Victoria BC Dietitian (Nutritionist) Kristen Yarker, MSc, RD Shares 4 Reasons You’re Craving Junk Food. That Have Nothing to Do with Will Power.Read More
Today I’m coming to you with some news that I know you’ll like. Which is a treat for me because usually I’m the bearer of bad news – telling you to eat less sugar, drink less alcohol, etc. Today I’m not telling you to do less of something enjoyable. I’m telling you to do more of something enjoyable.
I want you to get more sleep.
The old advice in the weight loss world was no pain no gain. Get up earlier or stay up later so that you could hit the gym.
That old advice jut doesn’t hold up anymore. There is an ever-growing body of research that shows how important adequate sleep is for a healthy weight. Or, to be more accurate, the research is showing that chronic sleep deprivation contributes to weight gain.
So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. We brag about being tired and wear being “busy” as a badge of honour. I believe this needs to stop.
Chronic sleep deprivation means getting less than 7-8 hours of good-quality sleep for at least a few days in a row. Note that there are a few important points in my last sentence. First: the amount of sleep, 7-8 hours. Second: that it takes only a few days in a row to be considered sleep deprived (not the weeks, months, years that I know many of you experience). Third: the quality of sleep is as important as the number of hours.
What affects quality of sleep? Two things that often are overlooked are alcohol and sleep apnea. Yes, it’s true that having a couple of drinks can help you fall asleep. But alcohol interferes with the natural brain patterns during sleep. The result is poor quality sleep. Want to wake up feeling refreshed? Skip the alcohol the night before.
Sleep apnea negatively impacts the quality of your sleep. Sleep apnea and weight have a vicious cycle. Being overweight increases sleep apnea and sleep apnea increases weight gain. I always look for any suspicion of sleep apnea when starting with a client because I know that if there is unaddressed sleep apnea, we can change the client’s eating all we want and we won’t see much change in weight.
How does inadequate (either not enough or poor quality) sleep cause weight gain? There are several ways that the research is finding:
- Opportunity to Eat. When you are awake longer, you have more time to eat. This is especially impactful if you get the evening munchies. Staying up later means more opportunity to munch away.
- Craving Pleasure. Sleep deprivation lowers the chemicals in our brain’s pleasure centre. Our brain sends us strong signals to raise these chemicals back up again. The foods that raise these chemicals? Highly processed high sugar, high fat, high salt foods – i.e. “junk food”.
- Slower Metabolism. There is evidence that being sleep deprived slows down our metabolism. So even if we were eating the same amount of food as if we were well-slept, we’d still get weight gain.
- Recently a study caught my eye. Now this involved only a small handful of people. So I’d call it preliminary – not enough evidence that I’d put a lot of trust in it yet. But it was interesting nevertheless. In this study they found that having only 4.5 hours of sleep for several nights in a row stimulated the same chemical pathway in the subjects’ brains as is stimulated when you smoke marijuana. Yes, being sleep deprived gave these study participants the munchies.
So what to do? Make getting 7 – 8 hours of sleep a priority. What can you let go of to make this happen? Perhaps it’s turning off that evening Netflix. Maybe it’s hiring a house cleaner or gardener so you have fewer chores. And, if you routinely get 7 – 8 hours of sleep but you still wake up feeling exhausted, skip the daily glass (or two) of wine or ask your doctor for a referral for sleep apnea screening.
*A Nutrition Game Changer (NGC) is a food or habit that has made a big impact on the nutritional health of clients I’ve worked with. And, in my life too. Some may call these nutrition hacks. But I'm not a fan of that phrase. I share one NGC each month.
This is a powerful technique that I’ve used for a long time with clients who want to gain control of their cravings. I use it in my own life too. I learned about it so long ago that I can’t remember where I heard/ read it. I may have even changed the story in my memory over time, so apologies in advance if you’re a health professional who knows of the exact case and recognizes that I’ve inadvertently taken liberties with the story. Regardless of whether or not I’ve remembered the exact details, it’s such a powerful technique that I feel compelled to share it with you. So what’s this story? A woman couldn’t control herself around ice cream. Over her lifetime she would go for periods where she was “good” and didn’t eat any. She also had periods where she would devour whole tubs of ice cream, barely taking a breath between bites. She hated feeling so out of control with ice cream. She also wanted to lose the extra weight that she was carrying (that the ice cream was contributing to). You may be guessing that she was told never to eat ice cream again. Quite the contrary! The astonishing recommendation that she received was to enjoy a small amount of ice cream every day. You know what? It worked! She no longer felt out of control with ice cream. If she started to feel panicky and out-of-control with ice cream, she could reassure herself that she will be able to enjoy some more ice cream tomorrow. Knowing that she could eat it every day removed her drive to eat as much as possible at a sitting. There was no more panic about scarcity. And, she successfully lots weight.
Now some could argue that she could potentially weigh less if she didn’t eat ice cream every day. Perhaps. But from her past history she knew that any weight loss that she experienced from not eating ice cream would just come back (and more) when she reverted back to eating mass quantities of ice cream. Along with that weight would come the feelings of guilt, shame and defeat. Allowing the daily enjoyment of ice cream freed her from that unhealthy cycle.
I was inspired from this story and I make sure that I enjoy a treat every day.
I use this technique with clients who express a similar feeling of being controlled by their cravings. And for clients who truly want to get off the yo-yo dieting roller coaster.
There are two key aspects of this technique that I believe are vitally important:
- Reasonable Size: Choose a reasonable size for your treat. One measly bite likely won’t be enough to reassure yourself that you can enjoy your treat every day. You’ll still feel deprived. At the other extreme, enjoying a jumbo-sized treat each day won’t likely allow any weight loss. So what’s the “just-right” size you ask? I don’t have a firm answer for you. Because everyone is different with how much they need to eat to no longer feel the power of that scarcity. If my memory is correct, the woman in the story had a ½ cup of ice cream every day. I can tell you that I personally need more. You’ll have to do some experimenting with yourself to find your “just right” size.
- Enjoy your treat. Pleasure is the whole purpose that we eat these foods (it certainly isn’t for the nutrients). If you mindlessly shove it in your face then that food truly was a waste of calories. Pay attention to how your treat looks, smells, tastes, and feels in your mouth. Enjoy the experience.
Is your cereal as healthy as you think? Lots of cereals that are marketed as healthy don’t have a lot going for them. They’re marketed for what they don’t have in them, “low fat”, “low calorie”, etc. Many famous "healthy" cereals fall into this category. Many people are surprised to find out that their favourite cereal is actually contributing to their weight gain.
Instead of choosing a cereal for what it doesn’t have in it, I want you to choose your breakfast for what it does have in it. Choose to nourish your body instead of depriving it.
One of the most common things that I do when working with people is change their breakfast. You will likely benefit from changing your breakfast if you:
- Find yourself hungry again by 10am (and looking longingly at those donuts and croissants).
- Crave sugar mid-afternoon.
Choose a breakfast that naturally has lots of fibre so that it is slowly digested. Grains and pseudograins that are minimally processed have most of their fibre attached. Puffed cereals are digested quickly. Flakes are digested at a medium pace. Look for intact grains that take lots of chewing. Steel-cut oats are a fantastic example. So is making a cereal out of quinoa or buckwheat.
Ready to take your breakfast bowl up another notch? Or, not ready to switch cereals but want to reap the benefits of a healthier breakfast? Help your breakfast last longer by adding nuts and seeds (or their butters). Their protein and healthy fats will help you digest your breakfast even slower, keeping you full longer.
A couple of weeks ago I shared my 4 Ways to Stop Cravings. The article spurred a ton of response. So I wanted to dig a little deeper into the topic. Also, this month is Nutrition Month. The theme is Eating 9-5. In the background information that was share with me I learned that statistics show that at the end of a busy work day, people’s food choices tend to be more impulsive, falling for unhealthy choices at vending machines and coffee shops during the commute home.
That's certainly been my experience. What about you?
What’s the best way to prevent falling for these traps? As the Boy Scouts apparently say: “Always be prepared!”
By "being prepared", I mean:
Step #1: Don’t Go Too Long Between Meals and Snacks
As I shared in my post a couple of weeks ago, when our blood sugar drops, we’re driven by our bodies towards high fat, high sugar, and high salt foods. Did you skip lunch and now you find yourself in the fast food restaurant on the way home from work? It’s because of a biological drive – not a lack of willpower. Don’t try to work against Mother Nature; you won’t succeed. Instead, eat when you’re just starting to get hungry. For most people this is approximately every 4 hours. Now this doesn’t mean all-day grazing. Plan and eat a healthy afternoon snack to prevent the lure of the vending machine.
Step #2: Pack Healthy Choices
To expand on Step #1, eat a healthy afternoon snack when you’re just starting to get hungry. This means that you need to pack a healthy snack ahead of time. I pack something daily. And, I keep some healthy options on hand. That way on days that either I forgot to pack a snack (hey, no-one’s perfect) or days when I’m not in the mood for what I packed, I have a back-up healthy snack at the office. These can also be kept in the car for all you road-warriors. I was married to one for years so I know you too!
Some healthy snack ideas include:
- Nuts and seeds (as long as your workplace isn’t nut-free).
- Dried fruit.
- Fresh fruit. Apples keep well.
- Energy bars. Look for ones with recognizable food ingredients.
- Whole grain flatbread, such as Ryvita.
- Unsweetened fruit purees. Applesauce and other fruit mixtures come in sealed plastic cups. I also know many adults who use the squeezie packs of organic baby fruit & veggie purees (you can even find ones with awesome whole grains like quinoa).
- Individual tetra packs of milk or plant-based milk alternatives.
Step #3: Fill Your Water Bottle
Often it’s thirst, not hunger, that sends us into the coffee shop or to the vending machine. Even if you only buy a water (and not a drink containing sugar, artificial sweeteners, or caffeine), just going to the vending machine/coffee shop means that you’ll be facing tempting treats. Instead, fill a reusable water bottle before you head out the door. Voila – temptation avoided!
What do you do to prevent cravings on the commute home? I'd love for you to share your tips in the comments section below!
** I’m proud to be a registered dietitian. March is #NutritionMonth – when dietitians across North America share our love of healthy eating! This article is inspired by the Dietitians of Canada's Nutrition Month Campaign Materials. Find more information about Nutrition Month at www.nutritionmonth2015.ca. **
I received a request to address cravings. Now the community member didn’t specify what she was craving. But I’m assuming that it was high fat, sugar, salt foods. Because it’s highly unlikely that her craving for kale concerned her enough to reach out :) The scientific literature doesn’t have a very thorough understanding of cravings – why we get them or what they mean. So, I’m going to share with you 4 ways to stop cravings: two ways to stop cravings from the literature and two ways that I’ve discovered in my life.
4 Ways to Stop Cravings: Sleep Deprived
This is a surprising cause of cravings. But there is evidence that the more sleep deprived we are, the more we seek out high fat, sugar, and salt foods. So if you want to get rid of cravings, create a plan to get more sleep. What can you take off your “to-do” list? Turn off that screen and hit the hay.
4 Ways to Stop Cravings: Going Too Long Between Meals and Snacks
When our blood sugar drops, we’re driven by our bodies towards high fat, sugar, and salt foods. Did you skip lunch and now you find yourself in the fast food restaurant on the way home from work? It’s because of a biological drive – not a lack of willpower. Don’t try to work against Mother Nature; you won’t succeed. Instead, eat when you’re just starting to get hungry. For most people this is approximately every 4 hours. Now this doesn’t mean all-day grazing. But, it may mean planning and eating a healthy afternoon snack to prevent the afternoon trip to the vending machine.
4 Ways to Stop Cravings: Increasing Protein and Decreasing Sugar at Breakfast
I was always a toast with jam for breakfast kind of woman. But I also always craved candy every afternoon. A couple of years ago I switched my breakfast to plain yogurt, usually Greek, topped with hemp hearts and fruit. This winter I’ve been on the overnight oats bandwagon, adding this to my yogurt mixture. I’ve found that my craving for sweets has gone from daily to a couple of times a month. Which is a huge change! Switch up you breakfast and see if it decreases your cravings.
4 Ways to Stop Cravings: Have Other Tools in Your Emotional Care Toolbox
Often we crave high fat, sugar, and salt foods as a way of numbing our emotions. I became such a cliché after my divorce, literally drowning my sorrows in tubs of ice cream. You don’t need to be a dietitian to know that a couple of tubs a week isn’t healthy. So I decided to create other ways to take care of my emotions. Now I have a lot of tools in my toolbox. Tools like a gratitude practice, yoga, surfing, trail running, art therapy, and the occasional tub of ice cream. Ask yourself the tough question of whether you’re really craving that food because you don’t want to deal with difficult emotions. Take the time to develop alternative tools to take care of yourself.
Have you found effective ways to stop cravings? I'd love you to share them in the comments section below!