The Ultimate Guide to Beating Sugar Cravings this Holidays: 10 Proven Strategies
Why do we crave food when we are not hungry?
Did you know there is more than one type of hunger? There is biological hunger which is when your body has run out of energy and food. But there is also the hunger that is more psychological. This hunger can be recognised by one or more of the following:
- Seems to happen suddenly or unexpectedly
- Focuses on a particular food rather than food in general
- Can be triggered by an emotion
- Impulsive and often results in eating quickly
- Not feeling satisfied after eating
- Can bring negative feelings with it such as guilt or regret
In contrast, physical or biological hunger tends to:
- Increase gradually
- Foods like a piece of fruit will satisfy
- Comes with a physical sensation in your body such as a rumbling tummy
- Enable a deliberate choice of when and what to eat
- Sense of satisfaction after eating
- No guilt
Cravings are more likely to sit in the psychological hunger group and can lead to overeating (and eating more than your body’s natural energy needs). Biological hunger is your best ‘barometer’ of your body’s energy needs which can change through the day (you may be hungrier in the morning than at night) and over the week (hungrier on more active days). But it can be difficult to tell the difference.
To be able to tell if your hunger is real or a craving, it is helpful to hone your ‘interoceptive awareness’ skills. This means your ability to pick up and recognise your body’s natural signs of bodily urges. For example, when you need to go to the bathroom, or when you need to sleep, there will be physical sensations that you will recognise which signal what your body needs. Hunger and fullness will also come with some physical sensations and signs that make it easier to know when to eat and when to stop. However, if you are used to ignoring your hunger (and or fullness) then you may find it a bit harder initially to recognise these signs. This can leave you more at the mercy of cravings or the psychological hunger as it may be your only real clear signal of when to eat.
Being more aware of your biological hunger can start with simply asking yourself before eating – ‘What is my hunger on a scale of 1 – 10’ (1 being ravenous and 10 being very uncomfortably full/ feel sick). This can be a great habit to remind you to check in with your body regularly. It also gives you the pause and opportunity to think about doing something else (if you are not biologically hungry) and consider the reasons that you may be turning to food. Instead of eating, you may like to do something like walk, meditate, call a friend, read, crafts, play music etc. Once you get in the habit of this, then you can start adding in ‘what is my fullness on a scale of 1-10’ during and after your meal. After a while, you will be able to clearly tell if you are hungry or it is a craving and feel more confident in your eating habits which will leave less room for guilt or doubt.
Why are do I crave some foods and not others?
Humans have something called a ‘reward system’ which is our inherent drive to seek out pleasure. Many processed foods have been specifically designed to trigger our reward system which makes it harder to resist (especially when it is right in front of us). This reward system can easily override our fullness signals which is why it can feel so hard to stop eating a meal that we find utterly delicious even though we can feel our tummy stretching.
In these circumstances, it may be helpful to just simply acknowledge and accept that stopping an activity we enjoy is hard and give ourselves a clear and healthy boundary. This might be saving the leftovers so you can enjoy the food again tomorrow or asking for the meal to be taken away so that it is easier to get it out of your mind. It is no different to scrolling or watching TV. They have been designed to make it hard to stop so using strategies such as setting ourselves time or episode limits can help keep them in check.
In some people, the reward system may be more active than others, and so their desire to eat hyper-tasty foods is incredibly powerful. A study that looked at brain images (Rolls E 2007) that in people who regularly crave chocolate, there is greater activity in brain-reward regions when they see or taste chocolate, compared to people who aren’t chocolate cravers. The differences between people may be due to a combination of genetic and learned behaviours.
People sometimes go on a ‘sugar detox’ or restrictive diets in an effort to manage their cravings, however this could be having the opposite desired effect. A study investigated whether dieting was associated with a greater frequency of food cravings (Massey, A. 2012) and it found that dieters experienced significantly more food cravings than non-dieters and they reported that the cravings were stronger and harder to resist than the non-dieters. Chocolate was the most craved food and most foods craved were those they were trying to restrict the most. So instead of focusing on the foods you are trying to avoid, think more about the foods you would like to eat more of such as fruits, vegetables, plant foods and high fibre wholegrains. It is like trying to not think of a pink elephant by thinking ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’. It just doesn’t work.
So to keep cravings manageable this Christmas, think about a plan that will suit you which may include some or all of the following tips:
- Practice checking in on your body’s signals of hunger and fullness
- Focus your thoughts on nutrient dense foods and how to incorporate more of them into your meals, snacks and celebrations.
- Have a list of 5 enjoyable things that you can do if you are feeling emotionally triggered to eat.
- Drink plenty of water/fluid through these hot days as thirst can often feel like hunger.
- Eat regularly – this may include 3 main meals as well as 2-3 small snacks. This will keep you away from strong hunger which can make you more likely to eat fast and
- Include some foods you love and enjoy and don’t put in place highly restrictive rules around food. The more you restrict, the stronger the craving will be. Sometimes it is better to have a little of what you love within a nourishing and balanced diet.