Food cravings, especially sugary or fat laden treats, are all too common when you have fibromyalgia. It’s not that they’re a direct symptom, but cravings are more of a consequence of fibromyalgia and there’s several reasons for this which involve both a physical and psychological aspect. Here’s a few you might recognize:
- Hypervigilance and an overworked stress-response spikes and crashes blood sugar levels, zapping you of your precious energy stores. This may cause a sudden urge in your body to replenish itself quickly and make you more likely to reach for the biscuit tin or that stash of chocs you’ve got hidden!
- Disrupted sleep and when your body doesn’t complete its much-needed sleep cycle it doesn’t get the time it needs to restore and produce the hormones needed to control appetite. Unrefreshed sleep also causes fatigue and a dip in energy the following day and this too can be a trigger to keep reaching for something sweet.
- Chronic pain is a big bully to your craving triggers and when pain strikes it messes with the wiring in your brain, lowering your mood and makes you anxious and triggers off your craving. When you feel like this here, there’s nothing worse than having to spend time in the kitchen preparing food, so it’s not surprising you reach for the easiest option. If this happens whilst your need for sugar is rocketing, the fight is over and sugar nearly always wins!
- Emotions like fear, frustration, anger, worry and helplessness often accompany the relentless pain we endure and of course nobody wants to feel like this so we try to distract, or comfort ourselves with something nice, like a nice piece of cake or something savoury. The problem here is that you can quite easily end up with the habit of emotional eating. You can read more about different eating types on What’s the Best Diet for Fibromyalgia (Part One).
- Cravings usually involve foods that have added sugar and this stuff can be highly addictive. It’s a substance that activates the reward centre of the brain and releases powerful chemical messengers, including dopamine which registers the reward and makes you want more because it makes you feel good about yourself. This can be a double edge sword if you are trying to lose a few pounds and often results with inner conflict and emotions like guilt, shame, body-hate and low self-esteem – the bad feelings you want to suppress in the first place. Reaching out for the biscuit tin, chocolate bar or bag of crisps only perpetuates the cycle and keeps you stuck in the never-ending loop.
There are umpteen studies that show that added sugar causes inflammation and increases pain levels. Quitting this type of sugar is up there with one of the best things you can do to reduce pain and better manage other fibromyalgia symptoms. Cravings are also one of the reasons that dieters have problems losing weight and keeping it off.
There’s nothing really wrong with food being a source of pleasure but cravings for sugar are something else and more so if you have fibromyalgia when considering the damage it does to your body. It takes sheer determination to break yourself free from sugar cravings because added sugar is a substance that is hidden in so many food and drink products. If you are trying to break free from this habit, you do much better when you take small steps and plan ahead with a few tried and tested strategies.
How to Manage Cravings and Quit Sugar
A good start is to recognise that cravings are a problem for you and that they are influenced both physically and psychologically. It also helps if you gain a good understanding of what sugar does to your body and how it affects fibromyalgia, you can read this on What’s the Best Diet for Fibromyalgia (Part Two).
Hunger, Thirst or Cravings
It’s really important to get to know your body and how your cravings are triggered. When you can identify what your body is asking for, you’ll begin to recognize the signs of hunger, cravings and thirst. Thirst is often mistaken as hunger or food cravings, so when this sudden urge to grab a specific food, try swopping this for a glass of water and wait for a few minutes to see if the craving subsides because your body was actually thirsty. Drinking a glass of water before your meal can also help to reduce your appetite, also helps with digestion and keeps you hydrated.
When you plan your meals ahead, in this way you will have everything you need at hand to make healthier options and reduces autopilot eating the types of foods which might be laden with hidden fats and added sugar. This is a good tip for managing daily life when you have fibromyalgia is to batch cook and freeze healthy meal options and you’ll always have them at hand on the difficult days.
A good tip is never shop on an empty stomach, instore or online where you’ll be less likely to fill your trolly with all the rubbish that the supermarket is trying to make you buy. Next time you shop notice how certain offers, buy one get one free etc., as well as refined carbohydrates and junk food, are strategically placed in your line of vision! This taps straight into your subconscious mind and before you know it’s in your trolly before you’ve had chance to blink – you have to get “Trollyology Smart” !
Pause – Shift your focus
Cravings seem to appear out of nowhere but be aware of the bombardment of subliminal information that bypasses your conscious brain and planting messages in the part of your brain that controls your emotions, thought and behaviour patterns. Self-awareness is key!
Sugar cravings are very much a physical response activated by certain systems in the body, such as converting blood sugar, but it also has a psychological element to it which is based so deep in your subconscious automatic thought patterns. These are generally out of your awareness but they evoke an emotional response in you that triggers your actions – like not being able to stop at just one biscuit. This is how powerful the mind is, so you can put this to good use by using it at the onset of a craving.
A helpful technique is to imagine that you have already managed to overcome the craving. Practiced overtime, this rewires the unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns. This technique works best when you can really power your mind and all senses to imagine how amazing this feels and how much control you have when you can see yourself overpowering and beating the craving – really feel the positive emotion, see yourself in triumph and hear the positive words you are telling yourself. This is a powerful mental rehearsal that your brain thinks is real – try it out and see.
Eat more Protein
It’s also important to avoid skipping meals or letting yourself get over hungry where you are more likely to give in to your craving. Most cravings occur due to hunger so try eating more protein in your meals, especially breakfast! When you start the day off with a satisfying meal, with a good portion of protein, this will help to make you feel full and satiated and less likely to need snacks in between meals. When you do need a snack, have a few healthy snacks at hand like a few chopped vegetables or fruits, nuts and seeds, oatcake or rice cake etc. These are full of fibre and nutrients that will sustain your energy, maintain blood sugar levels, improve your mood and pain tolerance!
Supplement with Chromium
Does your diet give you all the daily nutrients your body needs for optimal function? Try adding more chromium rich food to your diet. Chromium is a trace mineral that has an effect on insulin and is involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. When you eat too much sugary food it has to convert to glucose, (blood sugar) and this requires the release of insulin to move the glucose out of the blood stream to prevent the blood glucose levels from rocketing. When glucose is not used as energy the body converts this into stored fat for energy.
A problem occurs though if you are eating too much sugar and continuously releasing insulin, your blood sugar spikes and quickly falls and this is the point where physical cravings take hold. What happens next is that your body becomes resistant to the impact of insulin and you gain weight and risk developing Type 2 diabetes. Chromium is involved with the glucose tolerance factor (GTF) and reduces these risks. It’s naturally available in various foods you can add to your meal plans:
Wholegrains and certain cereal products
Vegetables, broccoli, potatoes, green beans
However, the amount of chromium present isn’t always guaranteed and largely depends on your gut’s ability to absorb other nutrients like Vit B’s and Vit C, which are both water soluble. This will also be influenced if you are on certain fibromyalgia or pain medications which are known to deplete the body of various nutrients. Absorption also depends on gut health and whether you also suffer with IBS or other gut health problems.
Another way to get chromium into your body is to take a supplement such as Chromium Picolinate which contains other vital nutrients to make it more easily absorbed, but heed must be taken since chromium is a trace mineral and only needed in tiny amounts. It is advised that you seek medical or nutritional advice before supplementing.
Mindfulness teaches you to bring your awareness to the present moment, the here and now. This is a state of mind that you can be completely in touch with all your senses, sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. How often we sit down to eat and finish a meal without any conscious awareness of even starting it! You look down at your plate, or the empty chocolate wrapper or crisp bag and it’s empty and you can’t remember tasting it! When you regularly practice mindful eating, it helps to break the habit of autopilot eating, where you eat mindlessly and are blind to your cravings.
Stress and the Influence on Sugar Cravings
Last but not least is stress management, a must for anyone with fibromyalgia. When you can manage your stress levels and separate the connection to using food to deal with the stressors in your life, you will be much more able to gain control over your cravings.
Eating is not an antidote to stress as you know, so try practicing effective methods such as breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation or go for a walk. Stress management is so important for your overall health and fundamentally essential to managing the symptoms of fibromyalgia. Once you find other methods to combat stress, you’ll automatically feel less inclined to give into your cravings. Remember though, there will always be stressors in life and your relationship with food or craving sugar doesn’t have to be one!
Related article: Fibromyalgia, Sensitivities and the Hidden Toxins in Food
Author Jok Saunders, founder of the Fibro Clinic South West