Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Cravings don't mean you have no willpower

Many women crave sugar, carbohydrates, or alcohol. In most cases, these food cravings are not true eating disorders, but instead are signs of hormonal imbalance caused by a non-optimal diet.

Your own issue may be the afternoon snack, candy, too many potato chips, an extra glass of wine after dinner, and so forth. But the underlying mechanism, and the way to curb cravings, is the same. And it may not have that much to do with willpower, as such, and more to do with metabolism and biocehmistry.

Food cravings tells us that the body is confused. When we are exhausted or blue, we have low blood sugar and/or low serotonin, and the body informs the brain that it needs a pick-me-up. This signal causes a sugar craving or carbohydrate craving.

Serotonin is our basic feel-good hormone; if serotonin is low, we feel sad or depressed. Hormonal imbalance or weak digestion can lead to low serotonin. Unfortunately, sugars and simple carbohydrates release a short burst of serotonin. We feel fine for a moment but soon go back to our low-serotonin state, again craving more sugar and simple carbs.

If you eat a low-fat diet in the hope of losing weight, you unintentionally make the problem worse. If, like millions of women, you have eaten a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet for many years, or followed fad diets, the odds are good that you have become at least partially insulin resistant.

Insulin is responsible for maintaining stable blood sugar levels by telling the body’s cells when to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. Being insulin resistant means your body stops responding to insulin, and instead grabs every calorie it can and deposits it as fat. In this case, no matter how little you eat, you will gradually gain weight.

Meanwhile your cells cannot absorb the glucose they need, so they signal your brain that you need more carbohydrates or sugars. The result is: persistent food cravings.

What's even worse: insulin resistance leads directly to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Many experts believe it is the root cause of the epidemic of those diseases in America today.

A low-fat diet makes it far more likely you will suffer from this condition. Millions of American women have tried the Atkins Diet or the South Beach Diet. While these diets are an improvement over the conventional low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet, they can worsen your metabolic problems, because dieting itself is stressful to the body. Many women need to reset their metabolism, first, before even considering weight loss.

Another cause of food cravings is adrenal fatigue. If you are under a great deal of stress, or suffer from insomnia or sleep deprivation, you are likely exhausted much of the time. This leads to adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion which, in turn, signals the body it needs a pick-me-up. You may resort to sugar or carbohydrate snacks or coffee during the day and carbohydrates or alcohol at night, all of which exacerbate the problem.

How to curb cravings
Women who blame themselves for their food cravings only worsen their mood and increase their need for serotonin. That’s when a pattern of emotional eating can develop. Keep in mind that there are biological causes of sugar cravings, and your carbohydrate craving is rarely just a behavioral problem. The root problem is more likely inadequate nutrition.

How do we break this vicious cycle?

To reduce food cravings, the body needs help. We have seen that eating healthy foods, nutritional supplements and moderate exercise can effectively curb cravings.

Your metabolism will repair itself when given with the necessary nutritional support. If it has been damaged, the process can take some time, but it will happen. The good news is — you don’t have to give up dark chocolate!


  1. Not sure I completely agree with this post. Everything you mentioned is true however willpower is very important.

    I have cravings ALL the time, and think I eat relatively healthy - fruits, veggies, not to much sugar (was diagnosed with PCOS some time ago so I had to lay low from them), decent amount of carbs, fats and protein. Sometimes I crave fruit and other times I want a doughnut.

    Honestly, I refuse to just give up on some foods and you shouldn't have to. Living life to the fullest, in my opinion, means I'm going to eat exactly what I want from time to time whether it's a greasy cheese steak with french fries and ice cream or a tuna salad.

    Therefore, I think willpower has a lot to do with controlling your cravings. You can talk yourself into baking a cake just as much as you can talk yourself out of making it. Sometimes you just have to say to yourself, "I can do this. And if I want to eat a doughnut then I will; however, I'll eat one a week and NOT one a day." Same goes for other things like nicotine and alcohol. Willpower ALONE won't work and yes you'll have to reprogram your body and start nourishing it properly but to say willpower has nothing to do with it is...well a bit risky.

    Nonetheless, I truly enjoyed the post. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Dear Chanelle,
    Willpower is important but many times cravings, such as carb cravings, have more to do with insulin resistance and an inadequate supply of chromium in the diet.
    Many people--including many with PCOS, gestational diabetes, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and atypical depression---experience severe cravings and also often do better after beginning chromium supplementation and other lifestyle modifications, such as exercise.
    I think the thinking behind that was: don't beat yourself up about having weak willpower when many times the cause is metabolic and biochemical.....which is not meant as a cop out but is meant to try to free people from a negative focus on willpower and to empower them with a positive focus on diet and lifestyle improvements they CAN make.