Combating Food Cravings

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The first step in combating your cravings in the evening is to understand what causes cravings. Most people who know little about nutrition think you get cravings because your stomach is empty…And they would be wrong.

Cravings have nothing to do with your stomach being empty, because it is almost always empty. After you eat, the food enters your stomach and will begin its transit through your digestive system in about 20 minutes.

It is normally completely empty again in about two hours based on the type of food you have consumed. Fats, high fiber and carbohydrates take longer to process. The consistency of food also determines the length of time the food will take to process. Raw veggies take longer, while liquid meals such as Meal Replacement Powered Supplements take less time.

Hormone levels and special conditions such as pregnancy can affect the stomach as well. Stress, anxiety, depression, diseases and other drugs also slow the stomach emptying.

If you are a Personal Trainer, you may think people that give into cravings are weak, undisciplined or unmotivated…and you would be wrong.

If you are a Counselor or Psychologist you might think people who give into their food cravings might have psychological issues like:

  • Boredom/Insomnia/Restless cause cravings for comfort food
  • Suggestibility: Commercials hypnotize you to crave foods
  • Loneliness: Increases cravings for comfort foods
  • Self-Denial: Increases cravings for comfort foods
  • Nutritional Imbalance: Increases cravings for comfort foods
  • Grief: Increases cravings for comfort foods
  • Frustration: Increases cravings for comfort foods
  • Self-Sabotage: Increases cravings for comfort foods
  • Procrastination: Increases cravings for comfort foods
  • Lack of Outdoor Time: Increases cravings for comfort foods

I am not going to spend time on any of the above, primarily because of the difficulty in determining which is cause and which is effect.

Instead, I suggest you and I take a harder look at your Endocrine System, the way an Endocrinologist would see it if he/she were looking for the cause and effect.

I believe if you are going to be a Problem Solver, you need to look at an underlying problem that you can find solutions too. The following provides you with recommendations that fall within your Scope of Practice as an IFPA Certified Personal Trainer.

If you are an Endocrinologist, you look for reasons in your Endocrine System. Your hormones may be the single greatest factor to your food cravings and very possibly the Obesity Epidemic that is devastating our fellow citizens. Let us look at our food cravings from the perspective of the Endocrinologist.

The underlying cause of your food cravings, from the Endocrinologist view point is an imbalance of the hormones that regulate your appetite. Endocrinologists call these the “Four Hormones of the Apocalypse.” They are:

  • Insulin: After you eat anything with sugar in it (simple carbohydrate): cake, pie, candy, flour, junk foods, sugary sodas, etc., your insulin levels will spike and then crash. Insulin is the hormone your body produces in the pancreas to process the sugar in your diet. After you crash, you feel tired, hungry and crave more sugar to get you back-up again.
  • Ghrelin: Is a hormone produced in your stomach, known as your “Hunger Hormone” since it sends the message that you are hungry and should eat again.
  • Leptin: Is the opposite of Ghrelin. Leptin sends a message to your brain to “stop eating, I’m full, I don’t need to eat anymore!” Unfortunately, when you eat a lot of simple carbohydrates, sugary, processed, junk foods, flour, etc., Leptin is not as effective anymore. If your brain becomes “Leptin Resistant,” it becomes possible for you to eat like a whale and down that whole 5-pound bag of M&Ms!
  • Peptide YY: Is produced in your intestines and like Leptin, will also tell you when you are full, but later than Leptin.

The other hormone we always need to be watchful for is Cortisol. Cortisol is the “Stress Hormone.” Anytime you are feeling stressed: Personal, Emotional, Professional, Spiritual, Physical, Financial…it does not matter; any stress causes your Cortisol levels to rise.

This can easily lead to Metabolic Syndrome, Syndrome X, pre-diabetes and/or insulin resistance which eventually leads to Type II Diabetes and inflammation throughout the body.

This inflammation can begin a vicious cycle leading to a host of chronic diseases, disabilities and dysfunctions. This can lead to Heart Disease, Hypertension, Cancer and all the other chronic disorders that lead to premature death!

What would be the lifestyle and nutrition recommendations to reverse your cravings?

Here are the top recommendations:

  • Eat Breakfast: If you are craving food at night and are giving in, you probably have no appetite for breakfast. Of course you’re not hungry, you’re still full, but you still need to break the cycle! Ideally, make your breakfast and all your meals a combination of healthy, complete proteins, complex carbohydrates and fats. For example, whole eggs (egg whites don’t cut it), Irish Steel Cut Oats and half an avocado with a little extra virgin olive oil drizzled over it.
  • Eat at Regular Intervals: In the IFPA Sports Nutrition Certification Course, you learn the importance of eating 6 meals/snacks per day, spread out every 2.5-3 hours. In the IFPA Advanced Sports Nutrition Certification Course, you build on foundational concepts and principles to build customized nutritional planning based on your goals and energy balance. Energy balance takes into consideration whether you are at a calorie deficit (which you are immediately post training) or an energy surplus (which you are, immediately post a large, calorie dense meal). You will learn to keep your energy balance plus or minus 400 calories within zero balance. If you go below a -400 energy balance, you risk losing muscle, instead of fat. If you go above +400 energy balance, you risk gaining fat, instead of muscle.
  • Stay Away from Sugary Drinks: Soda, sugary coffee/tea, sports drinks, the lattés/ cappuccino’s etc., that taste great, can spike insulin and blood sugar leading you to a cycle of sugar cravings.
  • Stay Away from Artificial Sweeteners: This is a lengthy dissertation all by itself, but suffice it to say here, that calorie free sweeteners, DO NOT help your sugar cravings, they only act to increase them.
  • Combine Complete Protein, Complex Carbohydrates and Healthy Fats at every Meal: Not only does this increase satiety, preventing you from getting hungry again, it enables greater absorption of the high quality nutrients in each meal. Examples: Good Fats: Extra Virgin Olive Oil, avocados, coconut oil, nuts and seeds. Quality Proteins: Hormone free/drug free/grass fed or wild caught: whole eggs, small cold water fish, chicken, beef turkey, buffalo, etc., and Complex Carbohydrates: lots of vegetables.
  • Develop a Stress Management Plan: Stress can make you gain fat, prevent you from losing fat, make you lose muscle and prevent you from gaining muscle. There are volumes of writing on Stress Management. My short answer to your stress is to follow my Two Rules of Life:

Rule #1: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff!

Rule #2: Everything is Small Stuff!

  • Prioritize Sleep: You need 7-8 hours every night. Children and hard training athletes need more. Without sleep, Ghrelin levels rise making you “feel hungry” and also decreases Peptide YY so you don’t “feel full!”
  • Eliminate Your Food Sensitivities: It will take time, but it is well worth your time to determine which foods you are sensitive to or allergic to. Unfortunately, you tend to crave the foods you are allergic to! I recommend you start with dairy or gluten since a large percent of people have allergies to these foods. Try eliminating the food for a few weeks and see how you feel.

I also recommend you compare your food dairy with your Dream Diary. Many of your nightmares or disturbing dreams can be the result of food allergies.

If you have never kept a Dream Diary, place a journal next to your bed. Focus on remembering your dreams before you go to sleep. When you wake-up, quickly write down notes on your dreams.

If you delay, you will forget your dreams.

  • Supplementation: Certain supplements can also help you prevent food cravings.
  1. Vitamin D: The sunshine vitamin. 15 minutes a day of sun on unprotected skin or 3,000 IU/day of Vitamin D-3 (as always consult your doctor). Vitamin D helps regulate both hormones and balance insulin.
  2. Omega 3 Fats: Fish Oil
  3. Amino Acids: Helps balance your hormones, stops cravings and increases muscle mass. The Journal of Endocrinology published research reporting the only known way to reverse Type II Diabetes was to increase muscle mass.
  4. BCAAs: Branched Chain Amino Acids
  5. Chromium: On-going debate on the efficacy of Picolinate vs Nicotinate forms
  6. Kava Kava or Valerian Root: Lowers cortisol levels and helps you relax
  7. Hot Baths: Helps you relax (add some Epsom Salt for sore muscles)

Food craving are a serious problem in our battle to help people live a longer, healthier and happier life! I have just provided you the best solutions I know for the problem.

It is now up to you to use this knowledge to help your clients.

Good Luck,

Dr. Jim Bell

CEO, IFPA

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