Even though I have been beating my diabetes for years by following a healthy diet, I still find that chocolate has an irresistible draw. And some of my siblings are unable to resist cheese of any kind. But why do we crave certain foods? Here’s what I found out through research on the internet.
Food cravings, it seems, are caused by the biological properties of particular foods … certain foods have something in their chemical composition that makes us crave them in much the same way as an addict craves alcohol, drugs or tobacco.
For people who smoke cigarettes, nicotine causes dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, to be released. Something similar happens when you eat sugar, chocolate or cheese.
These three foods are not, of course, as addictive as tobacco or recreational drugs. But the same chemistry of addiction seems to be at work with these foods.
When a person has overdosed on heroin and is comatose, doctors inject naloxone. This medication prevents the heroin from attaching to receptors in the brain and the patient usually recovers quickly.
In controlled studies, researchers have offered volunteers sugary foods and have recorded how much they ate. Then at a later time, under the same conditions, they have given the same volunteers naloxone intravenously and then offered them the same sugary foods.
Naloxone causes a significant drop in the desire for sweet foods. This suggests strongly that sugar affects the brain in essentially the same way as heroin and other opiates, though obviously not to the same degree. This mild drug-like effect is most clearly seen in foods that contain both sugar and fat, such as cakes, biscuits (cookies) and full-fat ice cream.
Though it is not an opiate, these experiments show that sugar stimulates the release of opiates within the brain and these opiates, in turn, trigger the release of dopamine which generates feelings of pleasure … in much the same way as recreational drugs such as alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco.
The craving for sugar goes beyond sugar itself and can appear as a craving for foods that release sugar into the bloodstream quickly (foods with a high glycemic index value or GI) … such as biscuits, crackers, white bread and potatoes.
So what’s the solution?
The best thing to do with a sweet tooth is, in my view, to have it pulled. This is what I did and I did not find the process of giving up sugar in my tea and coffee especially difficult.
For those who find giving up sugar difficult, substitutes are available.
You can replace white table sugar in recipes with maple or other syrups and sugarcane juices, all of which taste much sweeter – this reduces the amount of sugar you take in but only marginally.
Low-calorie sweeteners are used in some manufactured desserts, sweets (candies) and chewing gum – these have about half the calories of regular white sugar (check the labels).
There are several no-calories sweeteners you can use in your tea or coffee.
The big disadvantage of substitutes for sugar is that they do not break the sweet tooth habit … so, when the substitutes are not available you’ll go back to using sugar … which is why I recommend that you do not use substitutes. It’s far better to have your sweet tooth pulled.
Eating more than one small piece of dark chocolate a day is bad for you … not only does it contain loads of sugar, it is full of fat, so for a diabetic it is doubly dangerous.
I used to eat a lot of chocolate … several bars a day and then some.
For me, chocolate is not just something I want … it is something I feel I need. The addiction of the chocoholic has long been recognized both among researchers and in the popular press.
Like for sugar, scientific studies have shown that the desire for chocolate is reduced effectively when opiate-blocking drugs are administered.
But the effects chocolate have on our brains are not only due to the sugar. Chocolate also contains stimulants such as caffeine, theobromine and phenylethylamine, and these contribute to the seductive effect of chocolate.
I managed to cut down and then give up all chocolate a few years ago … or so I thought. The problem is that chocolate is available everywhere and, as it is not condemned as vehemently as smoking, there seems to be no harm in a little nibble now and then.
But I have found out that those little nibbles can cause a very quick restatement of the craving, ie reactivate the habit. With chocolate, as with smoking, restatement seems to happen very quickly and it doesn’t take much to get it back to where it was before.
I’ve heard that some people switch from chocolate to ‘sweets’ made with soy, such as low-fat ice ‘cream’ and sorbets but I have not tried this myself.
Cacao or cocoa powder can be used as a substitute for chocolate in drinks, in fresh fruit dips etc, provided the powder you use is unprocessed and the percentage of pure cocoa in the powder is high.
Cacao is essentially chocolate minus the fat (the cocoa butter). It is obtained by extracting it from the cocoa bean. Though carbohydrates make up nearly 60% of cocoa powder, its sugar content is quite low. However diabetics should treat it with caution as, although it is described as low-fat, cocoa powder contains over 13% fat.
Cocoa powder contains several minerals, including calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc. It also contains caffeine and theobromine, the stimulants mentioned above. The powder is also rich in flavonoids, ingredients that are said to help lower blood pressure and improve lipid levels and insulin resistance.
Thus, cocoa powder may have some benefits for diabetics and those with meta-syndrome but I still feel that it should only be used on an occasional basis.
Cheese is a dairy product that is full of fat and cholesterol. Hence, in my diet I avoid it entirely.
I did not have any problem in giving up cheese myself, but I do know that some people are virtually addicted to the stuff. Why so?
Cheese contains casein, a protein. A protein is a string of amino acids and, when most proteins are digested, the string comes apart and the amino acids are absorbed one-by-one into the bloodstream. Casein is different.
Instead of breaking down into individual amino acids, casein breaks down into short strings of four to seven amino acids each. These strings are biologically active and have a mild narcotic action.
These morphine-like compounds are called casomorphins and some scientists think that they are responsible for the attraction of cheese. However they are still trying to understand exactly how they work.
If you follow the diet I am using to successfully beat my diabetes, you have to give up eating cheese entirely. If you switch to soy substitutes, check the fat content and make sure that the soy ‘cheese’ does not contain added casein (the dairy protein).
A good substitute for cheese as a flavouring is nutritional yeast flakes which can give casseroles and sauces a cheese-like taste. Nutritional yeast is not the same as baker’s yeast or brewer’s yeast. Most good health-food shops stock nutritional yeast.
Beating the urge
The best way to deal with unhealthy foods such as sugar, cheese and chocolate is to go cold turkey … the longer you manage to stay away from them, your desire for them will fade (except perhaps for chocolate).
Another three things you can do to help you give up these foods:
(1) Eat a decent breakfast and don’t skip meals … you are most likely to give in to that bar of chocolate, those cheese crackers or some sugary biscuits when you are hungry.
(2) Exercise regularly, enough to ensure that you get a good night’s sleep … most people seem to agree that cravings can be stronger when you aren’t sleeping well
(3) Identify what triggers your cravings and either avoid them or minimise their impact … these can include watching TV cooking shows, going to the movies, going for lunch with colleagues, and so on. You should still participate in these activities, of course, but just be forewarned that you may be tempted.