The hankering for an afternoon sweet treat may feel all too familiar to you. Feel powerless when those cravings strike? Read on to understand the mechanisms behind why they’re happening and how to hack your system to take back control of your food choices and health.
What is a craving?
A craving is the anticipation of a reward, pleasure or surge of feel-good chemicals. Foods sweetened with sugar represent a primary source of cravings, which some experts caution may be as addictive as some drugs. When sugar is metabolized, pleasure centers in our brain are activated, feel-good chemicals are increased and released, and food memories are formed to help us remember to repeat that pleasurable experience.
The good news is that the intensity of cravings is often short-lived, lasting only about 3-5 minutes before the brain chemicals and neurotransmitters start to settle. That feeling of “I must have this now!” will fade. Below are five reasons why you may feel a craving and solutions to help you deal.
Habits are a survival skill that enables our brain to run on autopilot for some tasks, so that cognitive power and effort is preserved for complex decision-making, new skills, learning and other tasks. Habits develop when you repeatedly experience a cue, you engage in a routine/behavior and some type of reward or pleasure is obtained. This cue-routine-reward cycle is known as a habit-loop and Charles Duhigg explains it beautifully. A craving is the anticipation of the reward, often triggered by the cue.
Eat a cookie every afternoon? The afternoon is your cue, eating a cookie is the routine, and the reward is eating something yummy/sweet and having a temporary surge of blood sugar and feel-good neurotransmitters.
Grab a sweet treat every night after dinner? Finishing dinner is your cue, eating the sweet is your routine and the reward is similar to the afternoon cookie pleasure from the example above.
The more often you engage in an activity, the more neural networks are laid down in your brain to make that activity easier and easier to accomplish. This leads to habits feeling automatic and requiring less brain power and effort. This is exactly why we fall back into “old habits” when we feel stressed, emotional, or overwhelmed. Our brain is looking for the easy button. Cravings can last a lifetime unless we interrupt the habit-loop that has developed. Do this and you’re likely to experience diminished cravings in as little as 4 weeks, though it may take longer for some individuals, and is influenced by the type of cue, routine and reward.
Below are some common cues that may trigger your sugar cravings:
1. Blood sugar lows
Riding the roller coaster of blood sugar swings is a recipe for cravings. When your blood sugar swings high, your pancreas releases insulin, sometimes too much, resulting in a dramatic drop. If you are insulin-resistant, your pancreas may be releasing insulin, but your cells can’t extract any more sugar from your bloodstream. This blood sugar low acts as a cue and may leave you feeling tired, exhausted and on the hunt for your next roller coaster high through sugar intake.
2. Pleasure/feel better
Pleasure is enjoyable because it feels good and many foods can elicit pleasure, especially sugar, thanks to a surge in dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. If you are feeling emotionally low, physically worn out, or both, your brain and body may be looking for some quick-fixes in the form of sugar.
3. Caffeine crash
Caffeine’s half-life is around 6 hours, though some people are genetically able to metabolize caffeine faster. If you sip coffee from 7-9am, the half-life of caffeine expires around 2-3pm. This caffeine crash is apt to make you feel more lethargic, especially if you have other energy-depleting factors at play such as blood sugar imbalances, and/or poor sleep, and often acts as a cue for sugar cravings.
4. Poor sleep
Research and many experts advise that sleep quality and quantity must be a priority to minimize risk of metabolic dysfunction and weight gain, while preserving brain health. Regularly sleeping less than 7 hours a night is also known to increase cravings of sugar, salt and fat, while reducing willpower, and impairing complex decision-making. Your brain and body will be looking for the easy button when you are sleep-deprived. Poor sleep hygiene makes it easier and more desirable to follow automatic habits, rather than engaging in behaviors that require more effort or willpower, such as cooking, exercising and avoiding snacks and junk food.
If you’ve recently cut back on anything that was a regular routine for you, anything from smartphone use, to caffeine intake, or sugar consumption, you’re likely to feel withdrawal symptoms and the cravings that go with that. Stay strong and know that these withdrawal-induced cravings diminish after a week or two of restriction or avoidance.
Address your underlying reasons for cravings
Using the section above to identify and address your personal reasons for cravings. Have a habit of eating sweets at a certain time of day? Swap that routine with a healthier, pleasurable routine (drinking tea, going for a walk, reading a good book) to slowly retrain your brain. Experiencing blood sugar lows? Work towards regular zone 2 exercise, higher fiber intake, and reducing added sugars to help stabilize your blood sugars and lower your potential for cravings. Always feeling tired and sleeping poorly? Improve your sleep hygiene and schedule, and/or see a sleep specialist. Until you improve your sleep, you may feel often overpowered by your cravings.
Set up a supportive environment
If you have identified foods that are regular triggers for you, keep them out of your workplace and home. When unhealthy items are more convenient and easily-accessible, intake of those items tends to increase, even if they don’t align with your health goals. Build an environment around you that supports you and your health goals, rather than one that constantly opposes it. Even if your willpower is strong right now, life will eventually throw challenges at you. Lack of sleep, high stress, grief, depression, or trauma can drastically weaken your willpower muscle, making it more likely for you to choose easy, fast and/or convenient foods from your environment.
Distraction is key
Since cravings are generally short-lived, distraction is key. Busy your mind and/or body and after just a few minutes you’ll feel that craving dwindle. Try taking a walk, stepping outside into nature, calling a friend, reading a chapter of your book, or engaging in an activity with your children or family.
Mindfully enjoy your intentional treats
Kick food guilt to the curb. Rather than succumbing to impulse sugar cravings and eating something subpar, plan out intentional treats and make sure that food, its calories, and health impact is worth it to you. This is important to do even when your planned treats are infrequent. Are cookies your thing? Don’t settle for cookies that are “meh.” It’s ok to take a bite or two and decide “never mind, that’s not worth it.” Wait until you can enjoy an amazing cookie. Sit down and focus on the aroma and texture of the food. Eat your treat slowly so you can mindfully savor each bite and gain more pleasure from the experience.
Though cravings may still resurface weeks up to years later if you are exposed to the same cue, having a healthier routine as a go-to will help you not fall victim to impulse cravings that deter you from your health goals. Identify your individual reasons for cravings, and practice these solutions regularly to help you gain back control of your food choices and health.