Do you find yourself frequently thinking about sweets? Do you feel obligated to finish a whole bag of chips once you start? Do you eat more than you want to? Do you ever feel bad about yourself after eating something?
Confessions of an Ex-Sugar Fiend
Most of us are familiar with food cravings, which are just as real as addictions to cigarettes, cocaine, and alcohol. Mine started in medical residency. First it was sugar. Then caffeine. I was driven by stress, fatigue, and the need for quick “food” and comfort in the face of long, grueling work hours.
It started with the occasional Dunkin’ Munchkin that was ubiquitously available at morning meetings after overnights awake caring for sick patients in the cardiac ICU. I became fond of the chocolate ones.
I progressed to peanut M&Ms — surely a gateway drug for many of us — because the combination of fat, protein, and sugar kept me awake and staved off hunger overnight. Energy bars fit in there now and then.
And those little 100-calorie cookie packages stashed easily in my white coat pocket next to my stethoscope and patient notes.
Pretty soon anything with sugar and fat was fair game, and if it had salt that was even better. Junk stashes were available at pretty much every nurse’s station, staff meeting, and in resident conference rooms. The really nice nurses brought in homemade brownies and cookies and gave us first dibs before morning rounds. I drew the limit at soft drinks and artificial colors and flavors. (Well, except for those M&Ms.)
About halfway into my first year of residency, I started drinking coffee. Just a half cup so I could make it through the night until noon the next day, when my 30-hour shift ended. I’d didn’t even like the taste of coffee! But I am super caffeine sensitive so it’s a great “drug” for me. To circumvent the taste, I added sugar and a small amount of milk.
I gained eight pounds that year, all around my waist, and got sick more times than I had cumulatively in the decade prior. My periods became irregular with intense PMS prior to them. I slept poorly even on my nights off, and in my early 40s got some zits.
On my days off, I craved a muffin for breakfast instead of my previously typical healthy fare of a whole-food, protein-rich breakfast. I wanted sweets every day, and when I wasn’t eating them, I was thinking about them. And I started to really love lattes.
In spite of 30 years of living and teaching a healthy lifestyle, becoming a doctor turned me into a sugar fiend! Ah, the ironies of the health care system. Becoming a doctor was literally making me fat and sick!
An Unexpected Detox
Everything changed when I went to Haiti to provide high-risk obstetric and general medical care. I don’t mean to sound glib, given the poverty and attendant starvation in that country (please read my blogs about my experiences there), but I sometimes think of that month as my inadvertent detox.
I lost those extra eight pounds, completely stopped craving sugar and carbs, slept easily for the first time in over a year in spite of being on a cot under mosquito netting in a malaria-ridden country, and came back home physically refreshed in spite of a grueling month of medical work.
During that month food was sparse and simple. The only time candy was available was when a visiting medical team came down to provide services and brought a bag of M&Ms (of course!) or mini-Snickers bars. These were always scarfed up by sugar-deprived Americans within an hour of being opened because everyone wanted a break from the chicken, goat, grapefruit and over-cooked cabbage and onions that constituted breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In addition to the lack of non-food-junk (I refuse to call that stuff “junk food” ‘cause it ain’t food), meals were modest-sized because we were sharing limited food with a large number of people at every meal. Food was served at regular times, and I had only nuts as a snack in between.
I went to bed at 10 and woke up with the roosters (there were roosters everywhere!) at 6:30 each morning. I was physically active and loved what I was doing. I also remembered to slow down and be grateful for every bite of food I had.
Because as really awful as the food was from a culinary perspective, I still had food while most of my patients and the people in the entire country ate fewer than two meals most days of their lives. I worked hard but life had a rhythm, my schedule was in balance with nature, and I was filled with purpose.
Nearly immediately upon my return home I was served a muffin from a local bakery. I actually spit my first bite out into my napkin — the taste was so unbearably sweet I couldn’t tolerate it.
I couldn’t eat any sugar for about six months after my return. I had developed a sugar addiction in residency and in Haiti it was cured. I also had renewed mindfulness about eating and a new level of food gratitude.
However, eventually the prevalence of sugar in my environment and the stress began to creep back in, so I then had to consciously and intentionally say NO, and maintain healthy lifestyle habits that prevented the addiction and cravings from starting up again.
My experience points out two simple truths:
- – Stress leads to food addictions and our food environments perpetuate them.
- – We are victims of food addiction.
Did I say we are victims? Yes. I used that term deliberately.
Let’s take a closer look at this. Here are some of the characteristics of an addiction:
- – Obsession with (constantly thinks of) the object, activity, or substance
- – Seeking out or engaging in the behavior even though it is causing harm (physical problems, poor work or study performance)
- – Compulsively engaging in the activity, that is, doing it over and over even if you don’t want to and finding it difficult to stop
- – Upon cessation of the activity, withdrawal symptoms often occur. These can include irritability, craving, restlessness or depression.
- – Lack of sense of control as to when, how long, or how much the behavior will continue (Ate 10 cookies when she only wanted one, “Can’t stop”.)
- – Denying problems resulting from engagement in the behavior
- – Depression about the behavior
- – Low self-esteem associated with the behavior and anxiety over the perceived lack of control
Any of these strike a familiar chord?
BIG FOOD is no dummy. Entire research and development teams at major BIG FOOD companies thrive on creating non-food junk with just the right amount of sugar, salt, or fat (or all three rolled into one tasty package) to make us want more and more and more. Not only do these foods feed our biologically driven survival urges, they feed our brain’s pleasure centers. And these companies pay extremely talented chemists to create snacks we’re hardwired to want. In fact, they’re tapping into the very same neurological wiring that is activated in drug addiction!
Almost daily in my clinical practice I hear a new patient say, “I am trying to control what I eat but I have no self-discipline,” or “I try to eat well but then I just can’t control myself when there’s a bag of chips in front of me — I can’t stop at a few,” or the one that really gets me: “I’ve been a really bad girl lately…”
As a result, many women struggle with loss of self-esteem due to perceived lack of self-control over the foods they are consuming. Many women beat themselves up emotionally on a daily basis over lost food battles, without realizing that they’re up against some of the best scientists in the world.
Yet the good news is that food addiction is not simply — or even mostly — a matter of self-discipline. “Non-food junk” is carefully and deliberately manufactured to manufacture addiction. Scientists and marketing teams work with multimillion-dollar budgets to provide exactly what our exhausted, over-extended nervous systems are craving: sugar, salt, and fat.
Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, describes the manufacture of food addictions by the food industry elegantly in his book The End of Overeating, as does Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss in his book Salt, Sugar, Fat.
However, while the food industry may create an environment that is hostile to health by supplying us with a stash of salt, sugar, and fat at every checkout counter in the country, something much deeper is happening to drive our sense that we need or want salt, sugar, and fat – and this starts in our most primitive survival centers in the brain and our adrenal glands.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: How to Break the Addiction Pattern and Gain Food Freedom
We do not have to be slaves to food addictions or to the stress that drives compulsive eating. The key lies in quieting the primitive stress response and resolving stress as quickly as possible. If we keep our bodies and brains feeling safe, we don’t have to live in a constant state of stress overdrive! The sugar, fat, and salt become less interesting – and when we don’t feel we need them, we stop craving them.
What do we need to prevent stress overdrive? Really, we just need the human basics: good nutrition, adequate rest and sleep, love, and fulfillment. It all comes down to making a healthy lifestyle — which includes engaging in meaningful activities and healthy social connections — a priority. It is in our power and interest to release the unhealthy patterns and build the healthy ones that allow us to break free of food addictions.
Here are 7 essential solutions to overcome food cravings:
1. Practice stress reduction.
Your entire being needs to know that you are not at a 4-alarm fire! Even five minutes of mindfulness meditation twice daily can calm your nervous system, help your cortisol levels return to normal, and transform your life. I practice a “quickie” breathing whenever I feel my stress level mounting. It goes like this: While inhaling deeply to the count of 4, say to yourself “I AM” and on the exhale to a count of 4 say “AT PEACE.” Rinse and repeat 4 times.
2. Practice mindfulness in food choices and while eating.
To do this, simply take a moment before you eat something to really check in with yourself, from a place of centeredness. Ask yourself whether this is optimal for you and take a moment to think about what your body really needs right then. Eat only when you feel relaxed. Eat slowly so that you can enjoy and savor your meals. Food should be one of our great pleasures in life. Mindful eating can help you break free from the grip of food addictions and feel better about your choices so that you can enjoy eating once again.
3. Keep your blood sugar balanced.
Blood sugar balancing is a key to alleviating food cravings. Eat a healthy breakfast with a good quality protein every day. Eat only nutrient rich foods, emphasizing proteins, high quality fats, and vegetables. Sugar sends your body on a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. The lows (hypoglycemia) trigger your brain, which depends on sugar for energy, to think you are in a state of emergency and causes your stress response to get activated full tilt boogie. Stable blood sugar = stable stress hormones, smoother emotions, and healthy weight.
4. Keep your fridge and pantry health friendly.
Simple logic: If you only have healthy food choices, you’re more likely to eat well.
5. Optimal nutrient intake will help with satiety.
If your body isn’t getting the nutrients you need, you will crave more and more food as your body tries to get the nutrition you are really craving. This takes you back to points 2, 3, and 4 above. Taking a good multivitamin and mineral can also provide missing ingredients for optimal health.
6. Sleep well.
This means getting 7 to 8 hours each night. Less than this also leads to activation of the stress response and increased cortisol levels. We’ve all experienced fatigue leading to sugar cravings. Back to the same vicious cycle of stress, cravings, weight gain and so on.
7. Find ways to feel full other than food.
Sometimes feelings of emptiness, sadness, loneliness or boredom can also activate our stress response and trigger hormones and chemicals in our brains that stimulate cravings – a need to fill ourselves. Since fat, sugar, and salt “feed” us when we are in a stress response, calming the anxiety that arises when we feel fight-or-flight feelings, or depression, these are what we tend to crave when we feel empty emotionally. Tending and mending the broken parts of us is part of becoming whole and healthy.
Herbal medicines called adaptogens, for example, ashwagandha, rhodiola, maitake and reishi mushrooms, and American ginseng are especially helpful for restoring adrenal health, healing burn out, regulating blood sugar, and nourishing the immune system. They can also help with “brain fog” and memory problems that also accompany stress, fatigue, and sugar cravings, and they boost mood naturally. They are safe except if you are pregnant, on SSRI antidepressants, or medications for your immune system.
I use a formula called Vital Adapt by Natura Health Products, and another by Planetary Formulas called Reishi Mushroom Supreme. Gaia Herbs makes an excellent formula called Adrenal Health, and there are many adaptogen blends on the market. They need to be taken for at least 3 to 6 months to be effective.
Love your body. Love your food. Love yourself. BREAK FREE! YES, YOU CAN!!