Food Cravings & “Sugar Addictions”
“If I crave a candy bar, should I eat a candy bar?”
That’s the title of one of Nancy Clark’s most popular blog posts! Clearly, food cravings and sugar addictions are a source of concern and frustration for many athletes who believe that eating one chocolate bar (or whatever food they crave) will lead to eating ten of them, expand their waistlines, and ruin their health. They avoid chocolate like the plague. Instead, they righteously snack on only “healthy foods” like apples and oranges.
While the natural goodness of fruit is indeed the more nutritious and health-promoting choice, some nice chocolate, enjoyed in response to a hankering, can also fit into your sports diet. By regularly enjoying chocolates, you can avoid the strong cravings that lead to eating a sickening amount—not because you are “addicted to sugar” but because you are doing “last chance eating” before you go back into your self-defined food jail (1).
Keep in mind, your brain has a memory for the food you crave. If you try to ignore your craving for, let’s say, chocolate, you’ll end up eating it sooner or later. This may happen after you’ve tried to curb your craving with an apple, crackers, pretzels, sugar-free fudgsicle—anything but the chocolate—and then, 500 calories later, you succumb to what you truly wanted. You could have more wisely enjoyed the chocolate in the first place; you would have saved yourself a bunch of calories!
Food cravings are a popular topic not only on my blog but also among LinkedIn’s Intuitive Eating Professionals group. A discussion “If you crave a food, should you eat it?” spurred a lot of responses, with the answer being YES! History says that denial and deprivation of a desired food does not work permanently but rather results in binge eating. After all, if restrictive eating “worked,” then everyone who has ever been on a diet would be thin. The majority of dieters are overweight and obese, suggesting that “dieting fall-out” maybe be contributing to obesity. (2)
To our detriment, we live in a world where enjoying bagels, ice cream, candy, and chips gets “questioned.” Athletes talk about needing “will power” to curb their intake of the foods they crave. But most of us really want to be able to enjoy these foods. We just want to be able to eat them sanely, not in what feels like an out of control pig-out. We need nutrition skill power (not will power) to learn how to manage today’s food supply. That’s where a sports dietitian can help you control hunger-based binges and find peace with food. (For a referral to a local sports dietitian, see www.SCANdpg.org.)
The question arises: What’s so bad about cravings in the first place? Is there really something wrong with eating what you truly want to eat? Cravings are not addictions. That is, if you crave a bagel because it tastes good, why should you not enjoy the bagel? When you eat a food you crave, your brain experiences a biochemical change that signals happiness. Can eating an appropriate portion (as opposed to overeating “the whole thing”) be a bad thing to do?
The answer commonly depends on if you are eating the food for fuel vs. mindlessly devouring it for its drug-like effect. If you find yourself on the verge of polishing off the whole bag of bagels, stop and ask yourself, “Does my body need this fuel?” If the answer is yes, you need to learn how to prevent the extreme hunger or derprivation that triggered the overeating. If the answer is no, then ask yourself, “What am I doing with my feelings?” Over-eating a craved food can distract you from sadness, smother your emotions, and protect your from feeling alone and lonely. But you are using food for the wrong reason. No amount of bagels, chocolate, or chips will resolve the real problem: you are likely hungry for a hug.
Do certain foods over-excite the pleasure centers in the brain? If so, do those foods become “addictive”? The recent science (3) says there is no such thing as a “sugar (or food) addiction.” Yes, it may have addictive-like qualities, particularly following a restriction/binge pattern of eating (1). In my practice, most people who binge have an unbalanced relationship with food; it has become too enticing, a primary focus for pleasure. The more they try to stay away from palatable foods, the more they want them.
While there is much we do not know about food and this controversial topic of food addictions, I encourage my clients to first rule-out hunger as the cause for cravings for sugar and carbohydrates. The physiology of hunger explains why we crave sugar; it’s a survival signal for quick energy. When your blood sugar is low, your brain signals an urgent need for sugar. When your muscles are glycogen depleted, you experience a niggling carb cravings until the muscles are adequately replenished.
What can you do to overcome cravings and perceived “addictions”? First and foremost, experiment with eating heftier breakfasts and lunches to abate hunger. (No, you will not “get fat” by eating more during the day. If you listen to your body, you will observe you are less hungry at night and will simply be able to consume fewer calories.) Also try changing your attitude. The mind is very influential. If you believe you are addicted to a food, you will have a hard time convincing yourself otherwise despite research that refutes the concept of food addiction and puts the focus on deprivation as a trigger to (over)eat.
The next time you have a craving for a specific food, relax, enjoy eating it slowly, taste it, savor the flavor, and linger over the treat. Do this several times throughout the week. Learn to enjoy the treat slowly, in moderation, without feeling guilty. Enjoy the foods you crave at every meal. For example, have a few Hershey’s Kisses day after day, at breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, and dinner. Eat them so often that you get sick of them. This may sound unhealthy in the short term but a week or two of excess chocolate will not ruin your health (nor your waistline) forever.
By learning your body’s responses to different foods, you can at least become educated: food is not addictive and cravings are not bad. What’s bad is trying to live hungry as well as denied and deprived of foods you enjoy. There is a possibilty you can find peace with food.
Copyright: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD May 2011
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) helps both casual and competitive athletes find peace with food. Her practice is at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook and food guides for new runners, marathoners, and soccer players offer additional information. They are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com.
1. Pelchat M. Food addiction in humans. J Nutr. 2009; 139(3)620-622
2. Corwin RL, and P Grigson. Symposium Overview—Food Addiction: fact or fiction? J Nutr. 2009; 139(3):617-619.
3. Benton, D. The plausibility of sugar addiction and its role in obesity and eating disorders. Clinical Nutrition 29(3):288-303, 2010.