A 3-pronged approach to kicking food cravings

Last week we talked at length about the science behind food cravings (if you haven’t read that post, or need a little refresher on the hormones involved, take 10 minutes to read it now; we’ll be here when you get back ;) )

kicking food cravings

Given that (a) your brain rewards you with a little pleasure rush each time you consume sugary, fatty foods (that’s serotonin) and (b) your wildly cycling blood sugar levels urge you to eat more to return them to normal (that’s insulin), it’s not surprising that kicking food cravings is extremely difficult.

Combine that with (c) strong associations between certain types of foods and specific activities (for example, dessert on Friday and Sunday nights, soft drinks and licorice at the movies or pastries with afternoon coffee) and it becomes damn near impossible.

Let’s face it, sugary, fatty, processed foods are no different than the other stimulants we, as humans, become addicted to. To reduce the hold they have on you you need to treat them the same way you would a nicotine, alcohol or cocaine addiction.

The best way to combat the cravings? Recognize and treat the physiological, psychological and social aspects of the addiction.

Physiological:

Interrupt the roller coasted blood sugar cycling by eliminating sugary, fatty, processed foods for a minimum of 10 days. Longer is better (The Whole 30 approach suggests a minimum of 30 days), but taking it one week at a time is psychologically easier in the beginning. That includes natural (e.g., honey, agave nectar) and fake sugars (e.g., aspartame, sucralose); most create the very same insulin response as the real thing and even those that don’t (e.g., Stevia) continue to trip the pleasure centres in your brain.

kicking food cravings

By eliminating added sugars and processed foods you’ll be re-training your palate to enjoy things that taste less sweet. And don’t bother trying to make ‘healthier’ versions of your favourite sweet and fatty foods; this will only undermine your attempts to learn to enjoy unprocessed foods.

Some of you will say that it’s easier for you to just reduce sugar and processed foods than eliminate them entirely. You may be right, but I suspect that if you’ve tried that strategy and are still reading this post, it may not have worked for you :)

Don’t tell yourself that you’ll never eat chocolate again. You may very well be able to go back to enjoying occasional, small amounts of your favourite less-than-healthy food once you’ve normalized your blood sugars.

The first week will be the most difficult. Cravings will be intense, in particular if you don’t simultaneously address the psychological and social aspects of the addiction. Here are some tips to help you eliminate sugar.

Psychological:

Find other ways to get your serotonin high. Rather than using food to elevate your mood, try exercise, spending time with friends and family, participating in activities that you enjoy, shopping (within reason; I can’t begin to describe how fabulous buying a one-of-a-kind skein of hand-dyed yarn makes me feel…) or sex. All have been shown to spike serotonin production and increase mood and feelings of happiness.

Remind yourself that food is fuel. Not a reward for good behaviour or heaven forbid, exercise. Celebrate achievements by DOING things with family and friends rather than EATING something.

Social:

Break the associations between high sugar-high fat processed foods and social situations. If you can’t go to the movies without reaching for the Twizzlers, don’t go to the movies for awhile. If coffee shop visits with your girlfriends always include fresh baked pastries (even gluten-free pastries have too much sugar and fat…), take the visits elsewhere. If you head to the pub with your co-workers every Friday after work for pizza and beer, take a pass for a month (you see enough of them all week anyways!).

Replace the activities you associate with certain foods with new, food-neutral ones. If your friends and family give you grief, explain to them WHY you’re making these changes and encourage them to join you, for the good of THEIR health.

What’s your favourite tip for eliminating food cravings?

Do you find the physiological, psychological or social aspects of changing your diet the most difficult?

Comments

  1. Im an intuitive eater BUT it took me a while to get here.
    I did learn along the way that saying IM NEVER EATING XX AGAIN made me eat vats of XX even when I wasnt craving it.
    I completely agree with your point of not making anything a NEVER FOOD.
    I NEVER eat lottsa things Id probably BINGE ON if I werent “allowed” them.
    Miz recently posted..Breakfast brain-food.My Profile

    • I’d love to know more about the brain science behind opposition; why when we hear the words ‘no’ or ‘never’ the value of the thing we’re not supposed to do increases…

  2. All good stuff!

    “Remind yourself that food is fuel”

    This concept has long since been abandoned. If there were one fitness ideal that could change the world for the better if it took hold, the human species reverting back to the food is fuel mindset would be phenomenal.

    BUT, since we will never do that, creating better habits is the next best option!
    Contemplative Fitness recently posted..Unintended Consequences…My Profile

    • You’re so right. We can’t close Pandora’s box; big business and the government would never allow it. I’m hoping that setting an example for the next generation will at least help some…

  3. Oh wow I love this. I’m an all or nothing kind of girl. So it’s better for me to just stop the sugar madness than try to have a little. I am habitual about treat consumption. So if I take myself out of the place/time where I usually overindulge in treats, most of my battle is won.

    • Thanks Marcia. I’m with you. And I truly believe that it’s a chemical addiction. I’ve gone cold turkey in the past and done 30 day no-sugar-detoxes. The first few days are tough, but fairly soon you lose your taste for super sweet!

  4. Fantastic and well-needed info, T. As someone who’s also done a lot of research on how rewarding kids with food impacts kids, I’ll just add that these associations can start early. Let’s think carefully about how we reward and use food with kids for long-term healthy habits.
    Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana recently posted..How Candy as a Reward Degrades Healthy Nutrition in SchoolsMy Profile

    • Suzanne, yes, I saw your post last week and agree 100%. I know that I’m guilty of using food as a reward on occasion with my children. I am trying to be very mindful of this, just as I’m mindful of rewarding myself with food!

  5. Great tips Tamara. For me, it would have to be all or nothing. I know that I need that in order to break the habit.
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted..Life Jacket RequiredMy Profile

  6. Great post Tamara & also the options for people. I agree, some may just have to back off for a bit. Others may be like me & learn to work it in.. weekend cookie treats plus I do use stevia & other sweeteners BUT I have it mastered for me as you know.. lots of years under my belt & took me a while to get it mastered. :) I just can’t so the Whole 30 & live happy but happy for those that can! :) I guess I spent way too many years depriving myself before I learned it was OK to work it in.. but I know many have to find their own way!

    SO AGREE with break that social situation thing – man, my family lived that! :)
    Jody – Fit at 55 recently posted..Gratitude Monday – YUP, Grateful!My Profile

    • Thanks Jody! And you’re so obviously at that point in your life where you CAN enjoy a bit every now and then. For most of us, getting off the sugar-coaster means that we should really ignore it completely for awhile.

  7. I am big believer in “resetting” everything once in a while by really cleaning up my eating. Everything tastes so much sweeter and better after you cut out all sugar for a while.

    “Special occasions” were a problem for me at one point as I associated them with food. I had to make a conscious effort to make special occasions about people and experiences and not food.
    Andrea@WellnessNotes recently posted..Squash & Tomato Soup and InstagramMy Profile

    • Andrea, I don’t think you’re alone. As a child, I remember that there was often a special dessert or trip to the candy store as a reward for achievements of all type. And I know that I’ve modelled that to my children on occasion as well.

      So important to pay attention to this so that our children don’t have to deal with it as adults! Thanks so much for commenting.

  8. Getting all sugar out of my diet for even a week is very challenging, not just because of the love of sweets, but because sugar in its various forms is so sneaky and pervasive. Well written and organized post. Motivating as well!
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted..Healthy Skin Care for Boomer Women: Theraderm SkinCare GiveawayMy Profile

  9. great post/series! I am finding that some of the things I can make at home make me happier than the “treats” I used to make. I try to eat fruit regularly so I don’t feel sugar-deprived. (when I was loosing weight, I was on a carb controlled plan, and so fruit was off the table for a while – I missed it so!) I have so many family traditions linked to food, and I want to still be able to participate in continuing those traditions… so I think it will be key for me to keep learning how to keep the “moderation” theory close at hand.

    Anyhow, for me, right now where I am, I am trying to make much healthier things so I don’t feel deprived. a carrot smoothie instead of a big chunk of carrot cake from Safeway, thank kind of thing. very loose connections like the combo of spices are sometimes enough to satisfy the craving.
    Kristine recently posted..instagram: I am abnormally proud of filling my sweet tomatoes @souplantation passport. (side note, E doesn’t appreciate my need to be all meta and post this :D )My Profile

  10. Since my diet is perfect for me right now, I don’t need to change anything. However, if my diet was not healthy, I would probably have a huge time changing it, because I love the food I eat. THANK GOODNESS the foods I eat are healthy LOL!
    GiGi Eats Celebrities recently posted..Coconut Oil is Robert Downey Jr.’s DoppelgangerMy Profile

  11. Great tips and an excellent break down of everything.
    Brittany recently posted..Week 2 of V.2.0 – Building Stronger ArmsMy Profile

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