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updated: 3/8/2011 12:58 PM

Cravings may have emotional, physical ties

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Q. I seem to be craving sweets all the time lately. Do I just need more self-discipline, or what should I do?

A. Your increased cravings for sweets could stem from physical factors such as fatigue, dramatic increases in exercise without adequate fuel, going too long without eating or poorly balanced meals and snacks.

Eating mainly refined carbohydrate foods, such as white bread, pasta and other refined grains and little protein can leave you feeling like your blood sugar is on a roller coaster, and each time it hits bottom, you'll crave sweets.

If any of these sound familiar, try for one week to eat three regular meals each day, each including whole grains and vegetables or fruits along with high protein foods such as beans, poultry, seafood, dairy or meat. Add a snack in between meals as needed for hunger, but aim for choices like fruit or nuts that will sustain hunger better.

On the emotional side, if you've been a lot more stressed, anxious, or in need of comfort, some people are conditioned to crave sweets at these times. A feeling of being deprived can set off cravings for whatever might be "off limits;" for some people, just planning to start a diet leads to thoughts of "I better load up now, because soon I won't get any." If any of this sounds like you, check your phone book or the American Dietetic Association website (eatright.org) for a registered dietitian who is trained to combine sound nutrition with mindful eating and other treatments for "disordered eating" (eating influenced by distorted thinking patterns).

If none of these potential reasons for cravings sounds like you, or if you try these suggestions with no improvement, do talk with your doctor. A variety of hormonal changes can lead to cravings, and some may warrant medical attention.

Q. I'm just too tired to be as physically active as I know I should be. How do people have the energy for this?

A. It's not unusual to hear people say they don't have enough energy for physical activity.

First, try to decide if you are more physically or emotionally tired. If you are physically tired, why? If you aren't getting enough sleep because you stay up trying to unwind watching TV or getting caught up on the Internet, here's an idea: set an alarm in the evening to help you go to bed earlier, moving bedtime back 15 to 20 minutes a night until you find a time that helps you wake up rested in the morning.

If you lack energy because your eating habits don't provide lasting fuel, use models like the American Institute for Cancer Research's New American Plate to get balanced meals (at least two-thirds of your plate each time you eat is made up of whole grains, vegetables and fruits; up to one-third from animal protein like meat, poultry or seafood).

We each have different natural body rhythms; some feel more energy in the morning, others later on. Try aiming for physical activity at the time when you naturally have the most energy. However, maybe you're not exhausted physically, but emotionally, from stress and trying to juggle many concerns.

In this case, it's hard to believe, but if you can talk yourself into just 10 minutes of movement -- because you need it to feel better -- you may be surprised at how much better you feel. After you've done this a few times and see the difference it makes, remind yourself that taking 10 or 20 minutes to release stress will pay off in leaving you feeling less tired and better able to cope. If this tiredness continues, do check with your doctor, because it could be a sign of anemia or another disorder that requires treatment.

• Learn more about the American Institute for Cancer Research and its New American Plate program at aicr.org.

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