Question: How do I satisfy my chocolatey sweet tooth without throwing away a workout?
Answer (Part I): Eat chocolate! Opt for at least 80% cacao dark chocolate, and savor every morsel!
Well, that's one answer. Let me explain….
Food and exercise are just two pieces of the good health/optimal weight/look-great-naked equation. Other parts include stress and sleep (arguably the two most important), environment and toxicity, social connection, personal growth, and rest/relaxation.
The mindset that eating a piece of chocolate (or a spoonful of peanut butter, or ice cream, etc.) will “throw away” a workout is more reflective of the seemingly logical, yet far short-sighted, belief that weight = calories in + calories out.
In other words, the idea that as long as more calories are burned than are consumed, you’ll lose weight. For instance, run 20 minutes and burn 215 calories, then eat a snickers bar (215 calories), and suddenly that run never even happened.
Yes, calories do indeed matter, but it’s not that simple (really, I wish it were!).
Calories function in different ways. For instance, 200 calories in a kit kat bar would not serve your body the same way 200 calories from an avocado would. Additionally, there are several other major players, including metabolism, body fat setpoint, hormones, and the brain.
Metabolism and Body Fat Setpoint
Metabolism is how your body converts food into energy. Everyone’s metabolism is different (you know those people who can eat anything without gaining an ounce? Ugh…) and dependent on past and present diet/health conditions. New research is also discovering that our gut microbiota impacts how we metabolize food. Changes in gut flora have been shown to affect appetite and how fats/carbohydrates are absorbed and stored.
The body fat setpoint is your body’s innate system used to match energy intake and expenditure, which ensures a stable and healthy fat mass. According to obesity researcher and neurobiologist Stephan Guyenet, the body’s setpoint is able to do this by controlling food seeking behaviors, regulating feelings of fullness, and determining energy expenditure by heat production and physical movements. To learn more about body fat setpoint, you can read an entire series Guyenet posted beginning here.
Hormones and the Brain
There are several hormones (chemical messengers) in the body, but some of the main ones that have to do with blood sugar / metabolism / appetite regulation include insulin, leptin, and ghrelin, glucagon and cortisol. The way in which these hormones function partly depends on the food you eat, and their messages are far more powerful than any amount of will power!
For example, the hormone leptin is in charge of energy balance. Leptin communicates with the brain how much body fat is stored and controls energy intake and expenditure. When this hormone is functioning properly, the body remains not too fat, nor too lean, but just right for survival.
Now consider when this hormone does NOT work properly: the brain doesn’t get the message from leptin that you have enough fat (because you’ve become leptin resistant by eating too many low nutrient, high carbohydrate meals), metabolism turns down, appetite spikes, and fat storage increases. Yikes! (I realize I jumped over a lot of detail in how this would come to be, but that’s the bottom line, and further explanation will require an entire post on its own!).
Your hormones are powerful parts of whole body health/weight regulation, and their balance is much more dependent on overall, long-term diet choices rather than a once in a while sweet tooth indulgence.
Bottom line, If you’re giving in to a chocolatey-sweet tooth craving once or twice a week, don’t worry about it canceling a work-out. There are far bigger things at play in determining optimal weight and body composition, including metabolism, body fat setpoint, hormones, and more.
This is also related to the 80/20 rule, which refers to sticking to your optimal diet 80% of the time, then 20% of the time allowing yourself to eat whatever you want.
But what if you’re putting in all this focus and effort to work out and eat well, and indulging in that craving just feels defeating. You get that it won’t actually cancel your workout, but psychologically, it feels like a fail.
How to Curb (or Kill) your Sugar Cravings
Cut out ALL sugar. If you really want to squash your sugar addiction, cut it out 100%. No short-cuts on this one! Sugar is SO sneaky and you could be eating it without even realizing. Maybe you don’t have muffins, pastries, or cookies, but do you...
- buy sauces, marinades or salad dressings?
- eat out at restaurants?
- eat bars as meal replacements or snacks?
- buy kombucha?
- add ketchup or hot sauce?
- use natural sweeteners like honey or stevia?
*Always read labels!*
When you eat sugar (or anything sweet), your body naturally wants more of it. This is because sugar causes an opiate-like effect in our brains, registers it as a reward, and makes us seek more. Additionally, our bodies are hardwired to enjoy the taste of sweet, as long ago it directed our ancestors to nutrient rich, non-poisonous foods. Back then, sweet tasting fruit was harder to come by and only available seasonally, and was far less sweet than the cultivated fruits we have today (not to mention all the hyper-sweetened ingredients that food scientists have created in the form of artificial sweeteners, processed foods, sodas, candy, etc.) So if you’re eating even a little bit of sugar, your cravings could be stemming from there…
Eat enough at regular meals. Perhaps you’re still wanting something more because you’re simply not getting enough nutrients at your regular meals. If you’re working out, appetite naturally goes up to match higher energy expenditure. Similar to the gas in your car; the more you drive, the more gas you’ll need. If you work out hard, but eat like a rabbit in hopes to lose weight, metabolism will slow and hunger hormone ghrelin will rise.
Balance with protein and fats. Getting enough of these two macronutrients will do wonders for appetite control and long term weight management. Protein is the most satiating, which means it will keep you full for longer, and fat is actually your body’s preferred energy source. When you eat enough protein and fat, it feels like someone flipped your hunger light switch off - you have no interest in eating, and your mind can focus on other things.
If you’re really struggling with cravings, aim for at least 20 grams of protein first thing in the morning. That’s about 3 eggs (or have leftovers from dinner). I personally do this and it sets me up for great success later in the day.
Wait 20 minutes. If you regularly eat a little somethin’ sweet after each meal, your body will learn to expect this and want it. You may even find yourself habitually returning to the kitchen even when you know you’re full, because that desire for a little sweet bite still lingers. I can totally relate to this!
First, eat slow. Chew well and put your fork down between bites. Then, wait at least 20 minutes after your meal (set a timer on your phone). During that 20 minutes, maybe engage in something else like reading, talking to a loved one, watching your favorite TV show, planning for tomorrow, writing in your journal, etc. Then after 20 minutes, revisit how you feel and decide if you still need something else. It takes about 15 minutes for your body to register with your brain just how full and satisfied you are (ever eat too quickly and then end up uncomfortably full?). Allow your body some time to feel complete, shift your focus, then re-evaluate.
Dealing with a sweet tooth (aka sugar addiction) can take a lot of effort and focus, however, once you’ve completely kicked the habit, the end result is pure freedom!
Hartwig, D. & H. (2012). It Starts with Food. USA: Victory Belt Publishing, Inc.
Taubes, G. (2007) Good Calories Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease. USA: Random House, Inc.