Do you hunger for something sweet half an hour after dinner each night? HFG explains the science behind cravings – and offers simple strategies to tame your sweet tooth.
Why is it that after eating a perfectly satisfying meal we often fancy something sweet? An extra piece of toast with jam after breakfast, a biscuit after lunch or chocolate, ice cream and sweets after dinner?
Craving sugar when you don’t need to eat can be controlled, according to emerging research. The answer lies in your choice of foods at main meals, plus tweaking your behaviour when you’re around food.
Try these six strategies to beat between-meal munchies and curb sugar cravings. In a few weeks, you can retrain your brain and taste buds to think about food in a healthier way.
Ditch the diets
Drastic kilojoule restriction can fuel cravings for energy-dense foods and if you give in to these cravings, you can actually encourage future ones. A well-balanced diet is all about a healthy, maintainable approach, which includes the occasional sweet treat.
Change your language around food. Avoid using negative words such as ‘bad’ or ‘naughty’ to describe chocolate and lollies/sweets. When you remove the guilt from these foods, you will enjoy them more and need them less.
Reset your hormones
Did you know your stomach ‘talks’ to your brain to let you know when you’re full? One way is via the appetite-regulating hormone leptin. Being overweight or obese, however, can make you leptin-resistant. This means those appetite-suppressing signals don’t make it through to the brain, so you feel hungry even if you’re full. Fortunately, changing your diet can influence your leptin levels. In fact, studies have shown healthier diets help ensure your leptin levels work for you rather than against you.
Plan all your meals and snacks to include a variety of foods from the core food groups – veges and fruit, grains, dairy, fish and lean meat or other protein foods.
Ride the crave wave
Seeing or smelling your favourite treats may make them appear irresistible but, remember, this response is always short-lived.
To help to curb your cravings, be aware of what’s happening and know it won’t last. You can override it! Ask yourself whether you are truly hungry, or is the sweet craving actually because you are bored, tired or upset?
Break the habit of finishing your meal with something sweet. Instead, cleanse your palate with a peppermint or ginger tea.
Pump up the volume
It’s easier to manage your appetite between meals when you’re eating tasty, balanced meals. You’ll feel full for longer if your main meals are high in fibre and also contain a balance of nutrients, including protein, carbs and healthy fats.
If the idea of a salad for lunch leaves you feeling deprived, add tasty ingredients, such as toasted nuts, roasted veges or crumbled feta, plus a drizzle of olive oil. Soup is another delicious and filling way to eat more veges.
Fill up half your plate with a variety of colourful vegetables at every meal.
- Cut back on the sugar in your tea and coffee
- Opt for plain yoghurt rather than flavoured
- Swap jam and honey on toast for nut butter or avocado
- Choose water in place of flavoured drinks
- Enjoy a whole piece of fruit rather than fruit juice
- Replace tomato sauce with fresh tomato salsa
- Snack on a handful of nuts instead of sweet biscuits
- Top porridge with banana and cinnamon instead of sugar or maple syrup
Be snack savvy
Snacks can really make or break a healthy diet. Not everyone snacks between meals but, if you do, stick to minimally processed whole foods. And get rid of the biscuits and chocolate from your desk drawer. Think of those as treats rather than snacks.
Healthy snacks include a piece of fruit with a slice of cheese, some vege sticks with a healthy dip, a tub of yoghurt or a handful of unsalted nuts.
You can also make healthier swaps for a 3pm pick-me-up, such as a soothing herbal tea or a piece of fruit instead of sugary biscuits. Aim to have a source of healthy fats, protein or fibre for each between-meal snack, as these help to keep you feeling full.
Stock your fridge and pantry with nut butter, avocado, nuts, wholegrain crackers, vege sticks and fruit for healthy snacks.
Know your food triggers
Even just thinking about your favourite food sets in motion a physiological response, as you start to produce saliva and your stomach prepares for digestion.
Cravings also lead to a surge in the hormone insulin. This lowers your blood sugar level, which can make you feel hungry, so you end up thinking you want a certain food even though you don’t actually need it.
When the cravings strike, head outside for a short walk, or find another quick, easy distraction. If the sweet craving hasn’t passed in 20 minutes, savour a small portion so you don’t feel deprived.
Article sources and references
- Boswell RG & Kober H. 2016. Food cue reactivity and craving predict eating and weight gain: A meta-analytic review. Obesity Reviews 17:159-77https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26644270
- Huang et al. 2016. An increase in dietary quality is associated with favorable plasma biomarkers of the brain-adipose axis in apparently healthy US women. Journal of Nutrition 146:1101-8https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27075907
- Roberts et al. 2017. The messy truth about weight loss. Scientific American 316:36-41https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/want-to-lose-weight-what-you-need-to-know-about-eating-and-exercise/