When my dad died in 2010 from liver cancer–a cancer that started in his digestive tract but was found too late–I declared my 2011 New Year’s Resolution to be that I would give up sugar for one whole year. Do it for my dad. Be a role model and inspiration.
Why sugar? Because sugar feeds cancer cells. Sugar makes you crave more sugar. Sugar affects your brain the same way drugs do. Sugar causes you to become dependent on more sugar. It causes your insulin to spike, your hormones to fall out of balance, and obviously it halts the fat-burning process which at this point sounds like the least of all the damage. Sugar was poison and I wanted to live a healthier, non-toxic life.
So to honor my dad, I was going to give up sugar for a whole year. Prove that if I could do it, anyone could. And secretly, I was hoping that if I went a year without sugar, I would never, EVER want it again.
By March, 2011, I was a failure.
I caught a terrible case of norovirus and became seriously, seriously ill. I couldn’t hold anything down for several days and when I finally could eat, all I wanted, strangely enough, were ice cream sandwiches.
Now that I think about it, sitting here writing this, my dad really loved ice cream sandwiches. Coincidence? Who knows. But my point? I failed. And when my illness had finally subsided, I didn’t try to get back on track with my sugar avoidance. I screwed up. I ate sugar. So why pretend it didn’t happen? Why keep trying? I wanted more sugar. I remember thinking, “I’ll try again next year.”
But I didn’t.
You see, here’s the thing about sugar and what it does to us. You probably already know that eating sugar makes you crave sugar. Your brain says “Oh this is great! I want more!” And you continue the sugar-eating cycle. When you eat it, it feels fabulous. When you’re done, you likely feel depressed and pissed at yourself. I know I did–even when the only thing I could hold down was an ice cream sandwich. Why does sugar do this, and why couldn’t I just stop eating it?
Food Cravings SUCK.
Have you ever tried to actually break a sugar addiction? It is really hard to do. If you want to break it, you’ve got to go through withdrawals. You have to step back, eliminate sugar in all forms completely for a good 30+ days before you stop craving it. And during that 30+ day elimination? Your head throbs and your brain screams at you: “GIVE ME THE SUGAR!”
Once you get past 30 days, you’re less likely to crave sugar. Once you’re less likely to crave sugar, you’re more likely to eat healthy. Crave healthier foods. You may even turn your whole life around once you ditch the sodas, candy bars, brownies, and…literally everything else.
But is this reality?
What happens when someone offers you a donut on a way-too-early Monday morning after a long crappy weekend? What happens on your birthday when your friends bring you a cupcake or take you out for a birthday dinner in which you know the dessert is free? What happens if you really want an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, or your child says, “Mom, will you make us cookies?”
Is eliminating sugar for the rest of your life actually possible?
I want to be completely transparent with you. I don’t think it’s possible to 100% avoid sugar–or any food that we truly enjoy. I don’t believe we should have to look at every food as either good or bad and I don’t think that we should have to eliminate anything. I do believe in balance, knowing your body, and understanding how to make consistently healthy food choices.
But I also believe that cravings are real.
And I believe that if you avoid what you want for too long, you’ll eventually cave in and binge on every food item that you’ve avoided. I know, because I’ve devoured cookies and ice cream in single sittings–as if it were the first, AND last time I would ever eat them again. This is crazy.
We all have cravings.
But instead of ignoring them, pushing them aside, distracting ourselves, and caving hours, days, or weeks later; why not face our cravings head on?
Why We Crave Certain Foods
According to the University of California San Francisco, it seems that the bacteria within us–which greatly outnumber our own cells–may be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they (the bacteria) want, and often are driving us toward obesity.
Simply, we have bacteria that lives within us that needs to be fed. You have good and bad gut bacteria. Your bad gut bacteria craves the bad foods. And when you give in to your sugar or “bad food” craving, your bad gut bacteria craves even more of that food. (The “ah ha” moment just hit you, didn’t it?!)
Research suggests that your own gut bacteria may be affecting your eating decisions by acting through the vagus nerve, which connects 100 million nerve cells from the digestive tract to the base of the brain. In fact, blocking this nerve in rats has led to weight loss and stimulating this nerve has lead to excessive weight gain.
It’s not your fault! It’s just your nerves, gut, and brain working against you. (Hashtag sad face)
So your gut is basically an ecosystem, and what you feed it makes it grow. In return, your body is using its cells, nerves, brain waves–you name it–to say, “Hey! Feed me more of that good stuff…” that will make you feel amazing, then depressed, and flat out crappy about life when done.
Random interesting fact of the day: “Research has found that persons who are ‘chocolate desiring’ have microbial breakdown products in their urine that are different from those of ‘chocolate indifferent individuals’ despite eating identical diets.” -Vincent Ho
I must be peeing chocolate.
The easy fix is to stop feeding your bad gut bacteria. When you put more of the good food into your system, guess what? Your good gut bacteria will start craving the good food! The downside is that this will piss off the bad gut bacteria which will DEMAND to be fed…hence your cravings. It’s a lot like that sugar withdrawal we talked about earlier.
“The good news is, you can break their [bad gut bacteria] control fairly quickly by not giving in. When you consistently don’t give in, these bacterial populations reduce, you become metabolically healthier, and you start feeling better than ever.”–Bill Roberts
The key word here is “consistently.” The more people I coach, the more I find out that we’ve all done the same thing: Pushed away cravings to binge on them later. We want to clear the bad gut bacteria. We want more good gut bacteria. But it doesn’t mean you can’t have a small cup of ice cream once a week. Feed your gut the good food you know it needs and grow the good gut bacteria. You don’t have to eliminate all the “fun foods,” but once you start understanding why your gut, your brain, and all your cells in your body are craving them, it’ll be much easier to rationalize with yourself about what it is you truly need at that moment when you’re choosing your foods.
Supplements Can Help!
Another way to fix this imbalance is through utilizing both pre- and probiotics to alter our gut microbiome. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that trigger the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, while probiotics are beneficial live microorganisms contained in foods and supplements.
There are plenty of pre- and probiotic supplements one can take to encourage better good gut bacteria growth. My favorite is my Amazing Grass Chocolate Greens Superfood.
Next, Get Out of Your Head!
A third way to tackle your cravings is to stop telling yourself that you’re going to “reward yourself” all the time with sweets. Come on, you know you do it. “I’ve eaten well all week! I’ll reward myself with a whole pizza and two boxes of Krispy Kremes!”
Rewards are great tools. But not when they’re overused.
Have you ever rewarded your kids for doing something awesome? Let’s say you took them to an amusement park because they passed the school year with straight As. Would you take them to an amusement park EVERY single time they brought home an A? Of course not. But if you did? They’d expect it. They’d get mad at YOU if you didn’t take them. They would want a reward every single day, every A, every class, and you would be EXHAUSTED and run down and your kids would be demanding more and more. You’d crumble and your kids would never be satisfied. Sound familiar?
Your brain views your “reward” as something amazing and wonderful and your body secretes all these positive warm fuzzy feelings associated with this reward. If a scoop of ice cream is your reward, your brain can’t WAIT for more. So YOU can’t wait for more. One weekly scoop turns to two weekly scoops which turns to four scoops a week now served with chocolate sauce drizzled over a waffle cone topped with sprinkles. The more you eat the sweets, the more your gut tells your brain you need even more sweets in order to feel satisfied. And then you’re eating ice cream every day!
YOU JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH!
Guess what? Your brain keeps sending these signals through your body to keep pushing limits because where once, a small scoop of vanilla satisfied you, now? Now you can eat a full banana split and still crave more. The more bad-gut-promoting foods you eat, the more your brain is going to ORDER you to eat in order to feel satisfied.
But wait…it gets worse.
Not only are you fighting yourself here, but you’re also fighting the entire food industry. Did you know that there is a specific, scientific formula that many food manufacturers have gone to great lengths to get in order to find the perfect blend of salt, sugar, fat, and additional flavorings to excite your brain’s reward center?! The food industry is assuring that not only will you love a certain food item, but it’s tricking your brain into coming back for more. In addition to this food formula, the food industry also employs other strategies to increase its products’ addictive nature. This includes:
- Dynamic contrast: Contrasting sensations produces pleasurable sensations, such as biting through a crunchy chocolate shell, followed by a soft, creamy center filling.
- Salivation response: Boosting taste and feelings of pleasure. Examples of foods and/or ingredients that promote salivation include butter, chocolate, ice cream, and mayonnaise.
- Rapid food meltdown/vanishing caloric density: Foods that quickly melt in your mouth trick your brain into thinking you’re not eating as much food as you really are, despite the fact you’re stuffing in plenty of calories.
- Sensory specific response: Repetitive flavors, or flavor overload, tend to lead to decreased sensations of pleasure. In short, you “get tired” of eating the same flavor again and again. Your palate can even tire of a flavor within minutes. Processed food manufacturers create more complex flavors and sensory profiles. The greatest successes, whether beverages or foods, owe their “craveability” to formulas that pique your taste buds just enough, without overwhelming them, thereby overriding your brain’s inclination to say “enough.”
I don’t know about you, but that really fires me up. A few years ago I read the book Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes. In the book, one of the first things I read (and have never forgotten) was about how cheese fries apparently are made up of that specific sugar-salt-fat combination that leaves restaurant patrons coming back for more…and more…and more. Do you know what my go-to appetizer was in my overweight, eating out, bar-hopping days? Frikin’ cheese fries.
Guess what I’ve never ordered since? Take that, food industry.
Think about some of your favorite, not-so-healthy foods. Are they high in both sugar AND fat? Is there a certain sweet and salty combo, crunchy but yet gooey texture that just gets you every time? That was designed on purpose to trick your brain into falling in love with an unhealthy food item. Doesn’t that just piss you off?!
So I really hate to tell you, but you’re going to have to start outsmarting the food industry AND your own brain. How?
The most important thing you can do is to start switching from processed foods to unprocessed, whole foods. This is the easiest way to start craving healthier foods. It may take time, experimentation, and lots of recipe searching, but eating whole, nutritious foods will be your life-saver, or life-extender if you will. Not to mention that this switch automatically cuts out refined sugars, processed fructose, preservatives, chemicals, etc. Sugar cravings will automatically diminish.
Junk food is only tempting to two kinds of people: Those who regularly eat it and those who’ve just begun to avoid it. –Dani Shugart (If I had only known this yeeears ago I could have saved myself so much dessert-binging trouble!)
It’s just like I referenced before: if you can go without it, you won’t crave it anymore. It’s not even tempting when you develop an appetite for higher quality foods. (I can attest to this because once I fell madly, deeply in love with spaghetti squash, I couldn’t give two cents about “real” spaghetti noodles after that.)
Simply put, once you’ve developed your taste buds for higher quality foods, even if you do splurge here and there–wisely–during a special occasion, it won’t hurt your diet, your body, your training, or your goals.
You’ve just got to get to this point first. And that’s what is going to be the hardest for most people reading this. Getting there. Looking your gut-bacteria in the eye and saying, “I won’t give in to you. I will defeat you.”
But how? How do you defeat your gut, battle your brain, reduce your cravings, stop the binging, and take back control of your life?! (Breathe! It’s ok!)
First up, there are some super easy tricks that you may not have thought about yet.
1. Are you eating in front the TV? The computer screen? Odds are, if you are doing this, you’re eating MUCH more than you set out to eat without even realizing it. Sit down at a table or at an established meal time and focus on your food. Think about your food and stop eating mindlessly.
2. You might just need more structure in your life. Many people cave in to “crap food” simply because they’re unprepared! They went all day without eating and they swing through the drive through or dash for a vending machine as soon as they realize they’re starving. Preparation–making some healthy snacks at home and buying a few ziplock bags–is all that’s needed to save the day…and your waistline. Food prepping is not as tough as many think it may be. Dedicate a couple hours from your weekend to preparing a few lunches and a few snacks. In no time, you’ll be making every meal, snack and shake in advance and your friends will be asking YOU for the advice.
3. Just start eating better foods. “Healthy” can totally be made up of flavors you crave. Foods that are grown in healthy soil and ripened naturally in the field are easily some of the sweetest and most delicious foods on the planet. Remember to start switching over your processed foods to whole foods. Meals may actually be easier to switch over than snacks. And let’s face it, the snacks are typically the bad items we tend to “crave.” So let’s look at some of the better options that you can choose to help battle your bad-gut snack cravings.
If you’re going to cave in to a snack attack (which we know is inevitable), check out these options.
Strawberries contain powerful phytochemicals that provide antioxidant protection, as well as directly inhibit the DNA binding of certain carcinogens. Strawberries are also an excellent source of vitamin C, carotenes, zinc, potassium, iron, calcium, and magnesium, and they’re high in fiber. Studies show that women who eat more than three servings per week of blueberries and strawberries have shown a 32 percent lower risk of having a heart attack. If possible, buy organic. Most are grown under heavy pesticides.
Blueberries are relatively low in sugar while being high in fiber and heart-healthy antioxidants. In one study, women who ate the equivalent of one cup of blueberries daily lowered their blood pressure after eight weeks.
Cherries contain powerful antioxidants including quercetin, which is among the most potent in terms of antioxidant activity. Sweet cherries also contain fiber, vitamin C, carotenoids, and anthocyanins, each of which may help play a role in cancer prevention. Tart cherries contain melatonin and help individuals who often have trouble falling asleep at night. Research suggests that cherries may help to relieve pain from inflammatory osteoarthritis and gout, and they contain antioxidants that help relieve excess inflammation. Stick to a cup or less of these powerful superfoods–they’re still higher in sugar than your strawberries or blueberries. (I personally love to eat them frozen!)
Mangoes give you about half of your recommended daily allowance of both vitamins A and C, as well as some B vitamins, polyphenols and beta-carotene. Mangoes contain calcium, iron, and potassium, are a good source of phosphorus, selenium, folate, and zinc, and even contain 17 of the 20 amino acids that make up the human body. Eat them moderately because like cherries, they are also higher in sugar.
Watermelon is full of lycopene, a powerful carotenoid antioxidant that has long been suggested to be more powerful than that of other carotenoids, such as beta-carotene. A 2014 meta-analysis revealed that lycopene decreased stroke risk by more than 19 percent, has been shown to have potential anti-cancer activity, and may protect against the risk of ovarian cancer among postmenopausal women. Watermelon also contains anti-inflammatory cucurbitacin E, or triterpenoid, which blocks the activity of the pain and inflammation-causing enzyme cyclooxygenase–the same enzyme blocked by COX-2 inhibitors, which include most NSAID drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen. Watermelon also contains an impressive amount of vitamin A, C, B6, Potassium, and Magnesium. Enjoy it in moderation though–it’s still rather high in fructose. One cup should be more than enough.
Almonds are an excellent source of high-quality protein, healthy fats, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can boost your health and even help with weight control. They are rich in antioxidants including phenols, flavonoids, and phenolic acids, which are typically associated with vegetables and fruits.
Pistachios contain oleic acid, the same healthy fat that is in olive oil. One study found eating two servings of pistachios a day lowered vascular constriction during stress, which means the load on your heart is reduced since your arteries are more dilated. Pistachios are high in lutein, beta-carotene, and gamma-tocopherol (vitamin E) compared to other nuts. Eating one or two servings of pistachios a day has been shown to lower oxidized LDL cholesterol in people with elevated levels.
Cheese contains the powerful nutritional triad of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K2, which together channel calcium into your bones and teeth while keeping it out of your arteries. This, combined with its omega-3 fats, make cheese a very heart-healthy food. Cheese also contains high-quality protein and amino acids, vitamins and minerals (including zinc, phosphorus, vitamin A, and B vitamins), along with conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a powerful cancer fighter and metabolism booster.
Choose a natural cheese, which is a simple fermented dairy product, made with nothing more than a few basic ingredients — milk, starter culture, salt, and an enzyme called rennet. Processed cheese is another product entirely. Ideally, the cheese you consume should be made from the raw milk of grass-fed animals raised on pasture, rather than grain-fed or soy-fed animals confined to feedlot stalls.
Avocados are low in fructose and rich in healthy monounsaturated fat (which is easily burned for energy), and research has confirmed the avocado’s ability to benefit vascular function and heart health. Avocados are also very high in potassium (more than twice the amount found in a banana) and will help balance your vitally important potassium-to-sodium ratio. Avocados provide close to 20 essential health-boosting nutrients, including fiber, vitamin E, B-vitamins, and folic acid. Besides eating them raw, you can use avocado as a fat substitute in recipes calling for butter or other oils.
If you must have chocolate…opt for the dark kind!
Dark Chocolate, specifically the dark unprocessed raw cacao kinds–actually reduces the risk of cardiometabolic disorders, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome–along with related problems like hypertension, elevated fasting glucose and triglycerides, high cholesterol, and abdominal obesity. Research has also shown that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds in chocolate may lower your risk of heart attack and stroke considerably. In fact, a wide range of accumulating scientific research has linked high-quality dark chocolate, cacao, and cocoa powder consumption to over 40 distinct health benefits.
It may take time, but start getting used to the flavor of raw cacao (including unsweetened cacao nibs, raw cacao powder, or unsweetened and not alkalized cocoa powder)–that’s your best option. If flavor is a MUST, choose chocolate with a cocoa/cacao percentage of about 70 or higher.
Popcorn is not the healthiest food out there… but if you’re going to eat it, you’ll definitely want to avoid the popular microwave varieties. Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is often used in microwave popcorn bags, and it has been linked to infertility and a slew of other health problems. For example, these “gender-bending” chemicals can disrupt your endocrine system and affect your sex hormones, but they’ve also been linked to thyroid disease, cancer, immune system problems, and increased LDL cholesterol levels.
Popping popcorn “from scratch” on the stove is a better alternative and gives you the option to salt and season to taste. I use organic popping corn and a healthy oil like coconut oil. All you need to do is fill the bottom of a pot with enough oil to cover a layer of kernels, and get the oil SUPER hot. Pour in the kernels and once they start popping, consistently shake and move the pan (to avoid eating burnt popcorn) until the kernels are done popping!
Sweet Potatoes are my favorite food. They owe their orange appearance to the carotenoid beta-carotene. As an antioxidant, beta-carotene can help ward off free radicals that damage cells through oxidation, which can speed up aging and make you vulnerable against chronic diseases. This antioxidant can help support your immune system, as well as lower your risk of heart disease and cancer. Research shows sweet potatoes can help regulate blood sugar because of their ability to raise blood levels of adiponectin, a protein hormone created by your fat cells, to help regulate how your body metabolizes insulin. I use sweet potatoes in almost every dish: chicken and sweet potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, sweet potato cakes, even sweet potato muffins. But you need a dessert fix, right? Try this:
Peel, cook, and mash a sweet potato. Add a scoop of chocolate protein powder, a TBS of melted coconut oil, a splash of vanilla, and some cinnamon. You’ll have a chocolaty sweet potato protein pudding in no time!
There’s only one more element of bad-gut food cravings that I want to address and this one may be the toughest.
Are you craving foods for emotional comfort?
If you’re drawn to sweets or certain unhealthy trigger foods because of an emotional challenge, sitting down with your family, a friend, or even a professional may be where you need to start.
Dr. Mercola states, “Many people don’t understand that emotional well-being is essential to their physical health. In fact, in terms of dieting for weight loss, not addressing emotional issues — whether small or serious traumas from the past — is the primary reason that most people who lose weight often fail at keeping the weight off.”
If you maintain negative thoughts and feelings about yourself while trying to take physical steps to improve your body, you’re unlikely to succeed. Fine-tuning your brain to a “positive” mode is absolutely imperative to achieve optimal physical health.
Working on your positive thoughts about yourself, self improvement, and boosting your own esteem can be challenging and even overwhelming. Find a friend you can confide in, or better yet, a health coach or professional who can sit down and listen, and help you pinpoint why you are finding emotional comfort in food.
Remember food is fuel for your healthy body.
Food should not be a disease-inducing parasite ready to invade a weak system thrown off by emotional distress. If none of the above tips and tricks are able to help you, your next steps may be to find a health coach suitable for helping you overcome the personal issues that may be standing in your way.
If you think you may be this person, start off with the book, “Intuitive Eating” by Evelyn Tribole, or Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, by Dr. Richard O’Connor. These are two of my favorites. If these don’t help, consider consulting a professional.
I’m going to leave you now with a couple of challenges.
The first challenge? What can you do, right now, to start understanding your cravings?
- Do you have a flawed “reward” system that makes you crave more and more?
- Do you feed your bad gut bacteria with unhealthy choices every time you get a specific craving?
- Are you trying too hard to eliminate sugary foods causing you to cave and binge?
- Are you suffering from an emotional trigger or stress that’s causing you to eat unhealthily?
Figure out which bullet best characterizes why you get the food cravings that you do. Then sit down and write down all the ways that you can start tackling your cravings. Whether it’s grabbing one of the above mentioned books, or just changing up your snacking routine, figure out your plan of attack.
Next up: Erik’s Yogurt Challenge!
If you’re a part of our Insider’s Facebook group, you know that Erik and Strongfigure Ambassador, Dane, have been back and forth over a Buzzfeed video on how to make Yogurt Bark. You take plain Greek yogurt, mix in a TBS or two of honey, spread it out thinly over parchment paper, and then top with your favorite toppings, freeze, and break apart to eat. Dane accepted the challenge first and created a strawberries and M&M creation! Perfect combo of salty and sweet, healthy and chocolaty. I call this a great balance. Cravings meet antioxidants, and optimal snacking for the win.
Erik and I are going to challenge one another to see who can come up with the best yogurt bark recipe. Why not join us?
Make your own yogurt bark and tag us on Facebook and/or Instagram using the @strongfigure tag. We will share and regram your photos and recipes! (Between us, who do you think will come up with the best recipe?) 😉 PS, if you’re not a part of our Insider’s group and you bought our Total Health and Fitness Makeover book, check out the intro page! The link to the group is right in front of you! (The rest of you will have your chance when the book re-releases this fall!)
Now, let’s get this healthy snacking thing underway!
This week’s Strong Figure Conditioning Workouts…which are great complements to healthy snacking… 😉