Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Cravings, stress and exercise

by Dr. William Dunn

Many good and useful tips are known to help stave off cravings. We know what they are, and what they can do for us. You don’t need a doctor to tell you that cravings can make you end up eating the wrong things.

Typically, for overweight people, the cravings of concern aren’t those that make us hungrier for nutrient or fiber-rich foods. It’s the cravings for high-calorie-dense foods that seem to tear down every effort we make to keep the pounds off. It seems every time we start a diet, no matter what it is, we feel even hungrier for those high calorie foods.

Although conventional strategies to overcome cravings definitely help, unfortunately, for the majority of dieters, they eventually fail.

We hear it again and again: eat a big breakfast, avoid snacks, eat smart, exercise ... easier said than done! It makes so much sense, so why is it so hard?

Let’s look at each one:
  1. Eat a big breakfast? The alarm goes off. ”Just 10 more minutes”, you think, and you hit the snooze button. Your 10 minutes are gone in what feels like 10 seconds. You force yourself out of bed, you get your kids up, make their lunches, shower, dress, rush through traffic, arrive barely on time, and that leaves you time enough for coffee and a donut. Sometimes you’re not hungry at all. “Big breakfast? Shall I have my maid prepare that for me?”, is probably your first impression.
  2. Avoid Snacks? What is a snack? Are “good foods” a meal and bad foods snacks? If you eat an apple at 2:00 pm, is that a snack? If you have potato chips with your sandwich at noon, that’s considered lunch. If you skip lunch and eat potato chips at 2:00, is that lunch? For those desperate to lose weight, all meals and snacks become potential sources of guilt. We try to skip “snacks” and pay for it by eating bigger meals. We try to have lighter lunches, and feel tremendous cravings about 3 o’clock to have a “snack.” In short, snacks are what we perceive as extra food between traditional meals, but, especially after breakfast, at the end of the day your calorie intake is all that matters.When we were children, snacks may have been less important to us. It seemed recess or play activities were more important than food, and our parents even worried if we didn’t finish our plates. But as we get older, stress and work replace play. In a very recent publication, Maastricht University confirmed what we probably guessed: stress can make us eat even when we’re not hungry! Cravings only intensify this hunger-less baseline urge to eat.
  3. Eat Smart? “I’m smart, I already know I have to eat fiber and vegetables and everything that tastes bad.” We know what’s good for us. If only we could crave carrots and spinach! But when we’re faced with stress, we don’t want extra work, extra sacrifices. “I have so much to do — carrots and broccoli in plastic bags are my reward? Are you kidding?”
  4. Exercise? Nobody has to tell you that exercise isn’t comfortable and fun. Some who tend to be “showoffs” in their size zero dresses will tell you how thoroughly they enjoy aerobics. It’s true, stress levels decrease with exercise, which in turn leads to less baseline desire to eat. But for you, it’s squash and broccoli all over again. You know it’s good for you. But with stress, at the end of the day, with screaming kids, flashes of your angry boss
    crossing your mind, co-workers who drive you crazy, dinner to prepare, phone calls from telemarketers, bills … and a warm cozy bed and television just a few steps away, is exercise something you perceive to be the logical thing? Of course not!
    Self-inflicted pain for your reward? You’re smarter than you think.
Cravings are natural
They alert our system of certain needs, especially in energy deficiency. However, cravings increase in proportion to our weight and degree of insulin resistance to the degree of imbalance. There are several tricks to reduce them to a manageable level. But you’re fighting the war on two fronts, with stress on one side, cravings on the other. Not only does stress increase your involuntary food intake,it also makes it difficult to apply the several tips we can use to curb our cravings.

Managing stress is a whole topic in itself. If you can manage stress, then cravings will be much easier to handle. However, for most, that’s a lifelong challenge. That leaves us with only one choice: to push out of our mind that food is there to comfort our stresses. Again, easier said than done.

Recognizing stress as an important problem, and knowing how difficult and sometimes impossible it is to keep it out of our lives, now you can place the tricks you’ve heard in perspective.

They aren’t just cute tips. They’re your lifesavers. You have more control of this than the often random factors that lead to stress, so play it smart. You have a lot more choices than you think with all the tips available to you. But recognizing how important it is, you will dedicate the extra time you need to tend to your day’s food. You’ll make it a habit to pack your snacks. That way, you are in control, you are the master. But it takes a little work.

For example, you don’t have to eat raw broccoli for your snack. For those moments you really must have a quick stress break, tell yourself: “I promise, on Wednesday, I’ll have that brownie, but for now, I’ll have peanuts and seltzer.” Again, you have endless possibilities. But why peanuts for example? Because they have a very low glycemic index (GI). That means your insulin isn’t going to spike, leading to hunger right afterwards. A prepackaged ounce of peanuts should do the trick — but don’t open four or five. Plan ahead and only take one to work. Don’t eat it for lunch! This is your snack! Take one for lunch if you will, but it’s important you save something for stack time.

What about breakfast?
If breakfast has never been a part of your life, give it a week or two. Wake up a little earlier. Eat with your kids for a change. Start slowly. Keep adding a little more. There are so many studies showing the benefit of a big breakfast — this is the time you don’t have to feel guilty about eating a lot (just don’t go to breakfast buffets daily.) Eat your fill. Try to get protein and fiber in there one way or another — strawberries and yogurt is a good choice.

If 7:00 am breakfast still isn’t you, don’t substitute it for a 10:00 bagel. It’s all for nothing. You’ll eat and feel hungry again anyway for lunch. If that’s your habit, change the bagel again for a prepackaged low GI snack like almonds. Make the extra time to reward yourself with mozzarella cheese and fruit slices. It’s worth it.

What about eating smart?
“Do I have to eat tree bark and hay for lunch?” The answer is no. You can eat your fill. The trick is to know the good tasting foods that will dot this, and at the same time cut the cravings to a manageable level until dinner. There are two concepts to be aware of for lunch:
  1. Make your entire meal a low GI meal. Does that mean eating whole-grain bread alone? No way. But know this: meat has no GI, neither does fat. That means getting them in the right balance. If you’re a vegetarian, there are high-protein foods, especially legumes, eggs and even bread. But mixing these foods will bring the average GI of any carbs you eat down. Also, bumping up the protein component will curb your afternoon craving. So slow down on the dinner rolls and desserts — both high GI sources. There many choices for low GI starches — e.g. whole wheat bread or pastas. There are even low GI desserts. But don’t look for them in restaurants. Again, you’ll have to make time for them by preparing them (e.g. example, banana bread made with whole wheat flour and a natural sugar substitute or apple sauce).
  2. Want more for less? A lower energy density in your foods will increase the amount you can eat with fewer calories. A full stomach takes longer to digest, meaning better chances for you to make it to dinner without major cravings. One significant way to do this is to decrease the fat component of your lunch. Typical sources of high fat include sauces and toppings like mayon-naise. There are low-calorie alternatives readily available. Don’t kill your efforts to eat a healthy salad only to top it with oily or fatty toppings. Look for low-cal dressings instead.
What about exercise?
Yes, some have made it to the age of 100 without it. Probably they weren’t running marathons though. Chances are, especially in the days of walking to the corner grocery store or to church, it was easier to meet the minimum equivalent of 30 minutes of walking a day. If you walk on the job, you’re there already. If you don’t, you’ll have to squeeze it in one way or the other. That means parking a little further from every place you go to. Think of the fewer dents your car will have. In my neighborhood, in warmer months everyone is walking about a half hour nightly — it’s a new trend.

But what about exercise in winter? It’ll get old to walk the mall every day. So start by estimating how many minutes you are walking at work. Subtract from 30. Let’s say that leaves 20. That means two 10-minute walks. If you really are snowed in, you can briskly walk in place
while you watch TV for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. Add hand weights for better tone. (If your joints or muscles hurt, talk to your doctor before starting any exercise routine.) You may think that exercise would make you hungrier. Of course, long, vigorous exercising will in fact make you hungry to replace some of energy you burned. But it’s not likely you’ll be hungrier from the nice short walks we’re talking about.

In fact, researchers found that brisk walking curbs chocolate cravings, as well as cigarette cravings. Another group of scientists demonstrated that exercise improves short term appetite control as well.

Finally, it’s old news that exercise helps our stress levels too, which in turn will help you to follow your snack and meal routines more easily. In short, there’s no magic way to curb your appetite. It’s going to take work and some experimenting. Accept that stress is part of the problem that may never go away completely, but that you can do your part with some planning and choices to eat the best foods. Give it the time it deserves — your health is so important—you’ll keep not only the pounds away, but cancer, diabetes and heart disease as well.

Dr. William Dunn is a cancer doctor dedicated to disease prevention through weight loss. He can be contacted through his website,