Saturday, February 28, 2015

Taming your Sweet (or Salty) Tooth

Does the mere anticipation of cake, muffin, ice cream, or any other dessert give your brain a rush and keep your attention from other tasks attenuated until you eat them? What if you're not hungry or even if you just ate a meal? Doesn't matter, right? =)

Likewise for all those salty chips, pretzels, and roasted nuts. That coworker next to your desk at work didn't have time for lunch, so he substituted his with these. You just came back from lunch -- overstuffed -- but the anticipation of crackling chips in your mouth overpowered all resolves of self-control, didn't it?

And no one can eat just one of those, so it's got to be the whole packet. Only 120 calories, right? =)

I have been there too, and seldom catch myself off guard even now. But how did it reduce from an everyday thing to, maybe, a once a month occurrence? The trick lies in understanding the patterns and effects of our salt and sugar consumption and reducing one to combat cravings for the other.

Processed foods are laden with abnormally high amounts of salt and/or sugar. Why, may you ask. There are primarily three components that make food items tasty -- fat, salt, and sugar. F-a-t makes us F-A-T; everyone knows that. So how to make something taste good without fat? Add lots of salt. Or lots of sugar. Or both (aka soda and other carbonated drinks). It's that simple.

What is worse is when a lot of sugar is used to hide a lot of salt, our tongue can't tell how much salt we just had. But our brain does get hooked to sugar like it would to alcohol or narcotics -- it lights up in the same regions -- and the reward chemical, dopamine, spikes and reinforces desire for more. This is why the mere anticipation of a dessert gives us a rush and keeps our lips smacking.

When that happens to not just you and me but a whole generation around America and the world, Sugar: the Bitter Truth makes big headlines. Other conscious folks post abridged versions. Dire public health warnings are issued. Mere mortals like me try to do their bit in explaining how our existing eating habits keep reinforcing themselves, thereby determining our health long-term.

Now, what do you feel like eating after you've had something overwhelmingly sweet? Something salty, right? And what about after eating something very salty? Something sweet, obviously. When gone unchecked, our increased consumption of salt and sugar only reinforces the desire for more of each until the balance of these two spirals out of control and body can't take it anymore without signaling symptoms like high blood pressure (caused by salt) and diabetes (from sugar).

Clearly, salt and sugar -- in the forms we know them today -- are not needed in such large quantities by our body to function properly and thrive in the first place. For, if they were needed, they would be available in Nature in a ready-to-consume form, like all other vitamins, minerals, and nutrients are.

When you pause to think about it, both salt and sugar are either manufactured directly or are by-products of other industrial processes! If only our culture had learned to listen to our bodies, we would be able to avoid falling into this tailspin much before it gets so late. But sadly, so far, we only respond to the very basic needs -- to urinate, defecate, sleep, have sex, and resist physical pain.

So, then, how to form eating habits that naturally minimize ones intake of salt and processed, artificial sugars? After all, even a home-cooked meal has more salt than the body needs because it is the salt that makes that lentil or meat tender. After that meal comes the homemade dessert to balance out that salt... followed by salted hash browns the next morning. =)

Turns out that minimally processed plant foods -- in their raw, naturally available form -- contain just the right amount of salt and sugar to provide our body with everything it needs to function, look radiant, and thrive.

How much salt can you add to a salad before it gets bitter and mushy? Do you feel the need to sprinkle sugar on ripe bananas, peaches, cherries, and grapes. Do you feel the urge to eat something salty after eating fruits or something sugary after a salad or raw soup? Most likely, no.

One might still ask how fruits, being predominantly sugary, don't lead to the same diabetic conditions as from processed foods? To answer that, not all fruits we eat have to be sweet, and likewise, not all sugars are created equal.

Our body processes fructose from fruits very differently from the high fructose corn syrup used as sweetener in most processed foods and the glucose found in bread and pasta. In knowing that difference lies the key to eat plenty of sugar that provides real, clean energy to our body and sustain its peak performance without sending our brain down the whirlpool of insatiable desire for salt and sugar.

So I hope the next time you find yourself reaching out for that cake or packet of chips, you will pause for a second to take stock of what you've been eating recently and make a different, less processed choice. It only takes one moment of awareness to begin altering our deepest etched habits.

Your (un)sweet blogger,

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