I hear it all the time from clients, friends, and family: “I don’t really have a sweet-tooth, but carbs are my downfall.” I used to keep these two concepts separate in my mind as well. But when it comes down to it, a “carb addiction” is a sugar addiction. When we talk about “carbs,” we generally think of bread, rice, and pasta. But you’re also going to find carbohydrates in fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. However, these are not the things to which people tend to feel “addicted.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone say they can’t stop binge eating broccoli. So what it really comes down to is how the carbohydrates are broken down and processed in the body, and ultimately how they affect our blood sugar and insulin levels. Simple sugars, such as those found in sweets, have no fiber or starch and get absorbed very quickly in the body. This results in a spike in blood glucose and insulin. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, on the other hand, are high in fiber, which slows the digestion process and does not have the same drastic effect on blood sugar. So, where do you think white breads, pasta, chips, crackers, and the other “addictive carbs” fall? While these things all started from whole grains and vegetables, they have been processed and stripped of their fiber (and most of the nutritional value) which has left them as an easily absorbed sugar source. White breads, white rice, and refined pasta will be processed very quickly and have the same overall effect on blood sugar as those sweet treats, particularly when consumed in excess, as is often the case with these carb dishes.
So why am I telling you all of this? Most people in today’s society have a sugar addiction, whether they are aware or not. We have grown up on highly processed foods that either have added sugars, or have just been stripped down to such a refined carbohydrate state that they affect our bodies in the same way. Avoiding sugar and getting on a clean, whole-foods diet is really the only way to break the addiction. I, like many, struggled with sugar cravings most of my young adult life, but was finally able to kick the intense cravings for sugar with lifestyle changes. I can now have the occasional treat without feeling completely out of control like I did in the past. Recently, I made spaghetti and meatballs for a friend as a treat (not something I would normally eat). I was left with a lot of leftovers which ended up being my lunch or dinner for the next several days. Now I generally never eat pasta or other refined grains, especially not several days in a row. I started eliminating them years ago, mostly to help manage my weight. But since I’m now active and healthy, I wasn’t concerned about weight gain from a couple meals of leftover pasta. What I didn’t account for was how strong my sugar addiction truly had been. In addition to the pasta, I also didn’t account for the fact that I used store bought pasta sauce this time, as opposed to making my own, which has much higher levels of added sugar! My sugar cravings came back with a vengeance! Suddenly I was craving (and indulging) in cookies and ice cream in ways I haven’t in years! It took some serious fasting, exercise, and will-power to finally get back on track after a couple of weeks of crazy sugar cravings.
Now I was able to make this connection between my recent increased refined carbohydrate intake and returned sugar cravings, but unfortunately so many people see sugar and carbs as two separate challenges. If you’re trying to limit your sugar (which everyone should be doing!), you need to limit the refined carbohydrates as well! Your body doesn’t understand cake vs. white bread. All your body knows is a spike in blood sugar feels good, and it wants to feel that again! This is what triggers the cravings. You won’t be able to stop the cravings until you eliminate foods that spike your blood sugar very quickly. These are considered high-glycemic index foods. Things like white bread, bagels, cereal (notice a theme??? Our society’s go-to breakfast foods) are going to perpetuate a sugar addiction and amp up cravings. Even though pasta is actually considered a low-GI food, we tend to consume several servings at a time, and excessive intake of carbohydrates will ultimately lead to a spike in blood sugar. A serving of pasta is about 1/2 cup. Think about that next time you fill up your whole plate on spaghetti night! Also, as I mentioned, canned pasta sauce has added sugars that will add to that spike as well!
Intermittent fasting is a great way to help control cravings in addition to eliminating those high-GI foods from your diet, especially from breakfast! Eggs and veggies or oatmeal (without the added sugar!) are going to be a more protein and fiber filled way to start your day and give you more lasting energy as opposed to most breakfast cereals, yogurts, and protein bars that are packed with added sugar. Especially with the holidays coming up, it’s important to be aware of how your body feels after increased carb and sugar intake, and think about giving yourself periods of rest (i.e. fasting) to help combat the cravings!
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