It turns out eliminating all sugar-rich foods from your diet can make cravings worse.
Sugar cravings extend to feasting on fresh strawberries when you are supposed to be picking them. However, when we talk about sugar cravings today, we are generally referring to processed, sugar-rich foods rather than freshly picked fruit. Let’s take a closer look at those cravings by considering a few questions.
- Do your cravings relate to specific foods or just to eating in general?
If it’s the latter, it might be that you’re simply hungry. Many of us aren’t in touch with our hunger and fullness cues thanks to a diet culture that praises food restriction and hunger in the quest for a more socially acceptable body. Pause and listen to your body; you may be lacking in energy and starting to feel tired. You may just need a snack.
Pushing aside hunger in the quest for weight-loss can cause all sorts of problems, the first of which is an overwhelming desire to eat with reckless abandon. The brains of hungry people, as shown in MRI scans, are overwhelmingly focused on searching out high-energy, high-fat and high-sugar foods. Once hunger becomes overwhelming, it’s almost impossible to control this biological urge: your subconscious brain is focused purely on survival. If you try to starve it through dieting or food restriction, then it will strike back with a vengeance when it sees high-energy food.
- If your cravings are for a specific food, do they come on suddenly and then disappear if you wait it out? Or do the cravings stay with you for hours and you can’t think about anything else?
Speaking as the harried mother of two young boys, I can count on my brain telling me I need chocolate every time I face another frustrating parenting experience – potting mix on the lounge floor, anyone? Experience tells me that if I wait a few minutes, the cravings will dissipate along with my frustration levels. A 2008 study, by the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds, found that the more hassles an adult faces in their day the more high-fat or high-sugar snacks they will consume. I could have told them that.
- If your cravings won’t go away, take a good look at your relationship with the food in question. Are you restricting your access to that food?
There’s no more certain way to develop a craving than to restrict access. During World War II, American physiologist Dr Ancel Keys signed up 36 healthy men to a three-month period of normal eating and six months of semi-starvation. (Interestingly, their energy intake during the semi-starvation phase was equivalent to modern weight-loss diets.)
During the semi-starvation phase, these men developed an intense interest in food and began collecting recipes; they talked about food constantly, stuck pictures to the walls of their rooms and developed severe food cravings. They were obsessed with food. And this was all before the onslaught of diet-driven social-media influences.
The solution for sugar cravings is to ensure you’re not over-hungry or completely depriving yourself of the foods you love. If you’re craving chocolate, buy your favourite bar, sit down and enjoy eating that chocolate without guilt. Give yourself permission to eat freely and enjoy it.
Lowering your sugar intake for good health doesn’t mean reducing your sugar intake to zero or going without the high-sugar foods you enjoy, like chocolate, ice cream and biscuits. Instead, choose a low-sugar tomato sauce, or opt for breakfast cereal and bread that is low in sugar and salt. Eat more main meals created from wholefoods rather than high-sodium, high-sugar processed ingredients.
There is no surer path to food cravings and binge eating than restricting your access to the foods you love.
This article was first published in the May 19, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.