Sugar 101: Yin/Yang Imbalance
When it comes to sugar, it is not simply that we don’t have the willpower or discipline to control our cravings – there are some deeper, physiological and biological reasons behind our urges.
What I will do here is to help you understand why you have those uncontrollable cravings, and what we can do to reduce them naturally and gradually over time. When we understand the reason behind those cravings, we have a much better chance to outsmart them and curb them using ways other than sugar. If you haven’t read the first piece in this series be sure to go back and do that here.
Eating foods that throw our body out of balance can create food cravings. It is very helpful to look at this idea under the lens of Yin/Yang balance. This concept is grounded in how the energetics of foods is regarded in oriental medicine. We can put all our foods along the Yin/Yang spectrum.
Yin foods are the ones that are cool and expanding in nature, while Yang foods are ones that are warm and contracting in nature. “Cool” and “warm”, in this context, have nothing to do with the temperature that the foods are served.
Our body is very smart and is always striving for balance. So if you eat too much Yin food, your body will crave some Yang food to balance it out. And vice versa. It’s seems to be ok, except some of the extreme Yin and extreme Yang foods are not good for our health.
Yin foods are expanding in nature, and they provide the feeling of lightness, elevation in mood and relief from blockage and stagnation. Some examples of extreme yin foods are sugar, alcohol, chemicals, coffee, dairy, honey and spices.
Refined sugar is an extremely yin food. It causes an increase in serotonin level, followed by rapid decline. When the level of serotonin – the “feel good” hormone – falls, we typically experience feelings of depression, low energy, anxiety and loss of concentration. Most likely our body will crave extreme yang foods to balance the equation. Often times we overshoot and cause our body to crave yin foods to regain balance. We find ourselves ping-ponging between extreme yin and extreme yang foods, using one type of extreme food to alleviate the effect of the other.
Examples of extreme yang foods are sea salt, eggs, cheese and red meat. If we are eating a lot of these foods – and often our diet is full of such salty and meaty foods – our body will want to balance their effect by craving yin foods. Yin foods include leafy greens and whole grains, but unfortunately also include sugar and alcohol, which are more extreme on the spectrum and therefore provide more immediate “relief”.
Armed with this knowledge, you can reduce your sugar cravings by eating less extreme yang foods and instead, choose foods that are more neutral on the spectrum. Examples are whole grains, fish, sea vegetables, beans, root vegetables, and winter squash.
To create balance, we need to limit foods that are either too yin or too yang. Our bodies can take in a certain quantity of extreme foods without creating too much imbalance – and this quantity is different for everyone. But when we exceed our personal limit, there are consequences. If you eat extreme foods daily, your body will become exhausted and depleted as it frantically tries to rebalance itself, day in day out. To get out of the cycle, you need to deconstruct what you are craving, and seek out less extreme, healthier alternatives to satisfy your body.
In the case of sugar, you may want to experiment with eating sea vegetables, root vegetables, squash, leafy green vegetables, local fruits, nuts and seeds – and see if your cravings subside.
Sweet vegetables are very neutral on the yin/yang spectrum; they provide a gentle way to help your body maintain balance without getting too extreme. They are also very grounding in nature. Examples of these veggies include carrots, onions, squashes and sweet potatoes. Include them in your meals, and see if they help reduce your urge for desserts. One of my favorites is mashed sweet potato with a touch of butter or coconut oil, a drizzle of maple syrup and topped with toasted walnuts – it’s like having dessert for dinner!
To understand your limit for extreme foods, you have to cultivate awareness and closely observe how your body reacts to foods. You may need to keep a food journal at the beginning, but as you practice observing your reaction to food, this will become more intuitive and much easier.
Herbs and Spices
And speaking of dessert, here is one bonus tip: we can use herbs and spices to help control our cravings. Coriander, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom naturally sweeten your foods so they can help curb your sugar cravings by satisfying your need for sweet taste.
Cinnamon helps regulate blood sugar level, and also brings out the sweet flavor in foods. Sprinkle some cinnamon on a baked apple or pear, top it with chopped walnuts, and you have a dessert without added sugar!
I want to conclude with a mindset tip. This is the 90/10 rule. Eat well and healthy 90% of the time, and let yourself indulge without guilt 10% of the time. Don’t beat yourself up if you slip – this kind of guilt and beating yourself up does not help you stay on track.
Deprivation is not a sustainable way to make changes that last. You may be able to go cold turkey on your favorite food for two weeks, but what happens after your “diet”? Most people will probably binge, feel bad, and give up. Allowing yourself to eat what you love, and possibly finding healthier substitutes to satisfy your taste buds, is how you can make healthy changes that will bring you benefits for a long time to come.
Next week: Understanding sugar and fatigue!