If bread, pasta or chocolate calls your name, you’re not alone. Carb cravings are one of most common complaints I hear from my patients.. There are many reasons for these cravings. Some studies are suggesting certain foods, often carbs, light up hedonic centers in your brain, causing more cravings. And there are a host of other potential causes. The good news is that there are ways to outsmart these cravings!
Here are some common scenarios that may lead to carb cravings and tips to control them:
1. Having sweets in your environment can give you “sugar brain”. I call foods that set off more cravings “trigger” foods. It’s been shown that in certain people, high sugar, high fat foods activate a center in your brain what will cause you to want more of them. Trying to fight this by “being more disciplined” often doesn’t work. You’ll only end up beating yourself up … which can lead to even more eating. Reference
Tip: Rather than trying to “improve your self-control”, focus more on “reengineering your food environment.” Avoid keeping these tempting foods in your home or office. Ask your family or significant(s) other to keep them out of the house or buy a flavor you don’t like. If they must be in the house, at least hide them. Avoid the candy on your co-workers desk …. don’t even start!
2. Going too long without eating. This will lead to low blood sugar which will increase the urge to eat carbs. I doubt many of you crave broccoli when you haven’t eaten for 8 hours! My guess is that you would be looking for something starchy or sugary.
Tip: Eat meals at regular intervals. Plan a healthy snack for in between meals. Carry this snack with you if you’ll be on the road.
3. Consuming too many processed low fiber carbs. Foods such as white rice, white bread, sweets and other sugary food are low in fiber and have a high glycemic index. Eating high glycemic foods (especially larger portions) can cause a quick spike in blood sugar, followed by a quick drop. This stimulates a spike of insulin, followed by increased hunger and can cause the urge to eat more carbohydrates.
Tip: Stick to whole grains and high fiber foods as much as possible
4. Not eating adequate protein at meals. Eating meals that contain only carbohydrate (i.e. a jumbo bagel, big bowl of pasta or frozen yogurt with granola) will cause a rapid rise of blood sugar, followed by a spike of insulin, then a crash of blood sugar. This can exacerbate cravings. Protein helps to slow digestion a bit and keep you feeling full long.
Tip: Try to include a protein source at meals and snacks. Protein sources include: meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nut and nut butters, and dairy products. Note: not all women with PCOS choose to consume dairy – but if you do, the best choices would be organic and fermented like yogurt – especially plain Greek yogurt).
5. Not eating adequate fat at meals. Many of my clients are still fat phobic (maybe leftover from the Food Pyramid?) and will go out of their way to avoid eating fat. But this isn’t a great idea as following a diet too low in fat can exacerbate cravings. Fat takes a long time to digest, helps to prevent rapid peaks and drops of blood sugar and helps keep you full longer. Of course, the key is not to overindulge in fat as loaded with calories if you
Tip: Add a little olive oil to your salad, peanut butter to your morning toast and avocado to your salad.
6. Taking your caloric intake too low. When your consume too few calories, your hypothalmus produces extra NPY (neuropeptide Y), a chemical messenger that encourages you to eat more carbohydrates. In addition, the hypothalmus secretes another chemical called galanin which increases cravings for foods rich in fat and carbs. Take home message: eating too few calories = cravings for high carb foods.
Tip: Don’t go below 1200 calories (and even higher for most people).
7. Getting inadequate sleep. Sleep affects hormones that regulate satiety, hunger and how efficiently you burn calories. Too little sleep can lower levels of leptin and raise levels of ghrelin, which can increase
hunger for sweet and/or starchy foods.
Tip: Get adequate sleep! Turn off the computer and tv at least an hour before bed. Ideally try to read before going to sleep. This helps to “shut you down”. Stay tuned for more sleep tips in an upcoming post.
8. Consuming inadequate carbs, especially if you are an active person. Low carb diets are mainstream these days. While they may work for some people, others feel exhausted. Exercising on a regular basis and not consuming adequate carbs can cause you to have powerful carb cravings as well as low energy levels. This is because carbs are the major fuel used by exercising muscles. Your body likes to keep your energy stores full of energy (called glycogen). If you exercise on a regular basis and don’t eat enough carbs, your body may go into “carb seeking mode” as it tries to replete its glycogen stores. In addition, you will likely find your energy levels plummet.
Tip: My carb recommendations very widely depending on the person, however aim for at least 4 servings of carb rich foods a day (includes fruit and grains). Very active people may need significantly more than this.
9. Having high stress levels. High levels of stress can cause chemical imbalances in your body.
Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands in your body when you are under stress. Cortisol will increase production of a neurotransmitter called neuropeptide Y, which as I previously discussed, can increase cravings for sweet or starchy foods.
Tip: Find an activity to do that relaxes you or at least takes your mind off stressful thoughts. Try getting a massage, taking a bath, reading a book, taking a walk or going to the gym, taking a yoga class, practicing meditation – or any other pleasurable activity that doesn’t have anything to do with food.
If you experience frequent carb cravings, I’d recommend you play detective! Keep a food journal for at least a week. Record what you eat, the time, how much sleep you got, what you did for exercise along with any emotion you felt before you had the craving. You’ll likely be able to figure out what caused the craving and come up with a solution!
Read my previous posts on Eating Triggers and How to Control Them
I’d love to hear about your carb cravings and help you brainstorm ways to beat them!
How many times have you vowed to stick to your healthy eating plan but found yourself getting derailed because something triggered you to eat? It could be the smell of fresh baked bread when you walk by a bakery or the sight of candy on your co-workers desk. Or maybe once you start with pasta you want half the box. For others, stress or anxiety can send you running to the kitchen or vending machine. We all have different eating triggers and some are more apparent than others. You probably think you’re aware of your eating triggers – but I bet there are some you don’t even realize! Once you learn what they are, you can strategize to come up with a plan on how to control them. It is possible to control your eating triggers … you just need to outsmart them! Read the bottom of this article to see what my triggers are as well as my “treatment plan”.
Getting started with a food journal
The best way to become really aware of your eating triggers is to keep a detailed food journal. You may be thinking “I already do that on myfitnesspal”. Nope – I’m talking the good old-fashioned notebook type of journal. This will enable you to keep more details including the time you eat, what you eat, who you are with, your hunger level, any emotion you may be feeling and anything you feel triggered you to eat. Anything can trigger you to eat – ranging from the smell or sight of food, certain people, time of day, activities, emotions and feelings and of course, actual hunger. After you’ve completed your log, take some time to analyze it and come up with a plan.
Common eating triggers & proposed solutions
There are many eating triggers – too numerous for me to address in this article – so I’ve chosen a few of the most common.
1. Certain foods
Do you have “trigger” foods? These are foods that set off cravings or make it more difficult to stop eating. This is a biggie for many of us! Common trigger foods include sweets, refined carbs like pasta and bread and salty foods like chips and cheese.
-Having one piece of bread from the bread basket causes you to eat 3
-Cooking pasta at home triggers you to go back for seconds and thirds
-Having one cookie leads to 6 or a handful of chips leads to the whole bag
Tips to handle it: you really have 3 choices here:
-Avoid the trigger totally if you KNOW it will set you off. If you eating one piece of bread in restaurant will set you off, avoid it. If possible, ask the waiter to remove the basket.
-Allow yourself a small portion. Eat it slow and enjoy it. With pasta, weigh out 2 oz dry and cook only that. But if this still triggers you to want more, you may be best off not keeping it in your home. Maybe you can enjoy an order of pasta in a restaurant on occasion.
– Find a replacement. If you love ice cream but can’t control your portion, enjoy a small cup of ice cream at the ice cream parlor on your Saturday walk or keep individually portioned ice cream bars at home for when you get the urge.
– If you husband wants ice cream or chips in the house (your trigger food), keep them out of sight or ask him to buy a flavor you don’t love.
*But here is some food for thought: ask yourself – do you feel compelled to keep eating the trigger food because you feel it is a “bad” food and the all or nothing mentality has crept in? If this is the case, they you’ll need to work on getting rid of this thought process. Or do you REALLY feel this food sets you off? 2 different things!
Do you have a trigger food (if so, what is it)? How can you handle it?
2. Seeing or smelling food
This is a common one! Whether it’s the sight of candy on your co-workers desk (if you didn’t see it you probably wouldn’t crave it) or the smell of fresh bread, what we see and smell can be strong triggers. We all can’t walk around with nose plugs or blinders, so you’ll need to learn how to avoid certain situations or handle them differently.
-The sight of candy on your co-workers desk
-Smelling the cinnabons in the mall
-Walking past Crumbs and seeing/smelling the cupcakes
Tips to handle it:
-Make a detour around the bakery by taking a different street
-Buy your co-worker a type of candy for the jar that you don’t love. Bring your own healthy snack to work to have versus eating what’s in the candy jar
-Try to avoid the room with the candy as much as possible
-Chew gum or eat mints. Some studies have shown this can help you resist tempting foods
– Keep any tempting foods that you need to keep in your home for others out of sight
Is the sight or smell of food a trigger for you? Can you come up with any solutions on how to handle it?
Are there certain places, situations or activities that trigger you to eat or drink more? After all, we don’t live in glass bubbles and food is everywhere! Here are 3 biggies:
-Going to the movies
-Eating out in restaurants
Tips to handle it:
-Movies: do you really need that 800 calorie bag of popcorn? How about sneaking in a 100 calorie bag of Skinny Pop. I doubt you’ll get caught or punished J Don’t bring any extra money to the movies
-Tv: While it would be better to break the tv/eating behavior chain, if you really feel that you need a snack while watching tv, at least plan it out. Ideally pick something that is portion controlled (i.e. a sliced apple, a small bag of popcorn, a mini hummus with cut veggies, one low cal ice cream bar, 25 pistachio nuts ). Avoid sitting in front of the TV with a whole bag of chips or can of nuts!
-Eating out: there are more temptations in restaurants, but be careful not to give into the all or nothing mentality. You don’t need to have bread, wine, appetizer and dessert. Look at the menu ahead of time online to prepare yourself. Have a light snack ahead of time so you aren’t starving. Consider taking half home in a doggie bag. Go into the restaurant with a plan.
Are there certain situations or activities that trigger you to eat more? What can you do about it?
4. Certain people
It’s likely that you have certain friends, relatives or significant others who trigger you to eat more. I bet you have “healthy eating” friends and then those who like to indulge. Or “Drinking” friends trigger you to have multiple glasses of wine.
Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post on dealing with Food Pushers!
5. Boredom or less structure
I find that many of my clients have an easier time sticking to a healthy eating plan when their day is structured. But as soon as the structure goes, all bets are off.
-Evenings after long stressful day
-Working from home (like I am doing right now!)
Tips to handle it:
-Plan some structure into your day on the weekends. Sign up for a Soul Cycle class. Make a “walk date” with a friend. Keep a list of projects you’ve been meaning to get to and start to tackle them one by one. While you may not necessarily eat 3 meals a day, eat “feedings” with protein and veggies. The worse thing to do would be to get into a carb graze fest
-Everyone deserves to relax after a long day at work, but it doesn’t have to revolve around food. Embarrassing confession – sometimes when I am exhausted after working, I give myself permission to watch a ridiculous tv show like the Real Housewives of NYC. It kinda numbs your brain like food would! Find an activity that relaxes you and that you don’t associate with eating.
Does boredom or less structure trigger you to eat? What can you do about it?
There is nothing wrong with incorporating alcohol in moderation into a healthy eating plan. However, I would certainly call alcohol a trigger if one drink leads to 4 or it as a negative impact on your food choices (that night or even the next day)
-Alcohol can decrease your resolve to watch what you eat
-For some people, it can also increase hunger later in the evening even after eating a meal (or the next day if you feel hungover)
Tips to handle it: Read my previous blog post on 12 Sneaky Tips to Drink Less Alcohol
Does alcohol trigger you to eat? What strategies can you try?
Now while the following aren’t triggers in themselves, the outcomes may be triggers in their own way:
Do you notice a difference in your hunger levels on the days you exercise? Do you find you tend to eat more, less or the same on exercise versus non-exercise days? If you eat more, it is from REAL hunger or because you rationalize that you can eat more because you exercised (or saw your fitbit said you burnt 400 calories!)
Tips to handle it: Try to have a healthy snack shortly after exercise or a meal within a hour or two. This will help replete the carbs you burned and get protein into your muscles. But catch yourself if you hear that little voice saying “you can eat more because you exercised”. Maybe you eat a little more … but not much more if you are trying to lose weight
Does exercise have an effect on your eating?
8. Inadequate sleep
Lack of sleep can be a powerful trigger to get you to crave more carbs and fat and just be more hungry. In addition, studies have shown that those people who get less than 7 hour of sleep a night are more likely to have larger waistlines and increased chance of being overweight or obese.
Tips to handle it: The obvious … get more sleep! I know easier said than done, but do your best to make it a priority.
Do you feel like eating more the day after a poor nights sleep?
This may be the biggest trigger of all for many people! I’m leaving this one to an expert – Dr. Gretchen Kubacky. Stay tuned for her upcoming blog post on Emotional Triggers to Eating & How to Handle it
Bottom line, we usually don’t eat out of pure hunger. There is usually something else triggering you to eat. By being really aware of what your triggers are, you may be able to anticipate these triggers and win the fight against them!
Now … even nutritionist have eating triggers! Here are my triggers:
1. Going out with certain “drinking & eating friends”
what I do about it: I arrive a little late to the dinner to miss pre-dinner drinks, I talk a lot and eat slow
2. Feeling anxious at work. This tends to happen more in the morning versus later in the afternoon. I almost feel like I have low blood sugar and have the urge to keep eating or look for foods. (though there is no way I do because I just had breakfast)
what I do about it: cut down on caffeine, have an early more substantial lunch.
3. “Free lunch” Tuesdays in my office. 80% of the time it’s not a healthy choices. Yet somehow I find myself eating too much of it. I tend to back for seconds as well. Why? Maybe because the kitchen is so close to my office or it’s free???
what I do about it: I order my lunch into work on Tuesdays (like a salad or ½ sandwich and soup). Sure, I’m losing out on a free lunch, but I feel this is “my lunch” and I don’t get started with the office lunch.
4. Eating too much pasta when I cook it. Whenever I try to cook a moderate portion of pasta (~ 2 oz dry), I almost always go back and cook more.
what I do about it: I no longer cook pasta in my apartment, but I do order it in restaurants about once a month.
What are your triggers and what can you do about them? List a few and come up with some solutions!