Food cravings can be nightmarish. They can consume your energy and focus, but often we can manage and reduce cravings by simply modifying our diet and tweaking lifestyle a little bit.
What are some of the common triggers to food cravings?
- Poor sleep
- High stress
- Processed foods
- Meals that lack protein and healthy fats
- Meals that lack plant-based fiber and meals that are very low carbohydrate (VLC)
- An unbalanced gut flora
- Missing breakfast
1. Sleep and stress
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 is disrupted, so are our blood sugar levels, mood, and ability to feel full and satisfied.
Why do we want to balance 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.
Poor sleep also increases the risk of insulin resistance. In fact, those who get less than five hours of sleep a night have a 46 percent increased risk of developing diabetes compared to those who get seven to eight hours.
Processed foods, pollutants, and life's pressures affect the quality of our sleep and contribute to high stress levels. So 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.
Find social activities you enjoy, meditate, or delve into some yin yoga to help you stay on top of excessive stress. Even a mere 10 to 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 and chemicals that disrupt blood sugar balance. Simple sugars are absorbed quickly by the body, in anywhere between 60 to 90 minutes, whereas whole foods are absorbed within 6 to 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 and it eventually loses its effectiveness.
This leads to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance can drive food cravings 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 also have addictive properties.
3. Not eating enough protein and healthy fats
Having quality protein and healthy fats with every meal stabilizes blood sugar and helps keep you full and satisfied. This helps you avoid cravings and overconsumption of food.
Breakfast especially needs a quality protein to support healthy morning cortisol level, which gives us energy, focus, and stable blood sugar levels throughout the day.
Aim for a palm-size portion of protein and 1 tablespoon of healthy fats per meal.
Good sources of quality protein are grass-fed meat, organic poultry, fish, eggs, liver (from grass-fed animals). Good sources of fats are nuts, nut butter, seeds, coconut oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, olive oil, and macadamia oil.
4. Not eating enough fiber
Dietary fiber from plant sources such as berries, avocado, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, leafy greens, artichokes, ground flaxseeds, carrots, and nuts help to slow down the absorption of sugar, resulting in stable blood sugar levels and thus fewer food cravings.
Fiber also feeds our good gut flora, promoting a healthy microbiome. Let's not forget that fiber 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 refined carbohydrates, sweets, alcohol, fast food, or overconsumption of food.
Another fiber worth including in your diet is resistant starch (RS). RS passes through the stomach and small intestine undigested (it resists digestion). It reaches the colon intact and is eventually digested by our intestinal bacteria. The beauty of RS is that it contains mostly unusable calories and has little or no effect on our insulin or blood sugar levels.
Good RS sources are boiled potatoes, brown rice, cannellini (white) beans, black beans, and unripe bananas.
5. A very low carbohydrate diet
Many health-conscious folk have gone too far down the low-carb rabbit hole. Contrary to popular belief, this is not always a great strategy. It's important to include a small amount of whole, plant-based carbohydrates in your lunch and dinner, especially if there are any issues with sleep or stress or if the adrenals need support.
Whole, plant-based carbohydrates are rich in fiber and natural gut-loving prebiotics (think fertilizer for your good gut bacteria). Whole-food carbohydrates shouldn't be compared to processed carbohydrates, as they don't 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. The adrenals produce more cortisol in response to prevent blood sugar from getting too low.
This rise in cortisol contributes to poor sleep quality and poor production of the hormones needed to help you feel full and satisfied after meals Can you see where I'm going with this? Hello, mind-robbing cravings.
Please don't misunderstand, this doesn't mean you should partake in a carb fest with every meal, because a high-carb diet is certainly not ideal. As a modest rule of thumb, aim for 2 tablespoons for lunch and dinner. Cycling your carbohydrate intake can help bring your cortisol and blood sugar levels back to a healthy rhythm.
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.
Good sources of "smart" carbohydrates are:
- Sweet potato
- Brown rice (that has cooled down)
- Black beans
- Cannellini and navy beans
Note: Soak your legumes before cooking and introduce slowly if you have been avoiding them for a while. Some people don't tolerate legumes well. If this is you, consider leaving legumes out of your diet for now.
6. Unbalanced gut flora (microbiome)
A healthy microbiome produces short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Soluble fibers found in whole plant foods are fermented by our gut bacteria into SCFAs like butyrate, propionate, and acetate.
SCFAs help reduce inflammation and maintain a healthy weight. Butyrate, in particular, is important for a healthy metabolism and our ability to adapt to stress (stress resistance).
Ninety percent of 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 to regulate sleep, stress, and relaxation.
If our gut flora is unhealthy and out of balance, our mood, sleep, and hormone production can be affected, which could cause food cravings.
7. Not eating breakfast
Having a breakfast 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 more sugar and fewer vegetables during the day.
What does a well-balanced breakfast look like?
- A palm-size portion of high-quality protein
- Alkalizing vegetables (greens, leeks, onions, carrots)
- High-fiber foods (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, ground flaxseeds, kale)
- Moderate amounts of healthy fats (sardines, salmon, eggs, bacon, avocado)
This could be sautéed kale with eggs or a smoothie with spinach, quality protein, healthy fats, and fibrous fruits such as berries.
As you can see, the key to curbing cravings is meals that are whole, unrefined, plant-based, and well-rounded.
By adhering to these simple, foundational principles, you can reduce erratic blood sugar levels, turbulent cravings, and your anxiety around food. You might even shave a few dollars off your next grocery bill.