Fighting that sugar craving
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We all know that too much sugar is bad for us. Many of us may have tried to give it up several times, only to end up craving it even more—and succumbing to temptation. This is because the intake of foods containing sugar leads to the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain.
Over the years, research has shown that the brain chemistry of those addicted to sugar is similar to those addicted to drugs. For instance, a study published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews in 2008 found that “...intermittent access to sugar can lead to behaviour and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse”.
In my experience, many people give up on diets because they are not able to stop themselves from indulging in sugar. And the craving isn’t just for sugar, it extends to carbohydrates like pastas, bread, pizzas and cookies, all of which are derivatives of sugar.
Here are some tips to fight sugar craving:
■ Add foods to your diet that balance out insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps keep blood sugar levels stable. Foods that are a balance of good fat, protein and fibre will balance insulin levels. Among the foods with good fats are nuts, seeds and natural oils (like olive oil); those with protein are chicken, turkey, fish and eggs; and those with fibre are vegetables, fruits and seeds.
■ Wean yourself off white sugar by substituting it with stevia or monk sugar (derived from monk fruit). These are extracts of plant/fruit which provide a sweet taste without increasing sugar levels in the blood, and they have zero calories.
■ Supplements like chromium (a person should have 200 microgram a day) can help balance sugar levels. Chromium, which supports the insulin function and helps regulate blood sugar, can be found in a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables and seafood. Vitamin B complex can also help reduce sugar cravings; so can probiotics, because they keep yeast off (yeast feeds on sugar).
■ Always read the food label. Sugar hides in all sorts of places—from protein bars and sauces to baked beans. A simple tip: If you’re eating dark chocolate while trying to stay off sugar, look at the ingredients on the wrapper. If cacao/coca is the first ingredient you see, then eat the chocolate. If sugar is the first ingredient, keep it back on the shelf.
■ Other sugars, like honey, agave and maple syrup, are higher in minerals and vitamins than white refined sugar and can be introduced into the diet in very small doses.
However, remember that the insulin spike effect is the same as it is for refined sugar, so it would be a good idea to stay away from these during the sugar craving phase.
■ When you don’t get enough sleep, you will be low on serotonin, the primary neurotransmitter responsible for a positive mood and overall feeling of well-being.
Since carbohydrate consumption leads to the release of serotonin in the brain, you will want to eat more carbs to balance out your mood. Sleep deprivation also results in decreased levels of the hormone leptin, which signals satiety, and increased levels of ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite.
Before giving up on healthy-food eating patterns, or weight- loss goals, for the fear of succumbing to sugar or sugary treats, try these lifestyle changes. You just may be in for a pleasant surprise.
Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.