Elisa Haggarty is a Certiﬁed Holistic Health Consultant and Natural Foods Chef who strongly believes in the power of delicious food and stress management techniques to live an abundantly rich & healthy life. She received her Professional Holistic Health Coaching training at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition in NYC and has graduated from The Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC. She is the Founder & CEO of CULINARY FARMACY which is a soul centered company dedicated to being the hub for food and healing by educating, inspiring and empowering women and new health seekers to reclaim their health through dietary and lifestyle upgrades.
We caught up with Elisa for a candid interview to help break the misconceptions surrounding “Sugar Cravings”.
Q: How can one differentiate between a general “liking” for sweets and habitual craving?
Sure, some people can have a bite or two of chocolate and move on, while others feel compelled to eat the entire bar. Many of my clients feel as though their meal is incomplete without sugar, or they just need something sweet to get them through stressful times. In my experience, the majority of people I know, as well as those I work with are very much addicted to sugar.
It’s not hard to see why humans are so sweet on sweets when we consider human evolution and current science. Sweet foods are not typically plentiful in nature, unless of course you lived in tropical areas where mango, papaya and pineapples grew on trees, but even then- that was only a small percentage of one’s diet.
Humans are hard-wired to seek out the most calorically dense food and in today’s world our candy bars, sweet laden junk foods are incredibly high in calories, salt and of course, sugar. Once sugar touches our taste buds a complex and powerful cascade of events is triggered involving taste, mood, memory, and reward systems in the brain.There is of course that “sugar high” which increases blood glucose, cortisol production and even serotonin in the brain, which is known as our happy neurotransmitter. We literally feel euphoria when we consume sweet foods for a variety of reasons.
The modern day supermarket has over 600,000 items and over 80% of those items have added sugar to them. From a physiological and behavioral perspective, it’s almost like we are set up to fail in a world of quick, easy and cheap food. For anyone who has dealt with sugar cravings you know how out of control you can feel. I am here to tell you that cravings are not your fault, so hang tight–there are solutions!
Q: Are sugar cravings caused due to nutritional deficiencies in our body?
Remember when I said that cravings are not your fault? Well, they aren’t and nutritional deficiencies are one of the biggest reasons why humans crave sugar. It is also important to understand that cravings are not a sign of weakness, rather it’s our bodies way of communicating to us and letting us know where we are off balance. If we listen close enough, our cravings can provide great insight and direction for where we need to go.
One of the minerals that most Americans and athletes are deficient in is magnesium. Magnesium has hundreds of functions in the human body but perhaps most importantly it helps promote muscle relaxation (muscle cramps), a healthy and relaxed central nervous system, and helps to relieve constipation. Magnesium is also found in chocolate, which explains why so many Americans crave their favorite chocolate treat. The catch is that sugar, which is one of the main ingredients in most chocolate today, actually depletes our magnesium stores.
In addition to magnesium deficiencies, our need to consume sweets goes back to blood sugar balance. Our blood sugar, or glucose changes with each meal, drink, and even stressful event in our daily lives, so it is constantly rising and falling. This change in glucose is a normal part of metabolism, but we want to prevent drastic changes in our blood sugar. If possible, we want our glucose to resemble more of a rolling hill rather than terrain filled with mountains and ditches.
It is these extreme changes in glucose that cause damage to our organs and keep us hooked on those sugary or starchy snacks. One of the keys to keep blood sugar levels balanced is the inclusion of dietary fat. For too many years we were told “fat is bad” and now we know the culinary and dietary importance of fat. Fat helps to regulate blood glucose levels because it takes the longest to breakdown and digest of all the macronutrients. Fat is your friend and will certainly help to curb sugar cravings.
Q: How much of a role do stress and emotional factors play in excessive cravings?
Stress and emotional factors play a massive role in cravings of all kinds, but particularly sugar. Humans are emotional beings and we should embrace this, not run from it. Unfortunately we live in a society where we tend to numb or push away emotional discomfort and stress. Like cravings, stress and emotional factors are warning signals that are telling us we are at our limit and we need to step back and address the root cause–which isn’t necessarily the desired path for most because it may be painful, difficult, and get in the way of our “to-do” list.
With regards to stress, so much happens in our bodies when we go into “fight or flight”. During times of stress all of our energy is geared towards addressing the emergency at hand so our metabolic, digestive, and immune systems shuts down. Our prefrontal cortex, which helps in decision-making,also shuts down during times of stress, lending to irrational and impulsive decision-making. According to Robert Sapolsky,a neurobiologist at Stanford University, the main job of the modern prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain- and therefore, you- toward doing “the harder thing”. It’s hard to say no to cookies, bread, alcohol and candy when our stress hormones are elevated and we can’t make rational decisions.
Since food can be such a pleasurable experience, it makes perfect sense that humans look to food to numb the pain and or to celebrate joy in life. The majority of my work in my practice is geared towards mindful eating and mindful living, which tackles emotional cravings, and this ultimately addresses bigger health issues like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Very often I tell people that food is the easy part, it’s how we eat, and when, that seems to play an incredibly important role in the expression of our genes and health.
Q: What are the natural ways to strengthen one’s resolve against these cravings?
Luckily we have numerous free resources to help us in cultivating more intuition and mindfulness around food. The #1 tip I have people in my practice do is to adopt some kind of deep breathing routine they can go to 2-3 times throughout the day to help mediate stress and simply slow down. When we learn to sit with ourselves for even 5 seconds at a time we are strengthening the prefrontal cortex region of the brain, which will help with impulsive habits.
Very often, food is not the issue; it is how we are living.
I haven’t seen too many Buddhist monks inhaling their food, eating “on the go” and barely chewing. And I also haven’t seen too many people who work 3 jobs and live an incredibly hectic life spending 30 minutes to sit down in silence with their meals and chew their food mindfully. In essence, if we live a hectic crazy mindless life then we can be assured cravings will follow and our eating habits will be poor.
In addition to breathing, I always recommend adopting a meditation practice. Meditation is often confused for having a clear mind and being incredibly peaceful, but allow me to briefly dispel that rumor. In our meditation practice, we are simply cultivating awareness and the resilience to come back again and again to the breath. We sit and thoughts come up, we recognize them and instead of getting caught up in the “mind chatter” we come back to the breath, and this process may happen 50 times in a 1 minute span, but we just keep coming back to the present moment and our breath. This too allows us to cultivate self-compassion, intuition, and self-control.
Q: What fatal diseases or imbalances can sugar cravings lead to?
All chronic disease comes from a perfect storm of events and can’t be blamed on any one food or factor. Sugar is certainly an ingredient that exacerbates silent inflammation and literally adds fuel to the fire for whatever ailment may be present. It is interesting to know that just 1 teaspoon of sugar suppresses immune cell production for up to 4-5 hours.
So, if someone is sick or battling a common cold for example chugging a tall glass of orange juice and indulging in some chocolate will keep him or her sick, and possibly even worsen their condition. Sugar consumption has been associated with diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, depression and autoimmune conditions, to name a few.
Q: Do you treat this as an emotional disorder, an addiction or a nutritional deficiency?
I don’t know that you can address sugar cravings without addressing the physiology, psychology, or the environmental. The human body is brilliantly interconnected and if we wish to really get to the root of the issue at hand we should always address the entirety of a person and their environment.