Constant cravings…a great song from k.d.lang, but not so much fun when you are in the midst of experiencing them!
Cravings typically appear when we consciously change our dietary habits, often from a high carb to a low carb way of eating, and they are usually cravings for the old “bad” foods that we would have previously eaten. As you can probably guess these foods are usually sugar, or carbohydrate related, and this is because of the hormonal response that our bodies release in connection with those types of food.
Sugar, and certain carbohydrates – such as starchy, refined foods – induce an insulin response because of the glycemic load they create – that is the amount of glucose they deliver and also the length of time it takes for the body to process that glucose. The effects on the body mean that the cravings are not imagined but very real indeed. Your body is literally crying out for the same foods once it has finished processing them because it perceives that there is no more energy to be had. Sugar, in particular, is “addictive” because our bodies are hard-wired for sweet taste as this indicates fast energy and delivers a shot of endorphins each time we eat them. Our dopamine levels rise – giving us that “feel good” sensation. The problem is that with each time we eat these foods, we need more and more to achieve the same level of dopamine.
Teaching your body to switch from being a sugar burner to a fat burner usually means going “cold turkey”, because even just a small amount of glucose can be enough to keep the body looking for more when it has been so reliant on it in the past. Refusing to give in to these demands (much like refusing to give in to a toddler having a tantrum) means that it will be quicker for your body to adapt to the changes and learn to use the supply of fuel that we have in our body – stored fat. Once you have gone cold turkey cravings typically only last for a week or two and you will suddenly realise that actually you are no longer craving the sweet stuff!
But if you are consistently finding yourself drawn to the treat cupboard, it may be that you are not actually as diligent as you think – which is where tracking your food intake may be helpful. There are many food tracking apps such as Cronometer, My Fitness Pal or Keto Diet, which are easy to use and really do keep you accountable. It can be quite eye-opening to see exactly what your daily macro-nutrient intake is if you have never done it before.
Here are a few things to consider if you are still hankering after the “sugar monster” – particularly in the evenings, when he seems to strike hardest!
- How low carb are you really? Even though you may feel that your diet is healthy and generally low carb, in reality it may not be as low as you think it is. Even one apple has 50g of carbs – which in a strictly low carb/keto diet would be well over the limit of between 10- 30g! Keeping carbs above 50g can often result in you retaining cravings because your body is continually seeking that “glucose hit”. Even if you are implementing fasting into your routine, and only eating twice a day, a higher carb limit once you enter the feasting window will immediately put the body back into sugar burning mode as opposed to fat burning. Sometimes it is necessary to completely remove carbs from the diet to completely remove cravings.
- What type of carbohydrates are you eating? Depending on the carb load of the foods eaten, this will also have an impact on insulin levels, energy and cravings. For example, potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, rice, pasta, most fruits etc have a high carb load and will keep the body at higher insulin levels. Once the glucose and glycogen have been used the body starts to demand more of the same rather than dipping into the fat stores. Eating fruit and vegetables with a lower carbohydrate load will help to solve this problem, enabling the body to get used to less glucose coming in. Sticking to green leafy veg, berries etc, and not consuming too much at any one meal, will help limit your intake and start your body recognising fat as a fuel source.
- Not enough protein. If your diet really IS very low carb, cravings could occur due to low protein consumption. The protein leverage hypothesis states that the body continues to eat in an effort to reach ideal protein levels. There is protein in most foods, although much lower levels in plant foods and also less bioavailable, which means that your body will continue to demand more food in order to obtain correct amounts of protein. Our current guidelines are actually quite low, and are recommendations for the MINIMUM amount. More up to date research is suggesting that we should all be upping our protein intake.
- Not enough fat. Fat is a great energy source and if you are eating a higher ratio of fat, as opposed to carbs, in the diet then this will help to keep you in a low insulin, higher glucagon “fat burning” mode. Once your body is using fat as its primary fuel source, carb cravings start to become a thing of the past. A very low carb/keto ratio is around 80% fat by calorie, with approximately 10-15% protein, and the rest made up from non starchy carbohydrates. If you are keeping to a very low carb regimen but are not including enough fat then you will be lacking an energy source. Protein is a building block for the body and is an expensive substrate for the body to use for energy, therefore without an appropriate energy source you will end up tired and lacklustre. However, if you are eating a higher amount of carbohydrates, it is important not to start adding a ton of fat on top, because the glucose from the carbs will always be metabolised first, which means the fat does not get used as the primary energy source, and will end up being stored. Fat and carbs together (which is processed foods in a nutshell) is the modern day food-bomb that is contributing to obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc, and we can create the same bomb ourselves if we combine both a high level of fat and carbs, even if it is from real foods.
- Habit. If all the above is accounted for (i.e. very low carb, plenty of protein, high fat), then cravings are likely to be pure habit. If you always have that “something sweet” after your meal then you literally train your brain to expect it. This means re-training it so when you experience the “trigger” (the thing that starts the craving) you replace this with doing something else until eventually this becomes the habit. The trick is to try to avoid replacing this with eating anything at all really or you will always be in the habit of eating extra food. Try drinking some sparkling water, or getting up and doing something physical that will take your mind off it. Feeling that you “can’t get through the day/evening without eating something sweet” is very real psychologically but not necessarily true physiologically (unless you are literally starving!).
Try looking at each of the points and seeing where they might apply to you and make some adjustments accordingly to see whether it helps. Your body is an amazing organism – treat it with respect and it will reward you with good behaviour!!
How have you conquered food cravings?