Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Controlling Food Cravings & Using Artificial Sweeteners

A friend read my Weight management during pregnancy post and commented that "everybody could use advice on how to curb cravings. What do you mean by "redirect and relent?" This is a good question and as I was writing my response to him I realized that it would make a good blog topic, especially for women who are pregnant.

The content in my previous post that prompted his query was:
I've also got the weight-maintenance tools I've picked up the past few years. I've learned how to handle cravings, for example. I know when to re-direct and when to relent. I know when to stop indulging (most of the time) and I know when to get rid of something tasty because I can't resist the temptation to keep indulging.

Redirect: This strategy starts with a question: Am I really hungry, or am I bored/nervous/upset?  If the answer is yes, I really am hungry, then I try to redirect focus from the death-by-chocolate cake I am craving to a protein or granola bar or a piece of fresh fruit--ie, to something healthier that tastes good, too. If the answer is no, I'm not hungry, I'm bored/anxious/whatever, then I redirect to an activity that gets my mind and/or body off the comfort-food focus. Depending on the craving and the reason, I may meditate to calm myself, or take a 5-minute yoga break, or go for a walk, do some weeding/chores, take a bath, masturbate, or take a time-out to touch base with what is really going on inside me (ie administer some emotional first aid).

Relent: Relent, for me, comes after multiple attempts to redirect. If I've eaten my healthy mandarin and I've done my chores and I've finished writing an email or whatever other tasks I've put to myself to in order to get my mind off the craving and I still want that cake (especially if I've craved it for a few days), I'll go buy a single-serving cupcake or something, both as acceptance of the craving, and as reward for the work I've done to earn it. If I absolutely have to have a slice of that $20 death-by-chocolate cake and they don't sell it by the slice, I'll buy it at the bakery, ask them to slice me a piece, and then give the rest away to the people working there, or as samples for their customers. (Yes, it raises eyebrows, but no one has refused me yet.) Then I relish my $20 piece of cake, eating it slowly, savoring every bite. I don't bring home more than one serving of a craved food anymore. It's too easy to say to myself, "Oh, I'll bring this whole cake home and share it with my family" and then end up eating more than one serving because I don't want it to go to waste or because it is just that good.

I suppose I should have the self-discipline to be able to eat just one serving of something I crave and leave the rest alone for others or for another time, but I don't. And I am self-aware enough to accept that. I'm also self-loving enough to get over the whole self-sabotage / self-punishing thing for my supposed lack of will-power, no longer hating myself even as I am rewarding myself with a tasty treat. Today, I allow myself to eat that thing I really want, but just one small serving. And I give away or toss away the rest. I may feel a little foolish for eating what amounts to a $20 slice of cake -but- I figure that it's $18 worth of extra calories I'm not adding to my waistline, and given the work I have to do to take off just one pound, it's f-ing worth it.

So--this is how I've learned to deal with food cravings over the years, and how I'm managing not to gain weight during my pregnancy. I practice self-awareness and self-acceptance, a bit of self-discipline, and a lot of self-love. I'm as flawed, outrageous, and complex as the next person, and what works for me may not work for others. Still, it's worth sharing if even just one person benefits from it.

Artificial Sweeteners, and why you might want to reconsider using them:
I do not use diet products with artificial sweeteners, even natural substitutes like stevia, for three reasons.

One, when we taste something sweet, our bodies begin to produce insulin, the hormone that helps the body to absorb sugars (glucose) and fats. When the anticipated glucose does not appear, the insulin continues to cycle through our bloodstream, stimulating the synthesis of fats and glycogen. This causes the body to stockpile fats and can also cause low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) because the insulin is acting on the sources of sugar that were pre-existing in the blood, rather than on new sugars entering via the digestive system. Excess insulin can also cause insulin resistance (pre-cursor to Type 2 Diabetes) and metabolic syndrome. It also appears to be tied to or may amplify the endocrine disorder PCOS (poly-cystic ovary syndrome),  because whatever insulin doesn't dock with your cells is cleared out of your system by your liver and kidneys, and when scavenged by the liver, may be re-synthesized into the excess androgens, testosterone, and estrogen characteristic of PCOS.

Two, as artificially-synthesized sweeteners are metabolized by the body, they produce by-products that can negatively impact your health. We know, for example, that saccharine can cause cancer, but most people do not know that aspartame (NutraSweet) is broken down into amino acids, methanol, formaldehyde, and formic acid, all of which can be harmful to people depending on the amount ingested and their individual sensitivities to them. Aspartame aggravates phenylketonuria, is thought to aggravate mood disorders due to possible effects on neurotransmitters, and produces side effects like headaches. Read the Aspartame Controversy for more information, and read up on the next-generation of aspartame, called Neotame here. Sucralose (Splenda) while perhaps less alarming and more natural seeming with its "made from sugar" advertising, is still potentially harmful. It is basically chlorinated sugar, and chlorine isn't good for you (think bleach). Sucralose has been shown to reduce pH in the bowels and thus the beneficial bacteria existing there, and impact levels of P-glycoprotein which is an important transporter protein for ATP and other compounds used by the brain, adrenal glands, and intestines.

Three, using artificial sweeteners as a tool for weight-reduction is an epic failure. They do exactly the opposite of what we're told to expect. There are many, many studies out there which demonstrate that people who use sugar substitutes actually gain more weight than people who stick with sugar. Why? There are several schools of thought on this. The most plausible is that because artificial sweeteners are sweeter than sugar, people routinely ingesting the uber-sweetness become used to it, so that when they do eat sugar-sweetened things, they eat more sugary stuff to satisfy that sweetness-craving. Another likely possibility is that sweet-taste-to-insulin-production link I mentioned above. More insulin in the body equals more fat uptake and more sugar uptake. An increase in sugar uptake results in low-blood sugar, which means people eat more sugar or sugar substitute to get rid of that shaky feeling. Which leads to yet another reason why artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain: because the body needs sugar and if it doesn't get it, it keeps prompting us to eat until it gets what it needs. And finally, sweeteners, like salt and MSG, are flavor-enhancers that stimulate people's food-enjoyment and this encourages them to eat more. So basically, however you look at it, people are eating excess calories because they are trying to reduce excess calories through low-calorie sugar-substitutes. It works on livestock. Lots of artificial sweeteners are being added to cattle-feed because they are known to fatten the animals up (The link goes to a .pdf article from 2000 by a German company). Really. It sounds pretty bizarre, but it also makes sense, doesn't it?

I've made the above information as un-wonky as I possibly can. I'm fortunate to have a background in biochemistry and genetics, so I understand the technical-jargon and try to translate it into common-speech.

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