Saturday, April 16, 2011

Cravings and Cavemen

So lately I've neglected the nutritional element of Keeping it Clean.  I had an interesting conversation with one of my best friends tonight about cravings and foods.  Everyone has those foods that act just like Kryptonite for even the strongest and most committed among us.  For my friend Matt (who rocks a wicked six pack by the way) it's donuts, for my friend Casey it's salty chips, my friend Kim it's chocolate, and for me it's my mom's cookies... there is something about certain foods we just can't seem to resist.  Well, what does science have to say about that?  The truth is that everyone has cravings.  Sometimes they are easily dismissed and other times they can be all consuming and suddenly a new jar of peanut butter is is half gone before we've tasted a thing and we're left wondering how it happened!  I call it "black out eating."  It's happened to us all. 
The sad thing is, we are designed to crave them and when we cave to the cravings it leaves lasting effects.  How can these cravings be so intense?  Well, it's in our survival instincts.  Long before we had supermarkets on every corner our bodies were in constant conversation with us.  When there was a lack of food for our ancestors the nutrients needed to survive were craved with ferocity and with such intensity that fatty, high calorie foods were the immediate and most appealing choice.  They offered the best chance at survival.  That part of our brain makes us believe that kind of thinking is "right."  That releases chemicals just as powerful as endorphins - dopamine, which we associate with pleasure and that provides just enough reason to keep eating when we are not physically in need of calories.  In addition, after the first few bites of high fat, high glycemic foods, our taste buds can no longer process the flavor or taste properly so the pleasure we are getting from the food is ALL mental.  Realistically, a bite or two is all you would need to be physically satisfied.  It's our brain that wants more.

Women are at a further disadvantage. Nature provides women with the additional physiological burden of worrying about eating for two at various times in our lives if/when we are pregnant so women are inherently more susceptible to experiencing these kinds of cravings.  Survival instinct.  It was critical when food sources were scarce, but now, in an age where Krispy Kreme's adorn every corner it's a problem.

Brain Chemistry
If you've ever been awake at 2 AM you've seen the commercials for weight loss pills, shakes, powders that are designed to kill your physical hunger sensation.  Perfect, right?  Wrong. They are highly ineffective, especially in the long term.  Why?  They kill our physiological urges to seek out food...  Because the urges that lead to binge eating don't originate from actual hunger... it's coming from your brain instead.  The pills, powders, drinks, aren't able to target that.  Additionally, when we cave and let the cravings consume us there is additional damage being done.  Why?  Because in nature sugar and fat don't come packaged naturally together. Fruit has sugar, but very little fat.  Steak has fat, but very little sugar.  But in an age of processed foods, those combinations is the norm and it sends our body into a tailspin. The bottom line is that processed foods offer fat, sugar, and salt in high quantities and unnatureal combinations along wtih caffeine and a variety of chemically engineered flavor enhancers and sweeteners. This amps up your brain's response to what you are consuming, leading to cravings.

Not only that, but the sugar, salt, and fat used in processed foods are more intense than their natural equivalents. Highly refined sugar hits the bloodstream faster than the sugar in unrefined whole foods, which means that the resulting endorphin-fueled high is increased and kicks in almost immediately but is difficult to sus­tain, prompting us to eat more. Case in point: A large banana has roughly the same amount of sugar -- 17 grams -- as a chocolate-glazed doughnut. I know people who can eat half a dozen donuts without breaking a sweat but would never eat six bananas in one sitting.  What does this tell us?

Get back to the basics.  The whole foods you eat in a clean eating diet are harder to digest.  Have you ever eaten a carrot without quite a bit of chewing and effort?  That's not exactly the same for a Pop Tart or a handful of Doritos.  Foods with little fiber but lots of fat digest faster, make our sugars crash faster, create more fat and that gap creates opportunities for your body to eat away at precious muscle to make up the difference. 

Studies have proven that the brain is effected when we eat foods that give us pleasure, and it's not about being hungry.  It's about being dependent on the sugar, fat, and salt for a chemical reaction.  It's just as addictive as drugs and alcohol.  If you've ever been hungover, you know the outcomes... well, processed food overindulgence gives you an over stimulation and can even create an effect where you are hungrier than normal for hours, even DAYS afterwards as you go through withdrawal.  Here is where I get kinda strict... that little "cheat" cookie or piece of cake you are having today is going to leave a mark.  You'll be craving more of it for days...

The best defense is a good offense.  If you take anything from all the posting I do about nutrition, try to limit sugar and salt intake and increase the whole foods in your diet.  As you detox off of the processed foods, you'll crave them intensely.  No two ways around it.  Be prepared.  The first time I walked into a Panera after going clean I almost had a heart attack.  But once the shock and awe of that process is over (it takes a week or two) you won't find them happening as often or with the same level of intensity.  When you begin to manage your sugar levels regularly with complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats combined and introduced to your system at the right intervals with meals and snacks you will find consistent levels of energy, no sudden crashes, or intense urges.  So, when you hear the call of cookies, ice cream, cake, chips, pizza or pasta, take a deep breath... or twelve, make a HUGE green salad and let the feeling pass as you munch away...