Our bodies crave carbs during the dark winter months — but some herbs and teas can help fight the pangs and get you fit for gardening again, writes Fiann Ó Nualláin.
Now is the perfect time to sow chives, fenugreek, barley, legumes and other foods that assist weight loss. Consider planting salad crops and lettuce leaves under cover in the coming weeks for a harvest of healthy spring lunch options in no time at all.
With salads and leafy green veg their inherent weight loss capacity is not simply down to a light lunch as most think but to their richness in plant fibre that fills you up faster and naturally curbs appetite.
I may be fit, but without fail, I put on weight over winter months. It is part less activity and it’s a big part munching the wrong stuff on a dark evening — which in itself is a consequence of how winter light and environmental patterns cause us to produce more hunger hormones to fatten us up against the cold.
Our evolutionary triggers have not caught up with central heating and woolly socks or, for that matter, with the abundance of sweet treats all the year round.
With this in mind, and because the early weeks of the New Year are littered with lapsed resolutions, I thought it timely — if your willpower is still holding up and you are interested in beating back those sugar cravings — to look at what might help us get those work jeans back on in time to get sowing, growing and enjoying the garden again, when the better weather arrives.
A few weeks to make all the difference to that first bending down. OK, eating more protein and upping your intake of fibre-rich foods helps slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream, and swapping biscuits for an egg or those chocosugarpuffysnaps for oatmeal may look a great solution, but it doesn’t mean it will kill those cravings. We are still in low light conditions and that means more melatonin than serotonin brain chemistry — a sweet-tooth trigger. So what might we add to our food that will?
A dash of chives or curry powder enlivens that omelette or scrambled tofu, but also makes the eating experience more rewarding and thus psychologically fulfilling — which can negate any pangs for a gulp of sugary tea or fruit juice to finish the meal. You can take the flavour enhancing to another level by adding a flavoursome herb that tricks the body into believing it has had its sweet portion.
Try fenugreek — its seeds are sweet and nutty and the foliage herb smells a bit like maple syrup when cooked — so a sweet dimension is experienced.
Just use sparingly as too much actually pings bitter receptors on the tongue. Beyond its hints of sweetness, fenugreek has been utilised for centuries in ethnobotany as a diet aid, due to its particularly helpful phytochemistry.
Compounds in the plant, most notably 4-hydroxyisoleucine, help to regulate blood glucose levels by improving insulin response. It also contains diosgenin which acts upon adipocytes (fat cells) to increase their glucose uptake rather than spiking in the bloodstream. It can, however, interact with some medications so do check with current meds before undertaking.
As any diabetic will tell you, prolonged poor glucose control (high or low) increases cravings for glucose-rich foods — so a big part of avoiding cravings is to achieve good control. Yes, that’s avoiding spikes of glucose from sugary or refined foods, but it’s also about eating well-balanced meals at regular intervals.
One of the ways of achieving the regular intervals without snacking is to eat foods that have a long energy release and so sustain you further.
Foods such as oatmeal, barley, mushrooms, nuts, legumes and many vegetables are the long fuel we need. This is because they contain soluble fibre that digests into a gel-like substance which helps slow down the absorption of carbs in the stomach.
Oats are regularly touted to fill you and sustain consistent weight management. They contain beta-glucan, which is a soluble fibre known to lower postprandial glucose spikes and improve insulin responses.
What you put on your porridge may help further. Cinnamon makes a great porridge sweetener — it is not only naturally sweet, but it also helps to stop sugar cravings. It is packed with polyphenols that help regulate blood glucose levels, slow sugar spikes and switch off the need to seek sweet.
Teas with a natural sweetness and which help with weight control include ginseng, jasmine and liquorice teas.
I spent most of last year researching the medicinal applications of commercially available herbal teas for a new book (due out in spring) — but plug aside, the interesting thing was how many support weight management.
For example, Rooibos tea contains a unique phytochemical known as aspalathin, which helps reduce stress hormones that can trigger hunger responses. Green teas are rich in epigallocatechin gallate which boosts metabolism and can support a decrease in belly fat accumulation.
There are also herbs that support weight loss and diminish sugar cravings.
Gymnema sylvestre is once such popular supplement, from a medicinal botany context it is fascinating — its content of gymnemic acids when put in direct contact with your tongue, fill up the sugar receptors of your taste buds and knock off sweetness perception, making that chocolate bar tasteless and unappealing.
When swallowed, they reduce the intestine’s ability to absorb any swallowed sugar molecules.
Gymnema has a history in natural diabetic treatments and it turns out that it not only decreases blood glucose levels but has the ability to repair beta cells in the pancreas and boost insulin production. Consult your doctor if you’re already on diabetic meds.
Of course, nothing beats portion control matched with exercise or other physical activity.
And in no time, the extra daylight of the approaching spring will minimise hunger hormones and begin to provoke an increase in activity hormones.
Before you know it, you’ll be back weeding your way to one less notch on the belt.