How many people do you know that experience food cravings? What types of cravings do you experience on a regular basis? Sugar, salt, ice cream, breads, cheese cake (had to throw that in there)…
Now, do not get things twisted from the start …the occasional craving – say once per month – is nothing to be all that concerned about in my eyes. It is when these cravings become habitual and recurring (say weekly or even daily for some) that there is any issue. It is also important to be able to distinguish a craving from a want.
While most of us crave foods with some regularity, very few understand all of the mechanisms behind these cravings and what physiologically can lead to these cravings. Understanding this may assist you in curbing your cravings, so here we go.In my experience, eliminating food cravings is simply a matter of effectively regulating your blood sugar throughout the day and night. Now, since there is scarcely any process in the body that does not affect blood sugar in some way, here are some of the most common reasons I see that clients are experiencing food cravings (in no particular order, and please note that this is NOT a complete list by any stretch of the imagination):
1. Poor Food Choices, Ratios, and Meal Frequency:
This is not just simply based on the consumption of poor quality foods containing synthetic forms of sugar and cocktails of other chemical poisons. Of course, terrible foods will result in blood sugar levels that are riding the proverbial roller coaster throughout a given day. This is pretty well-known even to the uninformed reader.
Often poor blood sugar control is blamed on eating foods that are “high glycemic.” This, in my opinion is incredibly short-sighted (and quite honestly, really gets under my skin at this point). As I see it, it has more to do with poor food combination and macronutrient ratios rather than simply blaming everything on a “high glycemic” foodstuff. Consuming a “high glycemic” food, such as a white potato (GI of around 98 depending on who you read) alone, to the exclusion of proteins and fats can and will certainly lead to a blood sugar control issue. Blood sugar will no doubt spike, then fall, and you will soon be riding the insulin-cortisol see-saw. However, consuming that potato with say some buffalo, a little bone broth, and some real butter, the blood sugar roller coaster can be totally avoided. The amounts of those foods that should be eaten in a given meal are of course, individual specific. My point is that blood sugar control issues are not always about poor food choices. Certainly, stuffing your face with things that an intelligent animal would not eat will lead to blood sugar issues. Having said that, making statements like “potatoes are bad because they are ‘high glycemic’ and will mess up your blood sugar,” must be placed into context. What else is consumed with the potato? How much potato (and feel free to insert your “high glycemic” carbohydrate of choice here) is consumed in relation to proteins and fats? These are factors that must be considered before we hastily throw out tons of beneficial foods unnecessarily solely based on a “high” Glycemic Index. On a side note, the GI is pretty much worthless anyway. What is likely more important is the Insulin Index and overall Glycemic Load of a given food (rate of appearance and rate of disappearance of glucose from the blood stream).
As well, the other issue that tends to go hand and hand with macronutrient combining is meal frequency. This is a HUGE problem for the vast majority of clients I have ever coached and consulted. Eating smaller, more frequent meals is a much better option if you are trying to rid yourself of food cravings. Again, macronutrient combining is critical in this process as well because eating smaller, more frequent meals that have the wrong ratio of macronutrients for your physiology will not help much, if at all.
2. Chemical dependency:
Let’s say that someone decides to repeatedly “treat” themselves with a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream. Unless the ice cream is made at home, from scratch, with no artificial ingredients, the ice cream is going to be loaded with all sorts of chemicals and several dyes. These chemicals require specialized enzymes for detoxification, which the liver will manufacture in response to their consumption. If this behavior continues for as little as 7 days, the liver can become accustomed to the production of these specialized enzymes needed for the detoxification of Neapolitan ice cream. Believe it or not, if the ice cream is consumed at roughly the same time each day, the timing of the enzyme production can be entrained into the liver! So, when that day comes and you decide to stop eating your Neapolitan ice cream (probably after becoming a little soggier around the midsection), your liver can start to produce the specialized enzymes it has become accustomed to producing and send a signal to the brain that says, “Hey, where the hell is my Neapolitan ice cream!?” This will lead to a craving. There are many connections and mechanisms that involve the gut, liver, and the brain that can lead to food cravings. One can refer to the work of physician, allergist, and researcher Theron Randolph for much greater detail on this topic and others.
3. Poor Liver Function:
Many people are unaware of the role that the liver plays in regulating blood sugar; they simply assume that the liver is only an organ of detoxification. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we discussed in number 1 above, poor blood sugar regulation is a primary source of cravings. The physiological fact here is that the liver receives much of its blood supply directly from the GI tract. This occurs through the portal vessels which drain the small intestine (a primary site for glucose absorption) and other related visceral organs. After consuming a meal, particularly if the meal is rich in carbohydrate, the blood will reach the liver before it enters general circulation. In this capacity, the liver functions to “buffer” blood sugar levels to prevent them from being overly excessive following any given meal.
The liver can take this influx of glucose and convert it into glycogen (the storage form) and store it for later need if blood glucose concentration were to drop below normal. When blood glucose levels begin to drop, say because of going too long in between meals, the liver glycogen goes through a couple of conversions to form free glucose which is released into the blood to bring blood glucose concentrations up to an optimal level. It is important to keep in mind that this process requires vitamin B6 (estrogen is a B6 waster) as well, so deficiencies in this vitamin can also lead to blood sugar handling issues.
The issue is that for many people, the liver does not do a very good job of storing glycogen, again, typically due to poor food choices, poor macronutrient ratios, and less than optimal meal frequency. When this is the case, the “buffer” effect of the liver on elevated blood sugar levels is compromised and blood sugar concentrations will rise to a greater degree following meals. A spike in blood sugar will lead to increased serum levels of insulin and many other hormones that insulin is known to synergize with. Here again, the individual in question is likely to suffer from dysglycemia – possibly presenting with the symptoms of hyper and hypoglycemia at the exact same time. For more information on the role of the liver in blood sugar control, you are invited to look at Guyton’s Textbook of Medical Physiology and Constance Martin. PhD’s, book Textbook of Endocrine Physiology.
4. Poor Saturated to Unsaturated Fat Ratio in the Diet:
The primary issue here is the prevalence of poly-unsaturated fats (PUFAs) in one’s diet, and quite frankly, the lack of high-quality saturated fats. Unsaturated fats in the form of PUFAs actually prevent glucose from entering a cell to be utilized for energy production. This can, and does, lead to all sorts of energy production and blood sugar control issues. As well, PUFAs have been shown to damage the beta cells of the pancreas, which can further lead to blood sugar handling issues. Over consuming grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and many above-ground vegetables often create more problems than they solve, as these foods have unfavorable saturated to unsaturated fat ratios. PUFAs also hyperstimulate the beta cells of the pancreas thus increasing insulin and can lower blood glucose levels which can exacerbate existing blood sugar control issues and lead to more cravings. PUFAs also favor the biological actions of estrogen by freeing estrogen from sex-hormone binding globulins (SHBGs), and wastes glucose in the body – again, leading to blood sugar control issues, amongst many other things. The good news is that high quality saturated fats such as butter and coconut oil can help detoxify PUFAs in the body and improve energy production. For a more comprehensive review of the detrimental aspects of PUFAs and unsaturated fats on human physiology, you are invited to spend a few years reviewing the work of PJ Randle, Ray Peat, PhD, etc. As well, The Metabolic Blueprint Program from East West Healing & Performance does a masterful job of condensing this information into easy and understandable terms.
5. Poor Thyroid Function
The thyroid is the master gland of metabolism. While nothing works in isolation in the human body, I place a huge emphasis on restoring optimal thyroid function for anyone suffering from chronic food cravings (or any other health ailment for that matter). Thyroid, namely T3, is necessary for optimal cellular respiration and the optimal utilization of glucose at the cell level. This is also crucial for maintaining optimal blood sugar levels and avoiding food cravings. The thyroid activates over 100 different cellular enzymes impacting a number of cellular functions. Pretty much every metabolic process in the body is impacted in some way, shape, form, or fashion, by the thyroid and its hormones (T2, T3, T4, and rT3). The thyroid regulates the utilization of the body’s primary fuel source – glucose. Therefore, anything affecting the thyroid gland’s ability to function optimally, will impact glucose utilization. Altered glucose utilization will lead to activation of the stress response, altered blood sugar levels, and an increased likelihood of food cravings (amongst other things).
Interestingly enough, numbers 1-4 above can all have a negative impact on the function of the thyroid, further contributing to dysglycemia and an increased proclivity for food cravings. Additional factors that will negatively affect the thyroid, create blood sugar disturbances, and contribute to food cravings include but are not limited to:
a. Hormonal Imbalance
Anyone with thyroid issues will have hormonal imbalance and vice versa. Typically this is the result of estrogen dominance and/or progesterone deficiencies. Estrogen can affect the binding sites of T4 and make them unavailable to T3, thus lowering T3 concentrations. Interestingly, thyroid is necessary for the liver to be able to effectively detoxify estrogen. Thus, when one is estrogen dominant/progesterone deficient, estrogen not only inhibits optimal thyroid function but it is at one and the same time allowed to accumulate due to the liver’s handicapped ability to detoxify it. This is a viscous cycle that creates lots of energy production and hormonal problems long-term.
b. Protein Deficiency
The liver also requires protein to detoxify estrogen. Without adequate amounts, estrogen will be allowed to accumulate, down-regulate thyroid function, and you are on the merry-go-round again…getting dizzy yet?
It is no surprise that during fasted states the body will resort to breaking down musculoskeletal tissue for energy production (once the liver’s glycogen stores are used up, of course). Some amino acids that are released during tissue catabolism – tryptophan, cysteine, and methionine) have thyroid suppressing properties in excess.
d. Nutritional Deficiency
The thyroid depends on many nutrients for optimal function and conversion of its hormones – zinc, copper, vitamin A, B2, B6, and vitamin C, magnesium, iodine, selenium, glucose and manganese deficiencies will decrease thyroid function in one way or another.
Endotoxin, or LPS as it is clinically known (think of it as the fecal matter of certain gut bacteria, I know….sexy, right?), can increase estrogen in the body of both males and females by up to 5x’s, thereby magnifying the thyroid suppressing and glucose wasting properties of estrogen. Endotoxin is also implicated in many auto-immune conditions, including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
f. Poor GI Health and Function
According to some experts, up to 10-20% of thyroid hormone conversion depends on optimal microfloral balance in the gut. Disturbed floral balance decreases thyroid function. As well, dysfunctional digestion, malabsorption, and increased intestinal mucosa permeability (leaky gut) issues, create hormonal cascades that ultimately hamper blood sugar regulation, immune function, as well as endocrine health and balance.
6. Possible Fungal and/or Parasitic Infection
In addition to negatively impacting digestion, absorption, etc. (see “f” above), these “bugs” can easily create cravings for all sorts of foodstuffs, typically the foods that are of poor quality and loaded with synthetic sugars. There are many theories about how to eliminate these “bugs” if one has been diagnosed with such an infection. Drugs, herbs, special diets, etc. have all been written about extensively by a great number of experts. Details are beyond the scope of this article, but perhaps a future article can be done specifically on this topic.
As you can see, food cravings go way beyond eating too many “high glycemic” carbohydrates. Does that play a role? It certainly can, but to be honest, I am tired of seeing everyone say, write, blog, post, etc. about the “evils” of “high glycemic” carbohydrates and sugar without supplying context for their statements.
So…to get off the blood sugar roller coaster and food craving cycle, what should you do?
1. Increase Your Meal Frequency
I would recommend starting with improving your meal frequency. A general rule of thumb (and I am typically against giving those) is to do your very best not to go longer than 4 hours without eating. Even a well balanced meal proportioned for an individual’s physiology will typically only maintain healthy blood sugar levels for around 4 hours. Some people must eat much more frequently than that. Meal frequency, like everything else in the nutritional world, is very much individual specific.
2. Improve Macronutrient Proportions
This takes time and a lot of attention to detail. Learn to proportion the “right” foods for your physiology to sustain optimal blood sugar regulation to avoid cravings due to severe blood sugar swings. Be sure to always have carbohydrates, proteins, and fats at all meals and snacks.
3. Eliminate foods that are difficult to digest
Grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and many fibrous vegetables (unless cooked very thoroughly) are best avoided if you suffer from regular food cravings in my experience.
4. Increase your intake of easy to digest foods
Tropical fruits, root vegetables, broths, etc. Some people have a lot of trouble with protein digestion and putrification. The use of bone and meat broths, as well as gelatin can come in very handy here.
5. Breathe Deeply
For those with digestive difficulty, in addition to the above, I would recommend taking no less than 5 minutes prior to every meal and focus solely on deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing. This can put you in a more peaceful place before you eat and ease the load on the digestive system.
Of course, I recommend that anyone suffering from acute or chronic food cravings look into my Food First Program. In this program, I teach my clients how to effectively and efficiently create a nutrition plan that works for their physiology and optimizes their metabolism. This is solely based on the individual in question and the metabolic demands placed on his/her body daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. Everything in this article and MUCH more is considered and the client is educated on how to effectively use FOOD to create the highest quality state of health that it attainable.
Thank you so much for reading this article. It is my hope that you found at least one useful piece of information in it. As always, take what is useful and discard the rest. Questions, comments, social media “Likes” and “Shares” are always appreciated.
1. Anything and Everything written by Ray Peat, PhD – newsletters, articles, books, and interviews (www.raypeat.com)
2. Guyton’s textbook of Medical Physiology, 7th Edition – just happens to be the edition that I have in my library – I am sure they are all great
3. Textbook of Endocrine Physiology by Constance Martin, PhD
4. Hope for Hypoglycemia by Broda O. Barnes, M.D., PhD
5. Hypothyroidism: An Unsuspected Illness by Broda O. Barnes, Md. PhD
6. The Metabolic Blueprint Program (www.eastwesthealing.com)
7. Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms when My Lab Tests are Normal by Datis Kharrazian, DHSc, DC, MS
8. The work of Dr. John Lee, M.D.