Some weeks are just tough. I think we’ve all been there. Ever since I’ve started Holy Cake Day, I’ve been struggling with the resolution of not having sweets during the week. It’s so easy to say no to others (i.e. my kid), but when it’s just us grown ups left awake, it can be really difficult to resist the temptation. Last week went really poorly in this respect. I’ve been like a stubborn toddler who does not want to taste broccoli. My broccoli was not eating sweets, and just like most toddlers, I made it through the week without tasting it. So yes, I have been really bad.
But what is it with cravings that it is so hard to control them? First of all, I don’t think it’s fully clear what causes cravings. There are different types of explanations, ranging from diet to hormones; maybe it’s all of them, or just some of them, combined. Maybe we’ll never know for sure.
A rather (or at least apparently) sound explanation is that our diet influences our cravings (1). If, for instance, you eat too much salty stuff (that is, not naturally salty food, but foods with too much added salt), too little protein and fat, or just too many starchy foods, your body will consume what it has eaten way too quickly and will crave a quick fix, and this much sooner than if you had eaten a slowly-digestible food.
Another explanation is sleep deprivation (2). An increased number of hours of sleep have been linked to a decrease in food consumption in general, and sugar in particular. Another study has also shown that just one night of bad sleep can influence your food intake for the next few days (3); so what if you have a lot of bad nights? The influence on how much you eat can last for months.
Some say that the sugar craving is not a problem in itself, but a sign of another problem (4), like a hormone imbalance or too much bad bacteria in the gut. While the bacteria problem is explained as the result of the use of too much antibiotics or antacids, the hormonal trigger of sugar cravings is a rather simplistic and incomplete explanation, as it mentions nothing about what causes the hormonal imbalance to begin with. Other sources relate the link between sugar and certain hormones, such as serotonin, cortisol or endorphins (5). Serotonin is produced when eating sugary foods, therefore creating the connection in our minds between eating sugar and feeling good. Eating sugar also increases the levels of endorphins, and sugar cravings are associated with a low level of this hormone. Cortisol, released in times of stress (and don’t we all experience that?), affects the sugar levels in the blood, which in turn make you look for a source of energy, sugar being the fastest one.
The addiction explanation has its own merits. I have read several times about a study on rats, who given the choice between sugar and cocaine, they actually chose sugar, proving that it is highly addictive. The reason why sugar is addictive is that dopamine is released when sugary foods are consumed (6, 7). Dopamine controls the reward and pleasure centres in the brain, and simply put, the more you eat, the more you will have to eat the next time to get the same sensation.
But the problem is, why do we get to a stage where we are so addicted to sugar? Is this also why resisting cravings is such a difficult thing? The reason for the addiction is probably that we eat it with our without knowing it. It is in everything and we are fed the sweet stuff from the beginning of our lives. We get used to it and we keep increasing the amount we eat. After all, we have grown up, so clearly we can eat more, right? Sugar has become such an integral part of our traditions and life styles, that many people simply don’t see anything wrong with it; quite on the contrary, they find it a nice thing to do. Have you tried saying no to the birthday boy’s (or girl’s) birthday cake right to their face? Have you ever tried reasonable eating at a family Christmas lunch or dinner, instead of overindulging? Have you ever tried bringing fruit as a treat to serve at school/work/wherever for your own birthday? And how have people responded? Has anyone looked at you like you were a weirdo? No? Well, then you are surrounded by very healthy people with good attitudes about life in general. This has never happened to me. People seem to be put off by me if I politely refuse to eat like it’s the last food I’ll ever see or completely decline desert, I mean, what is wrong with me? What would they say if I were to make a point of explaining why I don’t want to eat whatever it is that I would rather not have? They would probably think twice about inviting me to any sort of meal or celebration.
This is, however, at the very heart of sugar craving and all its related health problems. We are singled out if we don’t want to eat sugar, when really, it should be the other way round. If it weren’t so normal to stuff our faces with sweets of all kinds, maybe the addictions would be less common, and sugar cravings would be rare. Maybe then it would be easy to taste our broccoli and be happy with it. Maybe.