Are you back into the swing of things but your taste buds aren’t? It happens! Especially around this time of year where intake of sugar, alcohol and processed carbohydrates tends to be higher for most people, and while going cold turkey can be the best move, it’s sometimes easier said than done. The good news is that by reducing these foods, you’ll begin to lose the taste for them, and they’ll no longer hold the appeal that they had. For some though, completely removing them is a better idea – even small amounts can continue to drive the appetite for them. Regardless of which camp you fall into, here are some proven, some anecdotal, and some interesting ways to combat those cravings.
- The basics: build your plate based around protein and fibre, with fat for satiety. Protein is well known to be the most satisfying nutrient, and along with fibre (also key for adding bulk and feeling full) will keep most people satisfied longer than either carbohydrate or fat. Any starchy or carbohydrate-based foods are best if they are minimally processed (such as potatoes, kumara, legumes, fruit) as these will provide more nutrient bang for your buck). How much of each? Protein-type foods (meat, fish, eggs, poultry) aim for 1-2 palm-sized portions. Starchy carbs (if included) at around a fist-sized amount. Fat? 1-2 thumb-sized amounts, depending on the type of protein portion you’re eating: a fattier cut might be satisfying enough, however a lean chicken breast will likely require some added fat to help satisfy you. And vegetables? Go for gold – other than the starchier varieties (mentioned above) you could fill your boots with these. For some people, having a full plate is essential to feeling satisfied and if you can do that by adding more volume, it is going to have a positive effect on the satiety from a meal (that’s definitely me). For some ideas, check out my recipe e-book or my online coaching service.
- Get rid of anything that is ‘your poison’- if you are the person that hears the icecream calling you from the freezer, it is much better off out of the house. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Put all the ‘treat’ type food in one place in your house, preferably above eye level. This will save you seeing the Christmas cake when you are grabbing the eggs, and the chocolate almonds when you are searching for the bottle of olive oil. Constant reminders of all the things you are trying not to eat will NOT help your cause.
- Chew your food properly at each meal. Aim for 30 times per mouthful. That way you’ll digest your nutrients effectively, feel more nourished and less likely to be hungry an hour after eating because you wolfed that meal down.
- Do not substitute those refined sugars for ‘natural’ sugars. That dried fruit is pretty much just sugar – and (a few nutrients and fibre aside) no better than sugar and will continue to drive your sugar cravings. You shouldn’t rely on dried fruit (or any sweet food that is marketed as ‘refined sugar free’) as a substantial nutrient source . Any additional fibre or nutrients they provide in the diet is negligible compared to the whack of goodness you’ll get when you follow #1 above. When health bloggers or food producers market something based on the healthfulness of the ‘natural’ sugar, it is pure embellishment. 6 meedjol dates and a banana does not make a smoothie sugar free.
- Coconut oil – this is a favourite of Sarah Wilson’s: a teaspoon of extra virgin coconut oil can kill a craving in its tracks. If we head to the literature to find any peer reviewed papers on the topic (for what it’s worth, there is a LOT of research published by the Coconut Research Center), there isn’t a lot to definitively tell us that it will cut cravings. That said, there is some research has found that people who include more coconut oil in their diet (compared to other types of fat) have reduced food intake overall, particularly in the subsequent meals. Like most things, you have nothing to lose by trying it.
- Cocoa – chocolate is long associated with cravings, though right now, consumption of chocolate may well increase the cravings rather than stamp them out. It’s also not exactly useful if you’re trying to focus on reducing your intake of junk food! That said, chocolate is known for its cognitive and mood enhancing benefits. So how about some unsweetened cocoa (or cacao) in hot water with some milk to deliver the chocolate taste you are after. Add a touch of stevia if you wish. You could also do this cold with almond milk and ice – and add 1 tablespoon of psyllium husk or gelatin in there for some additional fibre or protein. If chocolate is what you’re after – go for the darkest that you can stand. Many people find they stop at 1-2 pieces of 90% chocolate instead of the 1-2 rows consumed of the 70%.
- Anything that lowers your blood sugar response to a meal is going to positively impact your cravings. The steep rise and fall of your blood sugar in response to a meal causes alarm bells to start going off in your brain. The body runs a tight ship and prefers when all systems are in homeostasis. Low blood sugar causes a release in stress hormones which tell your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream, and create cravings so you can re-establish blood sugar to within a normal range. Including cinnamon can reduces glucose response after a meal (in amounts of 6g) and affects insulin response. Stabilising blood sugar is going to help reduce cravings. Sprinkle this gold dust on your breakfast, with your teaspoon of coconut oil, in your cocoa drink etc.
- Glutamine – can enhance secretion of GLP-1, a hormone which promotes insulin release that helps increase satiety and dampen appetite – this is only seen in some people however, suggesting there is individual variation of its effects. The flipside of this is that the insulin-releasing effects may override any satiety benefits, increasing hunger (and subsequent meal size) at the next meal. However, in practice this is a tool that many clinicians (myself included) have found useful for some (but not all) clients. The presence of glutamine in the bloodstream is associated with improved insulin sensitivity in healthy people. In addition to this, glutamine has been found to be beneficial for improving intestinal permeability and tight junction protein expression in the gut, being one of the most abundant amino acids in the body. If your cravings are related to gut dysbiosis then it could be useful from this perspective. In addition, it functions as part of neurotransmitter production. Taking L Glutamine by putting it under the tongue as a craving hits (1-3,000mg) may just work for you.
- Magnesium is a nutrient that is involved in over 250 processes in our body, and particularly when we are under stress, it is put under the pump. Sugar (or specifically) chocolate craving is often linked to a deficiency to magnesium, but that isn’t conclusive. At any rate, magnesium is perfectly safe to take, and as our food supply is relatively low in magnesium, looking for a supplement that is a magnesium glycinate, citrate or chelated with amino acids may be useful, at amounts of around 300-400mg elemental magnesium.
- Chromium is another supplement that some people have found useful for stopping cravings – research has found a reduction in carbohydrate cravings, food intake and an increase in satiety when supplementing with chromium…however this is in the laboratory using mice. There’s nothing definitive in the research to support using it for people who already have adequate amounts of this mineral. That said (as with anything), it’s individual – I know many clients who swear by using Chromium supplements when a craving hits. The only way to know if it works for you is to try it, by taking 1000mg chromium in two doses in meals that contain carbohydrate (due to its suggested benefits at reducing blood sugar response to carbohydrate meals)..
- Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three amino acids that act as nutrient signallers which may help reduce food intake . Leucine (one of the BCAAs) activates mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) which is required for our brain to respond to leptin (a hormone that tells our body when we have had enough food). BCAAs are involved with hormone release in both the gastrointestinal tract and in fat deposits. BCAAs and dietary protein enhanced glucagon like peptide-1 (GLP-1) release and reduced the expression of genes required for synthesis and adsorption of fatty acids in a human intestinal cell line (NCI-H716), suggesting an intestinal mechanism for the beneficial effect of BCAAs. Those that have successfully used BCAAs suggest 5g in the AM and every few hours while you’re adjusting your diet back to baseline awesomeness.
- 5htp: 300-500mg taken with a meal to increase satiety of the meal – studies have found a reduced food intake (particularly carbohydrate). Studies conducted have focused on people who have reduced availability of tryptophan in the brain (a precursor to 5htp). Increasing 5htp increases tryptophan and therefore serotonin production, reducing cravings and overall food intake. (Don’t use if you are currently on antidepressants without clearance from your doctor.)
- Exercise. A no brainer, really, but research has found this to be super effective for reducing cravings. In fact, any activity done while in the midst of a craving will take your mind off it. So when a craving hits, doing something active for 10-15 minutes can reduce your desire for something sweet. Go for a powerwalk, shoot some hoops, do some hill sprints…
- Make sure you’re getting enough sleep! It’s hard this time of year with longer days and opportunities to take advantage of summer (when it shows up…) Sleep restriction enhances activity in brain regions involved in reward in response to energy dense, nutrient-void food (think: lollies, chips, chocolate), suggesting heightened sensitivity to rewarding properties of food. This can lead to increased cravings. If you are burning the candle at both ends and not yet back to your regular 7-8 hours sleep per night, then nailing this will go a long way to helping curb that sugar demon.
- Meditation: decentring – viewing your thoughts as separate from yourself – has been found to help reduce food cravings and want for unhealthy food items. Mindfulness practice is also useful for not only reduced cravings, but for reduced emotional eating, body image concerns. It doesn’t require a 90 minute class three times a week (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) Headspace, Calm or Buddhify are three smart phone applications which may help you get going and provide guided sessions of between 2-20 minutes long. It’s consistency and frequency that makes a difference (like any habit).
- Clay modelling to reduce cravings: yep. Researchers found that visual imagery plays a key role in reducing craving. Participants who worked for 10 minutes constructing shapes from plastacine had reduced cravings for chocolate compared to people who were left to their own thoughts or who were given a written task.
- Your gut bacteria can influence your cravings. There is indirect evidence for a connection between cravings and the type of bacteria lurking in your gut. For example, people who enjoy and crave chocolate have different microbial metabolites (i.e. bacteria by-products) in their urine than “chocolate indifferent” individuals, despite eating identical diets. In addition, gut bacteria can influence the production of our ‘feel good’ and motivation hormones (serotonin and dopamine), thereby influence food decision-making based on our mood. Finally treating mice with a probiotic reduced hunger-inducing hormones and food intake. Action points here? Yes, you could start with a probiotic, particularly when you’re in the thick of it all, as this will help ensure there are beneficial bacterial strains present in your gut. However, for ongoing gut health, the regular addition of probiotic and prebiotics through food will help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Therefore:
- Include fermented vegetables into 1-2 meals daily, working up to 1-2 tablespoons at a time.
- The addition of unsweetened yoghurt (dairy or coconut) as part of your everyday diet (as it contains beneficial bacteria).
- Kombucha, at around 100-150ml per day (check the back of the label to ensure a lower sugar variety).
- Water, milk or coconut kefir, start with around 100ml per day.
- Raw apple cider vinegar in water – start with 1 tsp in a small amount of water, working up to 1 tablespoon. This will help stimulate stomach acid when taken prior to meals, helping you digest your food properly, and delaying gastric emptying, so your glucose response to the meal will be slower too.
- Vegetables, in abundance, to include fibres that feed your gut bacteria.
(As a side note, any change to your gut environment can result in unintended (and unwanted) changes to your digestive tract! If you’re new to the fermented foods and/or probiotics, then start small and work your way up. If you end up spending way more time in the bathroom than you wanted, reduce back further. Consider yourself warned.)
You won’t need to do all of these – but I think #1-5, #14, #15, #16 and #18 would completely diminish that sugar demon so you can get back to feeling awesome.