Note: Please see the updates on healthism here. Flexibility, social connection, enjoyment of health, and not obsessing on perfection of diet is what makes health a means, not an end.
Halloween can be a time of celebration, treats, and imagination. For some, it can also be a scary beginning to easily accessible junk foods and uncontrollable eating through the holidays. In this blog, I discuss the dark and bright side to this holiday and how to tame the temptation of getting stuck in unhealthy patterns.
As a naturopathic and functional doctor, you may have assumed that I was NOT a big fan of a day that exalts eating sugar-laden treats, but there are good reasons to enjoy this spooky day too!! Let’s look at both.
Note: Beware of Healthism Before Reading On. This post is for those who already their relationship with food and feel a physiological reason why they can’t stop sugar.
The Scary Facts
Candy Corn Has WHAT in It?
It’s true, there’s many health deterring ingredients in the “treats” of Halloween. In fact, I just read an article in Science Daily, “Halloween candy deconstructed: Ingredients of a few popular Halloween candies.” Caution, if you click the link, it was real-life scary!! For example, here’s information on just one ingredient in candy corn. The article states:
Confectioner’s Glaze. Lac-resin is a secretion made by a lac bug. According to the Shellac & Forest Products Export Promotion Council: “Lac cultivation is done by putting sticks of lac encrustations (broodlac) which contain mature female (gravid) insects, which are about to give birth to young larvae, on suitably prepared specific host plants. After emergence from the mother cells, the young larvae settle on the fresh twigs of the host plants, suck the plant sap and grow to form encrustations. The twigs containing these encrustations are harvested after they are fully grown to extract the lac res.” Basically this is food grade shellac and what creates the candy’s hard coating.
Gross!! SOOO sorry candy corn lovers!
The Vicious Cycle of Sugar Cravings
Another reason Halloween can be fearsome is that some people will get stuck in a cycle of cravings. This is due to the addictive properties of junk food. Manufactures use the science of food pleasures theories and principles to turn up the volume on our taste buds and hijack our brain’s executive function for healthier choices. (I discuss this in more detail here.) Furthermore, for some people, one bite can lead to a “bag gone” simply due to a poor choice when hungry. For others, biochemistry and genetic vulnerabilities may make it difficult time to stop. In other words, things get more complicated when someone is fighting physiology, psychology, willpower, and food availability.
Below are some factors that may trigger someone to be a sugar-binger versus a sugar-biter:
- dietary induced hunger (or nutrient deficiency)- dieters tend to get hungry and have more cravings versus people who choose to fast for health reason (1, 2, 3) or are well-nourished
- differences in brain neurotransmitter signaling- this can be due to genetic variances, inflammation, or physiological imbalances. Whatever the cause, changing brain signals effects mood, cravings, hormones, stress response, and many aspects in our physiology that modulate appetite (4, 5, 6, 7, 8)
- hormones and blood sugar imbalance (7, 9, 10)
- quality of diet, diet history, and macronutrient content (protein, fat, carbs)-although studies are not consistent, there is some evidence that dietary patterns can effect appetite (5, 11)
- sleep deprivation (9, 13) has been shown to increase cravings
- stress (9, 14, 15)
- mood (9, 10)
- weight – obese individuals have been found to have different brain patterns than individuals. When eating hyperpalatable foods, those with more weight have intensified food cravings (16)
- microbiome (rodent studies, various mechanisms that influence appetite)
….and more (check out some more in my weight loss and cravings series in part I, II, III, and IV)
Below is a wonderful 2-part video on kicking the cravings with Dr. Amen. Dr. Amen is a double board certified psychiatrist, brain imaging specialist, and nine-time New York Times bestselling author. His approach to diet is beyond recommending a dietary trend for weight loss. Rather, he determines what type of diet is best for your brain. Through his experience with looking at many people’s brains he has discovered five different types of overeaters. He explains in his article on Huffington Post:
As we looked at the brains of our overweight patients, we discovered that again there was NOT ONE brain pattern associated with being overweight, there were at least five. We saw patterns associated with brains that tended to be compulsive … some were impulsive … others were sad … and still others anxious … in various combinations. This is exactly the reason why most diets don’t work. They take a one-size-fits-all approach, which from our brain imaging work makes absolutely no sense at all.
In Part I, he discusses:
- Outsmarting cravings by controlling blood sugar, avoiding simple sugars and artificial sweeteners, stress management, acknowledging food triggers, discovering food sensitivities, allergies, and intolerance, and using the proper supplementation as necessary.
- What to do with compulsive overeating type.
- How to deal with salt cravings.
In Part II, he discusses:
- What causes carbohydrate cravings.
- Tips on incorporating your brain type to regulate energy, hormones, and modulate weight loss.
- The role of hormones on cravings.
- Helping teenagers with unhealthy cravings.
Now, let’s move beyond the scare and into the fun of October 31st! Click here to read the good that comes with this celebration of Halloween and find some tools to use if you catch yourself unhappily seeking out more and more sugar beyond your best intentions.