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Banishing Those Nasty Cravings

Statistics show that a measly 5% of dieters are successful at keeping the weight off after a two-year period.  It's no wonder that so many North Americans are discouraged with the diet industry. Yet these are the same people spending in excess of 60 billion dollars a year on diet products, and doing the same thing they've always done yet expecting different results!  Isn't this the definition of insanity?  The fact remains that many do not understand the true mechanisms involved in long term fat loss.  Weight gain is a very complex issue and research shows that there are numerous hormones, enzymes and brain chemicals in the human body that play a role in how much fat we store or burn.

The majority of diets would probably succeed (at least to some degree) if we were able to stay satisfied on them long enough to see the results.  Many times when people make a commitment to lose the weight (the old, "this time I'm serious syndrome"), its usually those insatiable cravings for the sweet, starchy and fatty foods that gets the best of them. So why do we seem to always have the same cravings for the very foods that make us fat and keep us there?  Because we usually follow the most extreme method to weight loss. We forget that it took months and years to gain those unwanted pounds, and we want them gone yesterday!  We reduce our calories to the point of actually slowing our metabolism, we get rid of all the fat (forgetting that the brain is 60% fat) and raise our fat converting carbohydrates through the roof or we get rid of the carbs all together.  When we take the "all or nothing approach" to dieting, we offset the intricate biochemical balance of the body and invariably create cravings that cannot be ignored.

As it pertains to how your 30 billion fat cells behave, it's not always the actual size of your meals that matter, but instead the size of your appetite does.  Your body's ability to up regulate fat storage may be directly linked to the degree to which you desire and crave foods rather than solely the degree to which you consume them.  Why?  These insatiable cravings send false starvation signals to your body, switching it into an extreme fat-storing mode.  While in this state, your body will slow its metabolic rate and stop "burning" excess calories, opting for stockpiling them for a perceived famine.  This makes sense since we share the same genetic structures with our prehistoric ancestors going back almost 40,000 years.

Hormonal Mayhem:

The majority of our cravings are due to the extreme fluctuations in our blood sugar levels. The more high glycemic (simple sugars) carbohydrates we consume (even when they are void of fat) like, grains, pastas, and even fruit juices, the more dramatic the rise in our storage hormone insulin.  High blood sugar levels and high insulin levels create a hypoglycemic (low blood sugar) response due to the higher half-life of insulin, which tends to remain active even after blood sugar levels are lowered.  This initiates a craving response on the brain for sweet carbohydrate rich foods that are able to once again raise blood sugar levels.  This rise and fall of insulin and blood sugar also creates an enhanced environment conducive to fat storage by preventing the metabolism of fats for energy, instead setting into play the usage of sugars and proteins as energy substrates.  Without a steady supply of high quality protein and essential fatty acids (omega:3 and omega:6), our bodies cannot deal with the onslaught of these sugars as they are broken down into glucose (a simple sugar).  Protein is responsible for boosting your metabolism by stimulating the release of the hormone glucagon, which helps to balance blood sugar and stimulate the necessary enzymes for fat burning.

Nutrient Deficiencies:

There is some evidence that certain cravings may reflect a primitive mechanism within the body, which uses appetite to a person to foods containing the missing or needed elements. It is suggested that bizarre cravings for food combinations (i.e. ice cream and pickles) may actually have a logical biological explanation once all the elements are considered.  As the late Dr. Lendon Smith, pointed out in his best selling book, "Feed Your Body Right," pregnancy cravings for foods like ice cream may represent a need for extra calcium, while pickles would represent the need for acid to absorb the calcium.

We also know that chocolate is the most frequently craved of all the foods, especially during a woman's menstrual cycle.  This may be in part due to a magnesium deficiency, as treatment with magnesium has been shown to reduce chocolate cravings.  Another important nutrient is the trace mineral chromium, which is essential in normal carbohydrate and lipid metabolism.  Chromium deficiency can lead to elevated insulin levels, which then create a low blood sugar environment, creating the need for more sugar.  The interesting thing is that most of our soils are depleted in this essential element causing a possible deficiency in the major population.  Many excessive sugar eaters (i.e. processed food) lose a tremendous amount of chromium through the urine as a by-product of metabolizing the sugar.

Another mineral essential in insulin integrity is manganese.  When manganese is deficient in the diet the result is abnormal insulin production producing impaired carbohydrate metabolism.  Sugars in the body also act like a vacuum for B Vitamins.  And without the B vitamins, your body cannot produce efficient energy or manufacture the necessary neurochemicals for proper brain functions (one of the reasons B vitamins are so important in alleviating some depressive states).  Which brings us to our final reason for cravings.

Brain Chemical Imbalances:

Our bodies have a remarkable way of self-medicating themselves.  When we are feeling down, depressed or stressed out we instantly reach for the sweetest foods we can find. One of the reasons for this, is because through sugars we are able to increase insulin levels, and by elevating insulin, we are able to raise certain levels of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (chemicals that relay messages from one neuron to the next) that culminate in a sigh of relief.  Unfortunately this escapade quickly dissipates and the brain calls out for more sugary medication.  In this case the medication would come from the neurotransmitter serotonin which balances our moods by creating feelings of calmness and satiety to the rest of the body. Out of 40 known neurotransmitters, serotonin is the most important in terms of appetite and sleep.  Balanced serotonin levels are important in any fat-loss program because they provide a calming and appetite suppressing action, which allows you to feel satisfied without needing to cheat.  When serotonin levels rise, we are greeted with instant gratification in the reward centers of the brain.  Serotonin levels decline throughout the day and are replenished during the sleep phase.  Many people who have sleep difficulties also have serotonin deficiencies.  This would also account for why people who consistently stay up late tend to binge eat the most.  Serotonin levels are also quickly depleted during times of stress. And with the stressful lives we subject ourselves to day in and day out, it is not hard to imagine our serotonin tanks are running on half empty at most times.

As mentioned earlier, serotonin levels are increased in response to high carbohydrate foods, especially those that break down into sugars rapidly, but why?  Because blood sugar raises the hormone insulin and insulin creates an easy access to the main building block of serotonin- the amino acid tryptophan.

Usually dietary proteins prevent tryptophan from entering the brain.  In fact, tryptophan, which occurs in smaller amounts than all the other amino acids in protein (we consume about a gram or two each day), is actually bullied out of the way as it competed for passage into the brain.  When you raise insulin in response to incoming sugars (carbohydrates), the insulin lowers the blood sugar along with all the amino acids in the blood except one-tryptophan.  This elimination of the competition allows tryptophan to pass through the blood/ brain barrier and induce a feeling of calmness and satietybut only for a short while.  Within an hour or two, your brain is once again screaming for its carbohydrate fix.

Thankfully, by consuming a proper balance of the three macronutrients, protein, essential fatty acids and low-glycemic carbohydrates at regular intervals throughout the day (eating every 2 - 3 hrs.) you can stabilize blood sugar levels and create a proper balance between insulin and glucagon.  This is why the all or nothing scenario never works for long. It always offsets the homeostasis (balance) of the body and cravings ensue.  For added health insurance, you can also supplement your diet with a high quality vitamin and mineral supplement making sure it has adequate levels of the B vitamins, vitamin C and minerals such as magnesium, chromium, manganese and zinc.  For extra craving control there are also natural herbs such as griffonia and rhodiola rosea that can help to balance the neurotransmitters.  But remember when it comes to effective long-term fat loss without the subsequent cravings, balance will always win the Fat Wars.


Brad J. King

Brad King is a performance nutrition researcher from Victoria, BC. He holds a master's degree in nutritional science and is certified as a master of fitness science by the International Sports Sciences Association. Brad is the author of the international bestseller Fat Wars: 45 Days To Transform Your Body as well as the national bestseller Bio-Age: 10 Steps To A Younger You