Do you know that you’re eating too much junk food? You keep trying to quit it but you just can’t seem to stop? Maybe you cut it out for a while, following a 10-day or 21-day challenge. But after the challenge ends, you’re right back eating it again.
While I don’t believe that we need to eat zero sugar, or other highly processed foods, in order to be healthy (I talk more about that here), the truth is that many of us do eat too much of them.
The problem with challenges, new year’s resolutions, or other attempts to quit “cold turkey” relying on will power alone is that you’re not addressing the root cause of your cravings. You’re trying a Band-Aid solution on a deeper problem.
The reason that I’m so successful with getting rid of cravings for my individual clients is that I identify the root cause of the craving and find a solution for it. The result is that the craving disappears. You eat much less junk food – no will power involved.
There are many root causes. Here are 4 common ones that I see.
Reason You’re Craving Junk Food #1: Sleep Deprived
Studies show that not getting enough sleep causes cravings for junk food. Particularly sugar and refined (white) carbs. It’s related to serotonin and other brain chemicals. Also, there’s the practical fact that the more hours that you’re awake, the more time (i.e. opportunity) there is to eat. Do you regularly get 7 – 9 hours of good-quality sleep? If you want to eat less junk food, a good strategy is to set yourself a bedtime. Turn screens off at least 30 minutes before your bedtime. And, address things that interrupt your sleep, such as getting black-out drapes and turning off cell phone notification pings, dings and whistles.
Reason You’re Craving Junk Food #2: Coffee on an Empty Stomach
This is a technique that certainly worked well in my life. I find that it works for some clients. Other clients experience no effect on their cravings. Coffee (caffeine) on an empty stomach can cause rebound low blood sugar. Drops in blood sugar cause cravings for highly processed foods. The classic pattern that I see: having coffee before eating breakfast, then craving pastries mid-morning, followed by cravings for more junk food mid-afternoon. The fix? Have coffee (or your caffeinated beverage of choice) with food. For example, have coffee with your breakfast. Or, have breakfast before work and then wait until you arrive at work to have your coffee. If you usually have a coffee in the afternoon, pair it with a snack containing a veggie/fruit and a protein food, such as an apple and a handful of nuts. Or, hummus and raw veggies.
Reason You’re Craving Junk Food #3: Going too Long Without Eating
Four hours is the average time that it takes a human being to digest, absorb, and become hungry gain after eating a balanced meal containing complex carbohydrates, fibre, protein. As you go longer and longer between meals, your body gets hungrier and hungrier. It tries harder and harder to get your attention to feed yourself. It also starts to move into famine mode – wanting you to focus your attention on the sources of the most energy – i.e. high fat, sugary foods. Back in our hunter-gatherer days, this was a successful strategy. Berries are examples of the sugary foods and salmon is an example of a fatty food. Now in our convenience-store-on-every-corner reality, the drive towards fatty, sugary foods is detrimental.
The solution is to eat when your body is starting to get hungry – at approximately the 4 hour mark. At that point, you are likely to choose healthy foods. Wait longer, and you’re setting yourself up to buy the junk food.
Reason You’re Craving Junk Food #4: Eating Low Fat
I’m old enough that I lived through the low-fat craze. I saw again and again that as people turned their back on fat, they went head-long into sugary and highly processed carbohydrate (i.e. white”) foods.
Unfortunately, there are lots of people who continue to fear fat.
One reason that eating low-fat causes cravings is that fat gives us flavour. When you remove the fat, we turn to salt and sugar to create the flavour kick that we crave.
The other reason is that fat keeps us full. In #3, I mentioned that we get hungry about every 4 hours when we eat a balanced meal. Different types of food create satiety (the technical term for fullness) at different times. Vegetables, fruit, and refined carbs fill us up quickly but we get hungry again in about 1-2 hours. Protein and fibre take a little longer to kick in and they keep us full for a medium amount of time. Fat keeps us full the longest – taking us to that 4 hour mark. So, it’s important to include some healthy fats in your meals. Foods such as olive oil, nuts and seeds (and their butters), avocado, and fatty fish. This is the secret to staying full for a long time. Specifically, preventing the crash that causes us to crave junk food.