Sugar Cravings in an Athletic Woman

Do you exercise on a regular basis and have strong cravings for sugar? If so, you may be able to relate to the story of one of my clients, Jenny. (Of course, her name and minor details of her story has been changed). Here is the story of Jenny and my recommendations as how to help her decrease her sugar cravings…

Jenny is a 27 year old female who came to my office seeking guidance on how to deal with her sugar cravings. These cravings were at their worst late in the evening and she would often end up eating jumbo muffins, cookies by the handful or large amouts of candy. She was very upset regarding her “lack of control” with these sweets. Jenny was a very active women; she usually ran 5-7 miles a day 6 days a week. I obtained her diet history which reveal the following:

Jenny’s diet / exercise history
Exercise   7 am: ran 5-8 miles
Breakfast   9:30 am: egg white omelet with vegetables
Snack:  11 am: midmorning: nonfat yogurt
Lunch:  1 pm:  big salad with grilled chicken, fat free dressing
Snack:   4 pm:  100 calorie pack of cookies
Dinner:  7-8 pm: piece of  grilled chicken or fish, vegetables, sometimes (but usually not) a moderate portion of rice or sweet potato
Snacking   8 pm onward: at least 600 calories of sweets (jumbo muffin, black and white cookie, sugar free gummy bears, etc. )

My assessment of Jenny’s situation: I was not suprised at all by the fact that she had uncontrollable sugar cravings at night. Jenny was a very active woman (maybe a little too active!) and therefore had fairly high caloric and carb needs. Carbs are the preferred fuel during exercise and Jenny was not giving her body adequate carbs during the day. This led to strong sugar cravings at night – her body was trying to play catch up. As I noted in my previous post on causes of sugar cravings, taking your caloric or carb intake too low will cause your body to secrete neurotransmitters that can increase your desire for carbs. In addition, eating too few carbs will cause your energy levels to plummet for your workouts.

Here were the problem areas in Jenny’s diet and the solutions I came up with:

1. Problem: Not eating prior to exercise.  Jenny started off her day with a run at 7 am without fueling up beforehand. Her body was already in a fasted state since the night before.  Studies have shown that eating a light carb snack prior to cardio exercise can improve performance.  
 Solution: I often recommend eating a small carb snack(~ 80 – 100 calories)  prior to exercise. Examples: fruit, nonfat yogurt, handful of cereal, small energy bar, piece of toast. However, that being said, some people can’t tolerate eating really early in the morning prior to exercise. Jenny chose not to eat a pre-exercise snack as she felt it was too early to eat.

2. Problem: Inadequate carb intake after cardio exericse. After a cardio workout (especially a fairly long one like a 7 mile run), you have a 20-30 minute “window” to best replete your energy stores in your liver and muscles (called glycogen). Repleting these stores will help to energize you for the rest of the day, as well as keep you energized for your workouts the following days. I also felt that adding carbs to breakfast might help decrease Jenny’s carb cravings later in the day. Jenny was totally missing her window of opportunity to replete her glycogen stores.
Solution: Add 2 slices of whole wheat toast or a cup of cooked oatmeal to her egg white omelet at breakfast.

3. Problem: Fat intake is too low. Fat helps to keep you satiated and can help ward off carb cravings. Jenny’s diet was too low in fat. It is very typical to see women who are concerned with their weight be fat phobic!
Solution: Add some fat spread to toast in the morning, a little olive oil to her salad at lunch and a tablespoon of peanut butter on apple for an afternoon snack instead of the 100 calorie pack of cookies.

4. Problem: Not eating enough carbs during her lunch and dinner.
Add a whole grain roll to lunch and a cup of brown rice or small sweet potato to dinner

5. Problem: Unbalanced exercise program. Jenny was already very lean and didn’t need to run 6 days a week for over an hour to control her weight.
Solution: I recommended that she add in 2 days of weight training and cut the running down to 5 days a week (4 if possible!). I also suggested she experiment with cross training with the cardio (cycling, elipitical machine, spinning classes, etc.) to help reduce risk of injury.

6. Problem: Excessive amounts of sweets late a night
Hopefully eating more healthy high fiber carbs during the day and at dinner would help to diminish her cravings. I told Jenny to avoid keeping any sugary tempting foods in the house and stock up on fruit, yogurt and individually wrapped treats like Skinny Cow bars.

Additional recommendation: add a general multivitamin with minerals as well as a calcium with Vit D supplement daily.

The results: I met with Jenny after 3 weeks of trying my suggestions. She was amazed at how much better she felt during the day, and most importantly, how her carb cravings had significantly decreased in the evening. She was able to satisfy her sweet tooth with a piece of fruit or a nonfat Skinny Cow Bar. Jenny’s weight had not changed despite adding in more carbs and fat during the day and decreasing her cardio to 5 times a week. She also tried my suggestion of running only 4 days a week and taking a spinning class or using the eliptical machine the other day. She was still working on adding in the weight training.


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I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.

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