Lynda: Food cravings can be nightmarish. They can consume your energy and focus. Often but not always we can manage and reduce cravings by simply modifying the diet and tweaking the lifestyle somewhat.
So what are some of the common triggers to food cravings?
- Poor sleep
- High stress
- Processed foods
- Meals that lack protein & healthy fats
- Meals that lack plant based fibre and meals that are very low carbohydrate (VLC)
- An Imbalanced gut flora
- Missing breakfast
Now to dissect it all.
1. Sleep and Stress
It is a recognised fact that poor sleep quality can affect the production of many metabolic hormones. These hormones include insulin, cortisol, melatonin, leptin, adiponectin and the hunger-promoting hormone, ghrelin. When the normal production of these hormones are disrupted so is our blood sugar levels, mood, and ability to feel full and satisfied.
Why do we want a balanced blood sugar?
The brain requires a steady flow of sugar. When your blood sugar levels fluctuate your subconscious mind panics and goes into survival mode. This in turn triggers cravings particularly for high calorie foods.
Other consequences of poor sleep are an increased risk of inflammation, insulin resistance and increased blood triglycerides (a type of fat that in high levels can increase your risk of heart disease). In fact those that have less than five hours of sleep a night have a 46% increased risk of developing diabetes compared to those who get seven to eight hours.
The things that affect our sleep quality and lead to high stress or overwhelm are mostly PROCESSED FOODS, POLLUTANTS AND LIFE’S PRESSURES. So essentially the key areas we need to look at to improve sleep and stress are diet, detoxification and relaxation.
Embarking on a guided detox annually or biannually and detoxifying your environment will help remove unwanted, inflammatory toxins from your body. Finding activities you enjoy or taking time out to sit in stillness, meditation or my personal favourite, a yin yoga posture daily can help you stay on top of excessive stress. Even a mere 10-15 minutes daily is a great start and can create positive, long term change. Adding a small amount of well chosen carbohydrates (yes I said the C word) to lunch and dinner can improve the quality of your sleep and reduce stress levels. More on this later.
2. Processed Foods
Processed foods are often packed full of hidden, simple sugars (fructose and glucose) and chemicals. These ingredients are disastrous to our health in many ways but for the sake of this topic let’s discuss their effect on blood sugar and how this can result in cravings. Simple sugars are absorbed fast by the body, anywhere between 60-90 minutes. Whereas whole foods are absorbed within 6-8 hours. When carbohydrates are absorbed fast it leads to a rapid rise in blood sugar and secretion of the hormone insulin from the pancreas. Insulin ensures that the cells take up the sugar for energy and storage. As the cells take up the sugar from blood, blood sugar drops. If the diet is high in simple sugars, the body continues to release more and more insulin. Insulin eventually losing its effectiveness. This leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can drive food cravings as it disrupts blood sugar balance and may even lead to diabetes, obesity, low or erratic moods and low energy. Sugar is also a fuel source for the harmful bacteria in your gut.
Interesting fact; Evidence has shown that many highly processed foods have addictive properties.
3. Not Eating Enough Protein & Healthy fats
Quality protein and healthy fats with every meal stabilises blood sugar and helps to keep you full and satisfied. Which in turn helps avoid cravings and overconsumption of food. A breakfast high in quality protein allows your cortisol hormone levels to have it’s morning spike without interruption. This ensures that we stay energetic and focused and keeps your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. Aim for YOUR palm portion of protein and a golf ball size of healthy fats per meal.
Good sources of quality protein are grass fed meat, organic poultry, fish, kangaroo, eggs, liver (from grass fed animals). Good Sources of fats are nuts, nut butter, seeds, coconut oil, ghee, grass fed butter, olive oil, macadamia oil.
Interesting fact: Those who were given an injection of saturated fat while listening to sad music or watching a sad movie were less emotional and showed less negative thought activity in the brain than those that received saline shots.
4. Not Eating Enough Fibre
Dietary fibre from plant sources such as berries, avocado, brussel sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, artichoke, ground flax seeds, carrots, nuts (find fibrous nuts here) help to slow down the absorption of sugar resulting in more stable blood sugar levels and thus less food cravings. Fibre also feeds our good gut flora (microbiome), promoting a healthy microbiome and lets not forget fibre helps to ensure that we poop daily, clearing out those unwanted, inflammatory toxins that can negatively affect our mood. As you know, when mood is low we often reach for comfort. This may be in the shape of food and beverages; refined carbohydrates, sweets, alcohol, convenience foods or overconsumption of food.
Another fibre worth including in your diet is resistant starch (RS). RS passes through the stomach and small intestine undigested, eventually reaching the colon intact and is eventually digested by our intestinal bacteria hence the word “resistant” as they are resistant to digestion. The beauty of RS is that these foods contain mostly unusable calories and have little or no effect on our insulin or blood sugar levels.
Good RS sources are boiled potatoes, brown rice, cannellini beans, black beans that has cooled down and unripe bananas.
5. Eating Very Low Carbohydrate Diets (VLC)
Most health conscious folk have gone too far down the rabbit hole of very low carb meals. Contrary to popular belief (yours truly included) this is not always a great strategy. It is important to include a small amount of whole, plant based carbohydrates to lunch and dinner, in particular, especially if there are any issues with sleep, stress or if the adrenals need support. Whole, plant based carbohydrates are often rich in fibre and natural gut loving prebiotics (think fertiliser for your good gut bacteria). Whole-food carbohydrates should not be compared to processed or refined carbohydrates as they do not affect the body in the same way.
Your blood sugar drops when your diet is too low in carbohydrates, when you fast or when you miss meals. One role of cortisol is to keep your blood sugar levels up therefore more cortisol is produced by the adrenals as a response to the drop in blood sugar. This rise in cortisol and erratic blood sugar levels contribute to poor sleep quality and poor production of the hormones needed to help you feel full and satisfied after meals and generally happy. Can you see where I am going with this?…hello mind-robbing cravings.
Please don’t misunderstand, this does not mean you should partake in a carb fest with every meal, because a high carb diet is certainly not ideal and can in fact lead to heart disease, belly fat, fatigue and high levels of triglycerides. As a general, broad and modest rule of thumb, aim for one golf ball size for lunch and dinner. Cycling your carbohydrate intake can help bring your cortisol and blood sugar levels back to a healthy rhythm.
Very low carbohydrate diets may be of benefit in certain health conditions but not appropriate in all. At different times in your life you may need to adjust your daily carbohydrate intake. This will depend on your current state of health and your personal health goals.
Interesting fact: Research indicates that long term VLC/Ketogenic diets may negatively change the environment in our gut flora, the “microbiome”. We need a healthy, diverse gut microbiome for a healthy, stable mood, quality sleep, balanced blood sugar and good digestion amongst other things. More on this later.
Good sources of “smart” carbohydrates are;
Squash, beets, parsnips, sweet potato, turnip, peas, grapefruit, peach, raspberries, strawberries, kiwi fruit, brown rice (that has cooled down), quinoa, black beans, cannellini and navy beans. (Soak your legumes before cooking and introduce slowly if you have been avoiding them for a while) Note: some people do not tolerate legumes well. If this is you consider leaving legumes out of your diet for now.
6. Imbalanced gut flora (microbiome)
A healthy microbiome produces short chain fatty acids (SCFA’S). SCFA’S help to reduce inflammation in the body and are also important for weight loss and prevention of colon cancer. Soluble fibers found in whole plant foods are fermented by our gut bacteria into SCFA’s such as butyrate, proprionate and acetate. The more you consume these naturally occurring soluble fibers the more protective SCFA’s are produced. Butyrate in particular is important for a healthy metabolism and our ability to adapt to stress (stress resistance).
90% of our the body’s serotonin is made in the gut. Serotonin is responsible for a healthy mood, sense of calm, quality sleep and balanced appetite. Gut bacteria also produce and respond to other chemicals that the brain uses which regulate sleep, stress and relaxation. For more on gut microbiome health click here.
As you can see If our gut flora is unhealthy and out of balance, our mood, sleep and hormone production will be affected which can result in dreaded food cravings.
7. Not Eating Breakfast
Having a good breakfast, infused with quality protein and healthy fats helps support that naturally high level of cortisol and low insulin that we want to maintain in the morning. Breakfast helps to regulate your metabolism and blood sugar levels throughout the day. Missing breakfast leads to unbalanced cravings. Those who skip breakfast tend to consume 40% more sugar during the day and 45% less vegetables.
What does a well balanced breakfast look like? Aim for YOUR PALM portion of high quality protein, alkalising vegetables (greens, leeks, onions, carrots), high fiber (broccoli, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, ground flax seeds, kale) and moderate amounts of healthy fats.
Examples: sardines, salmon, eggs or bacon with avocado, sautéed kale or spinach or a 180 smoothie with quality protein, healthy fats and fiber. Try my Reduce Sugar Cravings Raspberry Smoothie or Green Gut Loving High Protein Breakfast Smoothie.
Obviously we can not ignore the power of suggestion and influence through marketing and media which can impact the way we crave and what foods we reach for. For more on this visit this link here.
As you can see the cornerstone of these suggestions are on meals that are whole, unrefined, largely plant based and well-rounded. By adhering to these simple, foundational principles you can reduce erratic blood sugar levels, reduce turbulent cravings and your anxiety around food. You might even shave a few dollars off your next grocery bill.. Now there’s some inspiration for you 🙂