What are cravings and why do these have such an impact on our diets? Even when we try to eat healthy, why do these cravings secretly sabotage our resolutions?
Cravings are driven by the brain’s need for a ‘reward’ and not the body’s need for food. While a small sugary treat once in a while won’t throw your healthy eating choices off balance, the real danger is seen when you binge as soon as you taste a sweet treat.
Try these steps to keep unhealthy cravings at bay
1. Stop eating excess sugar
Gradually make a conscious effort to cut down on your sugar intake. A simple change like reducing the number of cups of tea or coffee that you consume in a day can also make a huge difference. Sugar is more addictive than imagined and once the body’s taste buds get wired to excess amounts, it dulls the sense of taste making you want more. The less you eat it, the less you will crave it and once you make an effort the demand diminishes quickly and dramatically.
2. Don’t confuse hunger with cravings
Cravings and feeling hungry are different from each other. A craving is when your body does not need energy, but the brain releases dopamine in the reward system. Long gaps between meals or skipping meals leads to hunger. At this time the body needs energy and if you are confronted with unhealthy food choices, it’s hard not to give in. This may be the time your will power takes a beating.
To overcome this, try having a healthy meal (if you have missed it) or snack. While this may not be exactly what you crave at the moment, it will keep you from binging on anything unhealthy. Your meals should be healthy and focus on energy dense foods like protein and healthy fats. Fiber, fat and protein will keep you feeling fuller for longer and keep blood sugars stable, than a sugar laden treat which is digested quickly bringing you back to square one.
Include healthy fats like avocado, nuts or nut butters and high fiber foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. For protein, include egg whites, sprouts, legumes, pulses and lean cuts of white meat.
Next time a craving hits, take a moment to think about what you really want. Distract your mind by drinking a glass of water or by stepping outside for some time. Go for a short brisk walk, this brings you back to focus and the exercise helps release feel good hormones (endorphins) which is a backup reward system to the brain.
If you are at home, try other forms of distraction like reading a book, take a long relaxing bath, practise yoga or stretches or do some squats
4. Try cinnamon
Cinnamon helps improve insulin sensitivity and glucose control which help reduce sugar cravings. It minimizes insulin spikes post meals which would otherwise lead to more hunger and more sugar cravings.( Anderson et al., Chromium and polyphenols from cinnamon improve insulin sensitivity. Proc Nutr Soc. 2008 Feb ;67(1):48-53. doi: 10.1017/S0029665108006010.)
Cinnamon can be added to porridge, muesli, smoothies or sprinkled over fruit. A pinch of cinnamon powder mixed with water can be taken before a meal to minimize a spike in blood sugar levels that cause cravings.
5. Clean up
Take time to assess the kind of sugary snacks you have at home. If these are easily available, you are asking for trouble. Toss these treats out of the house. Start with a clean eating plan that involves whole foods, eating healthy and exercising regularly. This will keep you responsible and accountable. Chances are you won’t get cravings nearly as often. Habits that have formed over time need to be broken, like adding spoonful’s of sugar to curd at the end of a meal or that bowl of ice cream you just ‘have’ to eat after dinner. These are unhealthy and need to be stopped. During this time, replace sugary snacks with a piece of fresh/ dried fruit. It is also important to be well hydrated, since cravings can be caused by dehydration.
What about sugar substitutes? In some people, artificial sweeteners can trigger cravings. These are best avoided when you are trying to avoid too much sugar.
Avoid getting stressed and get a good night’s rest. This is important for good health and can also prevent unhealthy cravings the next day.
During festivals, follow the 3 bite rule as a tool for portion control for sweets. Research has shown that after three bites, the food loses its initial appeal and most of us finish the entire pastry or sweet out of habit. The first bite is delicious, the second confirms the first and with the third your palate has had its fill, you should stop by then.
Indulging in cravings occasionally and within safe limits, without bingeing and ruining your progress, is alright. If you are able to exercise self-control, then you can enjoy sweet treats in moderation. However, if you find yourself unable to control yourself at all around sugary snacks, then it’s best to try to avoid them as much as possible. Giving in to a craving will just feed your sugar addiction.