Your cravings are in your genes

Anthropologists suggest that early humans were hunter-gatherers with diets high in protein, fat and fiber, and for the most part, low in simple carbohydrates. It wasn’t until the development of agriculture that the proportion of simple carbohydrates in the human diet began to increase. The modern age led to a particularly steep rise in consumption of refined carbohydrates, especially in Western societies.

Imagine living thousands of years ago: everything you ate would have been either gathered (such as berries and greens) or hunted (such as wild game). It would have been common for you to go days without food. When you had the strength, skill and luck to kill a buffalo, you and your family would have gorged yourselves because eating such a substantial meal was a relatively unpredictable event.

Seasonal fruits (or hives of honey) were rare feasting opportunities that provided the extra energy needed for a hunt. Eating them so infrequently allowed our pancreas to cope with the occasional indulgence in sugar.

It’s estimated that Homo sapiens evolved about 200,000 years ago. We began to farm staple crops like roots and grains about 10,000 years ago. With the advent of modern industrial technology, we were able to refrigerate, can or preserve food as never before. The problem with these practices is that our physiology has not evolved fast enough to keep up. Genetically, we remain very similar to our ancestors of 10,000 years ago. Yet, relatively suddenly, we have an endless supply of grains, sugar, corn and potatoes, all of which overwhelm the pancreas and throw the hormones out of balance. Craving foods that are high in sugar and fat makes perfect biological sense, since up until about a century ago, our bodies still operated in a state of feast or famine.

Foods high in sugar and fat guaranteed we would have had enough calories to survive. However, rather than expending thousands of calories hunting and gathering or cultivating our food the way our ancestors did, today we may only expend 75 calories driving to the store to pick up a fatty portion of ground-up cow and some white crusty buns to go along with it.

Cravings Are Not Your Fault

Your body craves sugary or starchy foods when it is lacking certain chemicals necessary for your body and emotions to function properly.

When you indulge in carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels are quickly stabilized. Your brain receives a “quick fix” of energy, your taste buds stimulate the production of “feel good” hormones (for example, serotonin and various endorphins) in your brain and your entire nervous system feels soothed. Glucose, a type of simple sugar, is such an important fuel for your body that even your intestines can detect sugar the same way the taste buds on your tongue do!

Your mental and physical experiences from eating sweet foods tend to be so rewarding that it’s understandable you crave sugar when you’re hungry, cold or stressed. Your appetite and cravings are regulated and influenced by a complex suite of factors. Serotonin is a chemical produced in your brain that helps to regulate appetite and satiation. It also plays a role in emotions. However, serotonin is also produced in your intestines, and as its levels in your blood rise, you feel satisfied and relaxed. Certain foods and pharmaceutical drugs will affect the production of serotonin in your gut, providing one direct link between food and mood.

If you have trouble sleeping at night and fi nd yourself reaching for bread or sweets after 8 p.m., you may actually be looking for a way to soothe your nerves with serotonin. Dr. Judith Wurtman, cell biologist and nutritionist, explains: “In some people, the carbohydrate-serotonin mechanism may go awry and they develop frequent carbohydrate cravings that prompt them to eat when they’re not hungry. Those with nighttime carbohydrate cravings may unconsciously be using carbohydrates as a sedative, capitalizing on serotonin’s sleep-inducing property.”

Cravings are a natural part of living and eating. In my experience, my cravings continued even after I committed to conscious eating. Instead of reaching for the refined foods I used to love, I gradually began to choose foods that were nourishing rather than depleting.

The same is possible for you. Understanding how you can control your cravings instead of letting them control you can help you become aware of your actions and their consequences. Giving your body all the nutrients it needs in the right proportions and at the right times throughout the day will help you avoid drops in blood sugar that put you in sugar-craving mode. The recipes in the MTHI plan are powerful tools in gaining control over your cravings.

Excerpted from Meals That Heal Inflammation by Julie Daniluk, R.H.N. Copyright © 2011 by Daniluk Consulting. Photographs Copyright © 2011 by Julie Daniluk. Excerpted by permission of Random House Canada. All rights reserved.