Why your body is telling you to eat more sugar (and how to stop).

Why your body is telling you to eat more sugar (and how to stop).

Key Points:

  • Do not listen to your body if your metabolism is broken and your body is in an inflammatory state (obesity, type 2 diabetes, etc)
  • Do listen to your body if you’re lean and healthy, and its obvious you’ve established your homeostatic eating system over your hedonic eating system. To do this,
  • Eliminate common inflammatory foods (vegetable and seed oils, refined sugar and carbohydrate, gluten, A1 casein-containing dairy, processed soy)
  • If after you remove the aforementioned foods for a while (months), have already lost weight and feel healthy,  and are still feeling inflamed, embark on an elimination diet which may involve eliminating typically “healthy” foods.
  • Move more! Exercise intensely enough to get the endorphin rush, which can satisfy the dopaminergic system in place of a bolus of sugar. 

Goals.

When it comes to your fitness and nutrition goals, there are many paths you can take to get to them. They all have parallels with each other; with fat loss, this ultimately includes obeying the laws of thermodynamics – you need at least a modest weekly caloric deficit (that deficit can generally be greater the more fat mass you have). With muscle gain, it ultimately comes down to the same thing, except maintaining a modest weekly surplus.

With tracking macros, some people adhere to strict “clean eating”, which is a loaded term in and of itself. Many bodybuilders still adhere to this dogma and routinely wolf down their dry chicken breasts, rice, and broccoli for every meal.

Some people go the opposite end of the spectrum and just do IIFYM (if it fits your macros) and wolf down ice cream, pop tarts, and whey shakes to get lean. While this will still work to get lean (not healthy), it robs you of valuable micronutrients and will lead to deficiencies if practiced long term.

Listening to Your Body

A more recent pervading phrase (that alludes to a concept that really should be innate within us if everything is functioning correctly – more on that later) that I hear continually being thrown around is “intuitive eating” or “listening to your body”.

 

This sounds great on paper but only works flawlessly in an ideal physiological situation where your hormones, brain, and overall metabolism are in a healthy state. If we were all in a hunter-gatherer environment, we could listen to the signals our bodies are giving us with no issue at all.

 

But in today’s society, the hyper-palatable processed packaged foods and snacks like chips, novelty sweets, trail mixes, and chocolate covered-whatevers make listening to your body like trying to hear your buddy 50 feet away from you at a Slayer show. Let me explain.

How Does Your Body Talk to Itself?

Quick laymans physiology lesson (you can skip the following few paragraphs if you’re already familiar with basic bodily signaling mechanisms):

 

Although the following is rather simplified, it provides an overview in a nutshell. Your body has two main communication systems. The nervous system and the endocrine system. Both of which can be disrupted with a broken metabolism, although the latter seems to be more affected in the majority of individuals I see. The nervous system uses electrical impulses to communicate to nearby (and faraway) nerves to get it’s message across. The endocrine system uses signaling molecules that are sent out from various organs into the blood to other organs to be able to communicate it’s message. These are the main ways that the body’s organs communicate with each other.

 

For example, a message your nervous system might send would be “Move your damn hand off of that hot stove!” Probably the fastest of the nervous systems signals.

Carbs and Your Hormones

The endocrine system is a bit more roundabout in it’s signaling mechanisms. For example, as soon as sugar or carbohydrate hits your tongue, your brain senses that glucose and energy are incoming and thus prepares the body to take care of it. In a nutshell:

 

Carbohydrate hits the tongue and:
    —> Your brain senses and sends electrical impulses to all of your organs to prepare for the incoming sugar load.
    —> Salivary amylase is produced/released to help digestion of the carbohydrates in the mouth.
    —> Simultaneously, your brain sends signals to your gut to release hormones known as incretins, which stimulate the release of insulin to deal with the incoming sugar load long before the sugar actually reaches your bloodstream. Keep in mind, the carbohydrate is still in your mouth while all this is happening.
    —> You swallow (tee-hee). There is no further carbohydrate digestion in the stomach, so it moves to the small intestine upon which time other amylases are released, which break the carb down to it’s smallest constituents to be absorbed.
  —> Once the absorbable carbohydrate is in the blood stream, insulin continues to be released to drive the excess sugar into fat and muscle cells in order to keep your blood sugar in a good range (thanks homeostasis!)
    —> Once undigested carbohydrates (fiber) reach the large intestine, (generally) good bacteria will use them as fuel and, as byproducts, create mucin, butyrate, and other helpful substances for the colon.
    —> Satiation hormones are released to tell your brain that you’ve had enough to eat (CCK, somatostatin)
    —> In a timeframe that could be deemed “Soon to hours to a day afterwords” (depending on the individual) leptin rises in accordance with carbohydrate consumption to tell your body that it has enough energy.

 

This is the extremely simplified version. Sound complex? Its actually much moreso than the above.

 

I illustrated the above to say that when your body isn’t functioning at its peak, any one of the aforementioned mechanisms could be breaks in your metabolic chain.

 

Insulin resistance is common in obesity; this is the inability for your cells to recognize the incoming insulin signal and therefore your body needs to release more insulin to get the same job done.

 

Leptin resistance is another common phenomenon in obesity; generally, the higher your fat stores, the higher your leptin concentration (fat is an endocrine organ, too!). In effect, this should signal the brain to eat less. The overall aim of leptin is as a long-term energy regulator. It tells you to eat less. However, again, in obesity, although leptin concentrations in the blood are extremely high due to high fat mass, the brain becomes resistant to the signal and doesn’t see it, and as a result, you keep eating and keep getting fatter.

Emotional Eating

Then you have the hedonic vs. homeostatic system. Humans are complex creatures with complex emotions. Everyone’s had that day. You didn’t get great sleep the night before. You drag yourself to work. Boss has an extra large workload for you today. A lot of your clients are being demanding or uncooperative. A huge deal just fell through that you thought was in the bag. Your disgruntled co-worker is complaining more than normal and its grating on your last nerve. You keep glancing at the clock, waiting for 5 PM to roll around. 4:55 and your boss comes in, asking you if you can stay a couple extra hours. Finally, you get to go home. That pint of half-baked B&J is looking mighty good right now. Or a few chocolate chip cookies. Or the whole box. Emotional eating is real.

When You Shouldn’t Listen to Your Body

When your metabolism is some degree of broken.

 

Chances are, if you’re obese, have mad sugar or carb cravings, and/or can’t go 5-6 hours without getting hangry, there are some aspects of the system that are not working correctly. This is a situation where your body will tell you things that you really shouldn’t obey.

 

The pervading message your body will send you here is “Eat more, eat more often, and eat more sugar”. In this situation, your hormonal system and neurotransmitters are working against your efforts to get healthy. Since your brain can’t recognize that you’ve had enough calories because your satiation signaling isn’t working correctly, you’ll be signaled to eat more.

 

 If refined sugar is the carbohydrate that you consumed, then, in most obese people, the hedonic eating system activates and overpowers the currently broken homeostatic eating system. Sugar has been shown to activate dopaminergic neurons just as, if not stronger than cocaine. The dopamine system, also known as the “reward system”, is heavily involved in the pathology of addiction.

 

As a result, your broken homeostatic system has you eating more because of less perceived satiation, and your hedonic system has you eating more sugar because of the dopamine spike involved. It can be a vicious cycle to break. More on breaking the cycle in a bit.

When you’re preparing your body to be stage-worthy

 

 This one is quite obvious to anyone who’s stepped on stage for some sort of aesthetics-based competition. Hate to break it to you, but the level of body fat achieved by aesthetics competitors is very unhealthy, and your body is going to fight you if you’re trying to get there. Similarly to when you’re obese, when you’re already quite lean and in a caloric deficit for an excessive period of time, your body will respond by decreasing your metabolic rate and astronomically raising your desire for food. Not only will you be hungry more often; its possible that you might only be able to think of food.

 

That work you need to get done? Nope, food on your mind. Those emails you need to respond to? Nope, food on your mind. Your normal time-wasting activities of perusing Facebook will be replaced with perusing food-porn. Your cortisol and short-term stress hormones will be constantly elevated as a food-finding mechanism, and your testosterone/thyroid hormone will become down-regulated over time. Only the most experienced competitors who have been doing it for years can intuitively eat successfully.

When you CAN listen to your body

In a nutshell, if all hormonal and neurotransmitter systems are working correctly, then the homeostatic eating system will dominate the hedonic eating system and you can successfully listen to your body.
    When is this, you ask? After you get lean and healthy, of course! Easy, right? Ha.
    First step: Eliminate or starkly reduce refined sugar in your diet. That means any sugary drink; fruit juice, colas, and yes, if you’re very overweight, I wouldn’t even recommend a fruit-laden smoothie. You’ve heard it time and time again, but this can be the single hardest step and also the healthiest.
Start slow! Habit change is hard. If you’re drinking a bunch of cokes every day, cut down to 2 a day for a week. Then 1 a day. Then switch to diet. Then up your protein at each meal every day for a week. Then keep it going and try to add vegetables to every meal for a week.
Once you do get processed carbohydrates and sugar minimized (Id define that by one sugary treat a week), your hedonic eating system will calm down a bit and the dopamine spike you experience from eating will be lessened. However, like I mentioned above, the processes occurring in your brain when you consume sugar are heavily akin to that of addiction, so this step won’t be so easy.
Second step: Eliminate inflammation-inducing foods. Even if you’re lean, inflammation-inducing foods can disrupt your signaling mechanisms as well, causing cravings or over-eating. This step is a little bit hazy and becomes HIGHLY individual based on individual intolerances. However, it’s safe to say that elimination of the following foods would serve most people’s inflammation in a positive way:

 

  • Vegetable and seed oils (stay far, far away no matter what) – Canola, corn, safflower, soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, etc.
    • Instead, use: Extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, lard, tallow, grass-fed butter or ghee
  • Dairy that contains casein protein (even if you’re tolerant to lactose)
  • Gluten containing foods and most grains
    • Instead, use tubers and squashes (if already fairly lean and carbohydrate sensitive): potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro, cassava, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, hokkaido, etc.
  • Soy – Especially processed soy foods (Tofu, tempeh, etc)
Now, not everyone reacts negatively to dairy, gluten containing foods, or soy. These are just the most commonly allergenic foods. I would still begin by eliminating them for at least a month, and you can try reintroducing slowly after a month to see if you react.

 

You should add the following foods to control cravings:
    -Higher amounts of healthy fats (grass-fed butter, grass-fed meat, olive oil, coconut oil, MCT oil, and of course omega 3 fats from whole food sources are preferred over supplemental omega 3).
    -Supplemental magnesium has been anecdotally shown to help control sugar cravings
    -Foods higher in protein

 

    Doing the above is a good starting point and the rest is highly individual, as I said before. Once you have the big rocks in place by following the advice I set out above and are still not feeling good, you can start to troubleshoot what else is causing you inflammation. Ill give you an example from myself.

 

    For years, I’ve been following a low-moderate carb diet and mostly practicing carb backloading with success. My typical breakfast for a while was a 3 egg omelette cooked in coconut oil stuffed with all manner of vegetables, avocado, and a small amount of an additional protein source. This would typically be small quantities each of celeriac, tomato, carrots, beets, spinach, peppers, ginger, zucchini, garlic, with either sardines, oysters, clams, beef, or whatever leftover meat I have on hand.
Sounds fairly healthy, right? Well, within a half hour of eating this, I’d be horribly bloated and gassy, be in an overall pissy mood whereas I woke up in a good one, and would literally have to leave the house and find something else to do in order to not keep foraging for food.

 

My food-finding mechanism was highly active even though i just consumed a high protein, ~800 calorie breakfast. Something I ate was causing obviously causing gut inflammation. Yet I kept on eating this breakfast for some time, because I believed it to be healthy.

 

   After getting fed up with feeling like crap post-breakfast, I began to experiment and remove the vegetables, adding them in one by one. I still haven’t quite narrowed it down; my only conclusion is that my digestive system did not like the combination.

 

If I eat 4-5 eggs by themselves, this doesn’t happen. If I eat modest quantities of all of the above vegetables by themselves, this doesn’t happen. So I stopped eating that combination and my body was much happier.

 

    If this is you with any stereotypically healthy foods, consider this practice in listening to your body. You can find a functional medicine practitioner and ask about food intolerance testing, but testing can be dodgy and isn’t 100% accurate. Your best bet, and the gold standard, is to do an elimination diet. I would find a good nutritional consultant to walk you through, or do research and embark on it yourself.
Movement and exercise is also key in helping stop the “addiction” to sugar and getting your physiology back in place. Hard exercise will release dynorphins, which are opiates that cause the pain you’re feeling when you’re at the end of mile 10 (or 1..or 26.2) and up-regulate your endorphin receptors. Post-exercise, you will have a large endorphin release and all those up-regulated receptors will be ready and hungry for the binding of the endorphins. This also implies the dopaminergic system.

 

    In other words, if you find yourself with a sugar craving; go exercise instead. I know, I know, this is much easier said than done, but the endogenous opiate release will satisfy that dopamine system and your sugar cravings will be much more easy to manage. This was my strategy when I was in the process of losing the extra person attached to me, and it worked beautifully.

 

    After elimination of the aforementioned foods and all of your individual intolerances, you’ve set yourself up to lose the weight that you need to lose and fat should start coming off effortlessly. Cravings should lessen or be nonexistent, and your body will start to be able to heal itself and get down to your own individual healthy body fat percentage.

 

    Patience is key in this though; resetting cravings does not happen overnight. It does not happen in a week, or even a month (for most). The breaking of any cycle involving the dopamine system is tough, and will take work. I will detail certain strategies of exactly how to do this in a later post. Stay tuned!

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