By Team ICG® Master Trainer Joan Kent
Training and nutrition go hand in hand. The more we train, the more questions may arise about what to eat. The questions matter to indoor-cycling instructors because our students come to us for answers.
Food cravings are one of the more interesting things that may occur with increased training. A craving is an intense urge or desire to eat a specific type of food. A common craving is for sugary foods. Some students can indulge their sugar cravings without repercussions. For others, giving in to cravings repeatedly can undermine their training or even lead to health issues — weight gain, high cholesterol, mood swings, diabetes, and more.
Below are some causes of sugar cravings to help you answer questions from your students.
Low glucose. This is probably the one we hear most often. The theory is that sugar cravings are caused by low blood glucose, which might occur if someone hasn”™t eaten in a long time, or has skipped breakfast to take an early class. Evidence supports this. In fact, sugar cravings occur in response to how fast glucose drops, rather than how low. This could also mean that the student is eating junky carbs, which trigger lots of insulin and are fast “glucose-droppers.”
Biological need. Some sources think cravings express a biological need and should be answered with a “dose” of the craved food. Salt cravings are usually the example and seem to corroborate this viewpoint. Many people crave salty foods after hard trainings, so I”™m inclined to think that salt cravings could indicate a biological need.
Evidence doesn”™t support this explanation with respect to sugar cravings, though. Sugar has been shown to be addictive. A drug addict will get cravings for that drug, but the cravings don”™t indicate a basic biological need and might suggest withdrawal (see below).
Too little fat. Research documents a sugar/fat seesaw (as one decreases in the diet, the other increases). Sugar cravings can definitely result from a diet that”™s too low in fats. A previous ICI/PRO post (Controlling the Sugar/Fat Seesaw) explained that specific hormones and brain chemicals are involved. Eating healthful fats is a helpful solution.
Withdrawal. Another factor is withdrawal if, say, a student has recently quit drinking alcohol. This involves the chemicals affected by the original substance. Alcohol stimulates three brain chemicals that are also stimulated by sugar. The similarity makes sugar a short-term substitute for alcohol when cravings occur and explains why people in recovery from alcohol (or drugs) crave sugar and may eat it frequently or in large quantities. That can backfire due to priming (see Triggers below).
Triggers. Triggers may be external (seeing or smelling an appealing food) or internal (eating a small amount of a trigger food). Internal triggering is known as “priming”, and a small amount makes us want more. It”™s the result of a specific brain receptor for the chemical dopamine. Some people are more susceptible to priming than others.
Chronic stress. While short-term stress tends to decrease appetite, chronic stress can stimulate appetite, alter brain chemistry, and result in mood changes and a preference for sugar.
Dysphoria. Dysphoria refers to bad moods. Any bad mood can trigger a sugar craving. Sugar alters brain chemistry in a way that changes mood, at least temporarily. Unfortunately, it can make things worse in the long run.
Serotonin disturbances. Disturbances in the chemical serotonin may occur in depression, seasonal affective disorder, PMS, menopause, chronic alcohol use, or insulin resistance. Any of these may result in sugar cravings. Serotonin is made from tryptophan, an amino acid. Insulin resistance can reduce serotonin production by keeping tryptophan from getting to the brain. Insulin resistance in ”¨turn may be caused by lots of things: genetics, obesity, chronic stress, or a diet that”™s too high in fats, junky carbs, or fructose, the sugar in fruit.
Other craving triggers include a low-protein diet (this is a big one), or B-vitamin deficiencies, which tend to occur in clusters, rather than individually.
As I recommended in an interview with John several months ago, the fastest and most effective way to eliminate any craving is to take a teaspoon of TwinLab Super-B Complex. The B vitamins are co-factors (catalysts) in the formation of several key brain chemicals. When the chemicals are at optimal levels, cravings stop and don”™t recur for up to 24 hours.
If your students are serious about eliminating cravings more permanently, you might suggest that they eat protein with virtually every meal or snack. Protein provides the amino acids for the brain chemicals that stop cravings.
My colleague Jim Karanas claims that people may lack awareness of cravings. He says we may disregard feelings about a food when our desire for it is unnaturally strong and justify eating it unconsciously.
Maybe that”™s true. A final point, though, is that eating sugar can and will prime cravings, so the less sugar a student eats, the better. True, that”™s easier said than done for some, but protein, healthful fats, and liquid B-complex can help.
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