Preventing cravings is one of the biggest challenges individuals face when transitioning away from refined + processed foods in an effort to get healthier. The science behind cravings, specifically for sugar, is fascinating, and there is so much that you can do to set yourself up for longterm success when you understand the "why" behind what causes cravings to get triggered in the first place. It's not always as simple as avoiding the treat - it's about priming your body physiologically to stay ahead of the craving, structuring your environment to optimize your odds of success, and get in touch with your inner-self to beat the vicious cycle of cravings once and for all.
Let's first dive into the blood sugar imbalance as this is a key component to the physiological side of cravings. Once you get off the blood sugar rollercoaster, the rest falls into place much more easily.
Blood Sugar Imbalances - Blood sugar highs and lows aren’t reserved for people with diabetes; in fact, our glucose levels fluctuate throughout the day as we eat. Our body takes care of blood sugar levels by storing the glucose in our cells to be used as energy. When we eat a healthy, whole foods diet that is low in sugar and contains plenty of fiber, it is relatively easy to stay satiated and resist temptation. But once we start to rely on sugar and caffeine as a way to make it through the afternoon, we quickly run into problems.
If you are someone who gets “hangry”, the following description of Reactive Hypoglycemia won’t
come as a surprise:
1-A high sugar snack is eaten (candy bar, pastry, sweet cereal)
2-Blood sugar levels rise fast, causing the pancreas to send out an emergency flood of insulin
to move that glucose out of the blood and into the muscles.
3-Blood glucose drops fast due to the flood of insulin, making you feel hungry again, with a
particular craving for a sweet treat .
4-You reach for another high sugar snack to feed the craving, inadvertently starting the roller
coaster ride all over again.
Solution: Eat to Improve Insulin Sensitivity
1) Add More Fiber With its many health benefits for the gut and digestion, fiber intake has been linked to increased insulin sensitivity. Including foods with a high fiber content in all meals can help to reduce how high blood sugar spikes. Soluble fiber, which is found in foods like oats, beans and many berries, is the most effective.
2) Load Up on Leafy Greens Spinach, kale, broccoli and cauliflower have been researched for their role in helping reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, likely because of their fiber and high concentrations of minerals as well as antioxidant polyphenols and vitamin C.
3) Eat More Low Glycemic Foods The glycemic index (GI) was developed to measure a food’s impact on blood sugar. The higher the food is found on the index the faster it spikes blood sugar, while the foods found on the lower end of the glycemic index are more slowly digested and absorbed. Note that the glycemic index only applies to foods that contain carbohydrates. A number of studies have found that following a low glycemic diet can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Following a low glycemic diet doesn't have to be difficult, and lists are readily found on Google. Try swapping high-GI white bread for a lower-GI choice like 100% rye bread. When it comes to fruit, stick to apples, cherries and grapefruit over tropical fruits like mangoes and bananas.
4) Don't Skimp on Protein
Protein is the most satiating macronutrient; it helps you feel fuller for longer through a variety of mechanisms. Protein slows the movement of food through the GI tract—and slower stomach emptying means prolonged feelings of fullness. Protein impacts the hunger + satiety hormones: ghrelin and leptin. It helps reduce ghrelin levels (the hormone that signals that it’s time to eat) and may increase leptin sensitivity (the hormone that signals that satiety). Protein is also low in calories (4kcal/gram) yet it's very energy intensive for the body to burn. This is one macro I focus on with my clients for autoimmune diseases, weight loss, hormone balance and more. Trust me when I say that you don't want to skimp on this!
5) Stay Hydrated
When it comes to managing blood sugar AND taming cravings, let’s not forget about the importance of fresh, filtered water. It helps you to stay hydrated, keeps your digestion moving, your cells healthy, and is vital for intercellular communication. Not to mention that water has been labelled as “the biggest catalyst for weight loss.”
Structure Your Environment to Promote Success
Temptations for particular foods can be triggered by situational cues, or stimuli, that promise immediate satisfaction at the cost of long-term progress. The inability to resist an internal temptation leads to a mistaken decision - a gap between actual choice and preference. For example, a person makes a choice (ie eat a candy bar) despite expressing a desire to avoid this very food on a prior occasion. People are well aware that they are under the influence of the craving, but that knowledge will do very little to curb their craving.
Our preferences for foods are sensitive to cues. Think about the smell of cookies baking, the sight of your favorite chocolate cake in the fridge, and the sound of soda fizzing in a glass. These cues are associated with previous consumption of habit-forming foods. For example, if the smell of baking cookies is associated with the past consumption, then the current smell of baking cookies will increase one’s desire for cookies. When an individual experiences a food cue (e.g., smell of freshly baked cookies), he will feel an urge to eat. The presence of craving shifts the individual’s preference for cookies, reversing an earlier resolution to avoid the extra calories.
Let's explore how to structure your kitchen for success to avoid these situational cues:
1) Keep the foods that will keep you from reaching your goals out of sight. You could donate these foods, or throw them out. However, unless you're the only one in the home, that may not go over well. I suggested purchasing containers for your pantry, keeping them away from eye level (think high up or low down) and reserve that space for tempting foods.
2) Place high protein, healthy fats, and other non-processed foods at eye level. When you gravitate towards the pantry for a snack, you see healthy options that are right there for you to grab. For example, nuts, seeds, organic jerky, and shelf stable fruits, are all wonderful options.
3) Use this same concept in the refrigerator, place all tempting foods, ie that chocolate cake, in the fruit and veggie drawers with they are more likely to be hidden. Cut fresh fruit and veggies, hard boiled eggs, healthy dips, etc in glass containers that make those foods look appealing to grab and eat. Imagine having to look at your favorite dessert every time you open the fridge, you'd have to practice some superhuman willpower by the end of the day to avoid that. Don't torture yourself! Keep it hidden.
Feeling a craving for sweets is not the same as being hungry. Sugar cravings come from the brain, not the belly. Hunger can be thought of as the body's need for nourishment; a craving is the mind looking for pleasure or a reward in the form of endorphins.
Here are some ways to give your body a flood of endorphins and feel good, without giving into a craving and hindering the progress made toward your health.
1) Go for a brisk walk - whether it's walking or another form of movement, the body is getting a nice release of feel good chemicals A brisk walk, as little as 15 minutes, has been shown to reduce cravings and increase endorphins in the brain.
2) Start a food and mood journal when the craving hits you. This practice allows you to look back at your day and pinpoint: did I eat enough? what did I eat? what triggered me to feel this way? It's very valuable to clue you in on the "why" behind the craving and help you identify patterns. This exercise is used in my practice for behavior modification and it's incredibly valuable.
3) Distract yourself - phone a friend, take a bath, read a book, keep your hands busy. Did this craving come out of habit? Are you bored and looking for something to occupy your mind. Replace that habit with something else.
There will be days when it seems impossible to avoid temptation, and that's completely normal. If you have been struggling with overeating or cravings for sweets, there could be underlying digestive, hormonal, or emotional drivers that may need more support than attempting this on your own. At Functional Nutrition of Wisconsin, we take a whole body approach and recognize that mind, body, and soul need to be taken into account regardless of the end goal.
In good health,
Kristie + Rebecca
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Duckworth AL. et al (2016) Situational Strategies for Self-Control Perspectives on Psychological Science 2016 11 (1) 35-55