While many of us understand and can manage physical biological hunger, cravings and appetite are a bit more complicated. Think of them as a smart phone with the camera, phone line, messaging, Snap Chat, Facebook, alarm, internet browser, and 3 other apps all working and pinging you at the same time. Complicated? Overwhelming? Yes for sure.
I had intended to follow up on last week’s blog post on whey protein with a discussion of other protein powder options. However, I spent the last few days researching and preparing a talk on handling appetite and cravings during the holidays for one of my corporate clients. So I decided to share this today.
Whether you celebrate the holidays or not, and whether your celebrations are small or elaborate, the winter definitely triggers cravings for all of us. And we’re typically not craving celery or bell pepper sticks.
The Difference Between Hunger, Appetite, and Craving
Hunger is a physical and biological need to eat. Your blood sugar drops and you need energy to fuel your activities. Instinctively, your body protects you from burning your energy stores by releasing chemicals and hormones that trigger sensations we recognize as hunger. Your stomach growls, it feels empty, you start to lose your focus, your head hurts, etc.
Appetite is a conditioned desire for food. It starts with a sensory trigger (smell, sight, texture, temperature) that causes involuntary physiological responses such as salivation in the mouth, contractions in the stomach, and changes in brain and gut chemistry that drive the desire for the food.
One way to think about it is that hunger pushes you to eat the first few bites of potato chips and appetite prevents you from stopping once you start.
Cravings are brain hunger that are often triggered by mood and emotions rather than actual physical hunger. The foods craved, often fat, salt, and sugar, trigger the release of opioids in the brain, leading to feelings of pleasure and euphoria. The more you respond to your cravings (by eating), the more you have them, which explains why some people feel ‘addicted’ to certain foods.
How to Handle Cravings and Curb Appetite
While doctors and researchers still argue whether food is addictive like nicotine or drugs, I’m going to get to the practicality of it. Whether they are brain-triggered or habit-driven, at the end of the day, we all have to deal with cravings. Some people more than others. And some times they hit harder than others.
My clients, especially anyone trying to lose weight, always ask me how to stop craving sugar, cookies (Trader Joe’s Dunkers?), chocolate, pastries, etc. The answer isn’t always linear. To handle cravings, you have to set yourself up for success before they even hit. Then, you want to practice a strategy when the urge to eat hits.
Long-Term Craving-Busting Strategies
Don’t skip meals: when physically hungry, it’s harder to think and rationalize your eating behavior. When craving something on a full stomach, we can be satisfied with a bite or three. When craving something AND being physically hungry, we need a whole piece of pie. Eat a meal or snack every 3-4 hours.
Learn how to identify the REAL causes of your gut problems.
Eat a substantial high protein breakfast : eating a breakfast high in protein lowered the hunger hormone ghrelin and increased the fullness hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) after the meal. It also slowed down the speed at which the stomach empties, which means that food stays in your stomach for longer, keeping you full longer. For breakfast, try egg and veggie omelet with an apple or pear, Greek yogurt with berries and nuts, steel-cut oats with fresh fruit and nuts, or make a fruit-veggie-protein smoothie.
Eat low glycemic load meals (meals that will not spike up your blood glucose). That’s because a low glycemic load will prevent a sugar crash, which is often why people crave sugar. Low glycemic meals sit in your stomach longer and sustain your fullness for longer. Carbohydrate foods are what causes blood sugar to rise in your blood. To lower the sugar load of your meal, incorporate a serving of healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, nuts, quality cheese) and lean proteins (fish, chicken, meat, eggs, beans, nuts, yogurt, cheese). Fiber also lowers the load of glucose, so load on some fibrous non-starchy veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc) and choose high-fiber carbohydrates such as apples, oranges, quinoa, beans, lentils, or oats for your carbohydrates instead of cold cereal or white pasta.
Eat meals that are large in volume and lower in calories: the fancy word to describe this principle is volumetrics. When your stomach expands as a result of the volume of the meal, the satiety hormone CCK is released. A good amount of salad vegetables, cooked non-starchy vegetables, or broth-based soup will do the job. A tiny piece of brownie will not give you the same satiety feeling even if the calorie load is the same. It’s just about the volume.
Incorporate a variety of tastes and textures: you want to achieve sensory-specific satiety. Don’t eat bland foods. Add some crunch or texture to your meals. Maybe you want something smooth, maybe chewy, maybe crunchy. Create a fiesta in your mouth that will satisfy your taste buds and your brain pleasure centers. Be generous with the amount of spices and herbs you use.
Slow down: I seem to be telling everyone to slow down, especially when eating. It takes 20 minutes for satiety hormones to kick in. You know that already! Practice it. Try counting how many times you chew. Can you go up to 40 chews? A study found that 40 chews reduced energy intake and lowered hunger hormone and increased satiety hormone after the meal compared to 15 chews. Do you have to do 40? I don’t know where you’re at now. If you only chew 5 times, you’ve got something to work on.
Eat less of the food you crave (and potentially, limit your carbohydrates): a study that compared the effect of a low carb diet compared to a low fat diet found that the low carb participants craved carbohydrates less and that the low fat participants craved fat less. In other words, when people restricted a good, they started craving it less. They also found that those following a low-carbohydrate diet were less bothered by hunger. Take home message: if you crave a food all the time, remove it from your diet. It might take effort in the beginning, but it will get easier.
Rehearse. Don’t underestimate the power of imagery. Anticipate your moves like an athlete before a competition. Imagine difficult situations where you might be more susceptible to cravings. Now imagine walking by the stimuli–the fridge, the pantry, the open buffet, the free samples, the coffee shop, etc–confidently without stopping by. Imagine doing something else. Do this often, especially right before you face the difficult situation.
Sleep well: when sleep deprived, hunger hormones are up and satiety hormones are down. Sugar cravings also kick in to give you a quick pick-me-up energy. I wrote a blog post in 2010 with tips for getting better sleep (it’s weird reading 4-year-old articles!).
Lower your Stress: there’s not enough room in this post to talk about stress, but remember this: under chronic stress, appetite for sugar and fat is fired up and fat storage is turned on.
During-the-Moment Craving Busting Strategies
“But I do all of this already and I still get cravings.” Read these strategies carefully and practice them EVERY time you experience a craving. You might not be successful every time, but that’s ok. Practice will get you there.
Learn how to identify the REAL causes of your gut problems.
- Stay alert and conscious of how you feel, the situation, and any other stimuli that trigger automatic behavior. At a party, what tips you off and makes you want to eat? Identifying the true trigger will help you fight it. Know your enemy!
- Stop that thought. Turn off the image of the trigger food before you start to debate whether to eat it or not. We don’t like conflict and it’s stressful to go back on forth (eat it, don’t, it’s ok, no it’s not). So we resolve our conflict and release the tension by eating the food. Learn to zap the craving from the beginning and spare yourself some energy. Tell yourself firmly that you’re not going to eat it.
- Think negative. Pair the unhealthy food with a stream of unappealing images, thoughts, or consequences. French fries might sound good on an empty stomach after a long day, but how do you really feel 30 minutes after eating a bucket of them?
- Delay and distract. If a craving hits, give yourself 10 minutes before you respond to it AND go do something else. Ten minutes will buy you time to think and decide whether you’re physically hungry or not (and that will affect how you respond to the craving) and what do you really want to have (so you stop guessing around). You can also use this time to envision eating slowly and savoring your food instead of shoving it down in a mindless fashion.