generally not a problem as we store glucose in the liver and release it when the brain sends out signals that it’s getting low on this nutrient. The brain accounts for approximately 2% of the adult body weight but consumes approximately 20% of glucose-derived energy, and most of this energy is consumed by the neurons when processing incoming sensory information, thinking about complex problems or contemplating your future.
So here’s a brief biochemistry lesson: the sugar we normally eat is sucrose. Sucrose is broken down in the body to fructose (the sugar found in honey and fruit) and glucose. Glucose is used by virtually every cell in the body including the brain, whereas fructose can only be metabolised by the liver. But fructose is another story. For now, let’s focus on glucose.
Glucose is found not only in sugar but in all carbohydrates. A food with a low glycaemic index (GI) is one that takes longer to release its glucose, is metabolised slower and will therefore have more sustained availability of glucose for the brain and body. Low GI carbohydrates are therefore essential foods to include in our diet.
Glucose tastes sweet and so we’ve evolved to seek out sweet foods to keep our brain nourished. Sweet foods are also a source of concentrated calories so prehistoric man who found a source of sugar would be more likely to survive than the ones who didn’t. The same applies to fat. This is why we can’t help crave sweet (and fatty) foods. We’ve evolved in this way as a survival mechanism. Of course, we’re all genetically different so some of us crave sweet more than others. But essentially, four billions years of evolution has led to the same simple directive: find energy rich foods, consume, repeat.
Understanding that the brain has evolved to seek out sweet foods can help us manage our cravings. Just because we’ve evolved to favour sweet and fatty foods doesn’t mean we have no power over these feelings, especially when this evolutionary seeking behaviour makes no sense in a society of plenty.
It’s like any of the body’s normal functions, we can learn to moderate the feeling and curb the behaviour. This is how we teach children to be toilet trained: recognise the feeling in the body and curb the desire to urinate till an appropriate place is found, ie the toilet. It might sound a bit gross, but it’s really the same process with sugar: recognise the feeling that you want something sweet, curb the desire and choose a more appropriate response.
The big question, of course, is how to do this when we’re literally bombarded with unwanted advertising about all the yummy sweet things we can eat to “reward” ourselves, or to “satisfy” the 3 o’clock low.
It comes back to how you in tune you are with your body. If you don’t know you want a sugar-fix till you’re already walking towards the vending machine or rummaging through your cupboard or fridge, you’re gone, there’s no coming back! It’s like grabbing that child who’s in the middle of an accident and putting them on the toilet – it’s too late!
Learn to recognise and attend to the earliest warning signs (EWS) of that craving. It might be a subtle sense in the back of the throat, or in the chest. It might be that the mind starts wandering and turning to something sweet. Often this can be a sign of boredom, or thirst, or fatigue. Perhaps a cup of tea or a piece of fruit will satisfy. It will be different for everyone and only you can know what will work for you.
The biggest mistake is thinking that cravings are in the body, when in fact they’re mostly they’re in your head. When you’re in a situation where you simply can’t eat, the cravings are usually very short-lived. You adjust because your mind decides you will, because you have no choice. If the craving was a real bodily need it wouldn’t just pass.
Mindfulness can be a powerful tool to help you learn to recognise the EWS (early warning signs) that a craving is emerging. How? Mindfulness is the training of getting out of the head and into the body. If the craving is in the head and you get out of your head, you’ll notice that the sensation you thought was a chocolate craving may actually be something else, as discussed earlier (boredom, thirst, fatigue, etc).
It’s when you recognise these EWS and learn to understand what they really mean that you become empowered to choose your response to that sensation. Will you act on the craving, on the idea that you want to satisfy a “sweet tooth” or will you have a more skilful response, one that better serves your long-term health?
Learning mindfulness can be the first step to finding empowerment over cravings, whether it’s food, alcohol, tobacco. Come and see me to find out how it can help you.Back to Blog menu