I need a chocolate bar! How many times have you heard someone in your office say this? You’ve probably even said it yourself. Whether your vice is crisps, biscuits, cakes or cookies we all experience cravings at some time. They most commonly attack mid-morning, mid-afternoon or either side of dinner like a stealthy ninja and you are powerless to stop them. So what causes these cravings and what can you do to control them?
Eat more... or less!
I’m not just referring to the amount of food you eat but also the frequency. Now before you protest that meal timing is of no consequence, consider this. Although a recent study concluded that for the most part there was no significant benefit to be gained from manipulating meal timing for most people, there may well be some merit depending on the individual.
But here’s how it could help you. If eating more or less times per day helps you feel fuller then you are far less likely to snack. Let’s look at someone who eats a standard breakfast, lunch, dinner. It is possible that their food cravings are caused by low blood sugar levels (hence the craving for sugary snacks). By eating 6 times per day, you are effectively replacing your snack (or all out binge) with something much healthier and possibly pre-planned. I have taken on so many clients in the past that eat 6 times a day ‘because it speeds up the metabolism’ – BAD NEWS – this is just simply NOT the case.
Quite often when a client is eating 6 times a day they spend most of their time thinking about the next meal and become pre-occupied with food to the point where it becomes an unhealthy obsession. Moving to 3 or 4 larger meals leaves a lot of people feeling sufficiently full to take them right through to the next meal. Both approaches do of course assume that calorie intake is matched, whether it is spread between 3 or 6 (or however many you choose) meals.
Eating more calories than you need will lead to fat gain. So if you’re dieting or experiencing cravings try eating more. I’m not suggesting an increase in calorie intake but the AMOUNT or ‘volume’ of food you’re eating. For the same number of calories you get in a standard chocolate bar you can eat enough salad to completely fill your stomach FOUR TIMES over! So you can see that high volume, low calorie foods can not only be more filling but more nutritious as well.
The feelings of hunger are caused when our stomach releases a hormone called ghrelin. This signals to our brain that food is required. Ghrelin levels are at their highest before a meal and then subside after we’ve eaten. Manipulating individual hormones (or attempting to) is a pointless task, despite what you may have read. The human body is just too complex for this. However, research has shown ghrelin levels to be lower in those that were sufficiently rested compared to those who were sleep deprived. Basically this means that cravings will be more frequent and more intense if you are short of sleep.
Try looking at where you can make your use of time smarter and get to bed earlier \ sleep in longer (if your schedule allows). After all, you can’t eat when you’re asleep! When we eat a meal, ghrelin levels reduce and leptin levels rise. Leptin is the hormone responsible for signalling to your brain that you have eaten enough. Leptin is released by the fat cells as the fat stored in the cells increases (after a meal). This process is not immediate and so eating more slowly will help you to more easily recognise when you are comfortably full. To help with this, try chewing each mouthful of food for slightly longer or put your cutlery down between each mouthful to make you more conscious of what you are eating.
Full of fibrous fun
Fibre has many health benefits but can be a great ally in dealing with hunger and cravings. Foods containing high amounts of fibre have been found to be more filling. They also take longer to digest and can therefore leaving you feeling comfortably full for longer. As well as feeling full, fibre helps to maintain a more consistent blood sugar level. A higher fibre content helps to slow the breakdown of the food within the body and therefore blunts the bodies insulin response as well. In effect you are slowing down the release of energy from your foods.
So where as junk or snack foods will cause a big spike in blood sugar levels, leading to that inevitable crash and crave moment, fibre helps to balance this out. Eating a high fibre meal is also likely to lead to a reduced intake in the following meal or cravings in between meals.
Are you satisfied?
‘Don’t eat jacket potato for lunch, white carbs are bad for you’. I genuinely overheard this at a restaurant the other day.You might be surprised that scientists have tested some of the most popular foods and found white potato to be the king (or queen) of foods when it comes to filling you up.
It seems that it has unique properties that when combined provide an amazing sense of satisfaction compared to other foods. They are starchy, relatively good fibre content with lots of nutrients and a lot of mass per calorie. Making smarter food choices will ensure that your hunger is satisfied for longer. It is worth noting that protein has been shown to be the most filling macronutrient so increasing your protein intake can help to alleviate cravings.
‘THAT’ time of the month
Many women experience an increase in cravings in line with their menstrual cycle. This will typically be a craving for carb rich foods and sometime higher fat. The simplest way to deal with this is not to fight it. That’s not to say go all out and spend the whole day eating chocolate while watching your favourite episodes of Friends. Simply reduce your protein intake and redirect these calories into carbohydrates or fats. If that sounds like too much work when all you want to do is punch someone or curl up and sleep then simply go for an overall calorie intake for a few days. Just give yourself a little flexibility. After all, going ‘off plan’ for a few days a month is not going to affect your long term progress that much if it’s controlled.
Swap the snack
If you are one of those people that just feel they cannot be without a snack, making smarter choices is the way to go. For fewer calories than an average chocolate bar or a couple of biscuits you can have a piece of fruit and a protein shake. There is no need to worry about the sugar content of fruit; after all, the fruit will provide you with so many vitamins, minerals and fibre not found in the vending machine. By ingesting the fruit with a protein source and \ or fat source you will lower the insulin response which might otherwise cause you to feel peckish again a short time later. Just be careful what you choose for snacks, many ‘healthy’ snacks available are actually quite high in calories which are the most important factor in weight management.
The devil finds work for idle hands as they say. Well the same can be true when it comes to your cravings. Your body likes to maintain homeostasis (remaining the same). Therefore the leaner you are and the longer your diet the more your body will try and make you eat. By immersing yourself in something that keeps your brain busy and focussed you will find that you are able to avoid thinking about snacks between meals. Try making a to-do list that will keep you busy right up until your next meal time. The satisfaction of crossing those things off is amazing and will help focus the mind on something more productive.
Drink your pain away
We all lead busy lives and as such we probably spend a lot of time in a state of de-hydration. It is extremely common for us to misinterpret the need for fluid as a need for food. When you feel the cravings set in, try drinking a large glass of water, tea or calorie free beverage of choice. Even if you still feel hungry, try waiting 15-20 minutes will allow your body time to register that it is satisfied.
Love your body but don’t always trust it
If you follow an intuitive eating approach, hunger is often your body’s way of just telling you it needs more fuel or water. This is of course purely physiological and doesn’t take into account any emotional element. Often our feelings and emotions are extremely powerful and can lead us astray. This is a huge topic for another time but if you feel that your cravings are emotionally driven, trying to fight against them by ignoring them is unlikely to work. Your emotions are more powerful than this and you cannot simply ignore them and hope they go away. There a lot of other non-physiological factors that contribute to cravings with stress perhaps being the most common.
How do I know what the main cause of my cravings is?
The most important thing is to identify what triggers your cravings, what time of day they occur, whether they occur on certain days etc. Try keeping a food \ sleep \ stress diary. Over the course of a few days or weeks you should be able to spot common trends and take the necessary steps to combat them.