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How to prevent food cravings and fire up your metabolism

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 08 April 2014
Hits: 9395

Without a doubt correcting food cravings and reducing stress would be the two most difficult things we help clients to change. They are often the biggest reasons why people don’t get the results from their health and fitness efforts that they are looking for. Food cravings can sabotage your best efforts to get in shape, mentally as much as physically. For when you eventually give into the intense and overwhelming need to eat a certain food you feel like you have failed, creating a viscous mental cycle which can lead to increased stress and a lack of enjoyment from eating food. Trying to give up bad health habits is one of the toughest things to do when trying to become healthy, and if you are relying on your willpower to keep you on track you are doomed to fail. This is a common strategy most people adopt and unfortunately willpower will never win the war against food cravings for the problem is on biochemical level and not in your head. For most people learning how to prevent this from happening and weaning themselves off the foods they are addicted to is much harder than any exercise program they will ever try. All of us have experienced food cravings at certain points in our life and as opposed to hunger pains, which can be satisfied with almost any food, food cravings make you yearn for a taste of something very specific, usually sugar, salt, or fat. There is a few things you can do to make sure you are never placed in this situation that are very simple to adopt. In this article we will explain how this works and what you can do to avoid this trap.

What Causes Food Cravings?

 

Trying to break a habit or an addiction to a certain food is very difficult but for those who find a way to beat this it can be the missing ingredient to their fitness success.

It sounds crazy to compare a craving for chocolate to a craving for dangerous drug, but the same brain regions are actually involved in both cases. During both types of cravings, three regions of your brain, which are related to emotion, memory and reward are activated. Sugar, which is one of the most common food cravings, is also one of the most addictive food ingredients, as it triggers production of your brain's natural opioids, a key to the addiction process. Your brain essentially becomes addicted to its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin. Refined sugar may be even more addictive than cocaine -- one of the most addictive substances currently known.

In one study, when rats were allowed to choose either sweetened water or cocaine, an astonishing 94 percent of rats chose the sweet water. Even rats that were addicted to cocaine quickly switched their preference to sugar once it was offered as a choice. Therefore, the abnormally high stimulation of these receptors by our sugar-rich diets generates excessive reward signals in your brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, and thus lead to addiction.

There are a variety of reasons why you may crave a particular food at any given moment. Seeing an ad on TV for food, imagining it, or getting a smell of it can be a factor, as can emotional triggers like boredom, loneliness and even happiness?

Chronic stress and food intolerance can also lead to cravings, especially for sugary foods. But most often food cravings, and particularly sweet cravings, are the result of a complex hormonal reaction, one that is often triggered by the very same foods you crave.

Here's how this works:

The hormone leptin has been shown to target taste receptors on your tongue, thereby increasing or reducing cravings for sweet foods. It is believed that leptin is a sweet-sensing modulator (suppressor), and therefore a contributor to the process that regulates food intake. It is likely that either a lack of leptin, or your body's failure to respond to the hormone due to defects in your leptin receptors, contributes to the so-called 'sweet tooth' or sweet cravings that affect so many people. If you eat a diet that is high in sugar and grains, the sugar gets metabolized to fat (and is stored as fat in your fat cells), which in turn releases surges in leptin.

Over time, if your body is exposed to too much leptin, it will become resistant to it (just as your body can become resistant to insulin). And when you become leptin-resistant, your body can no longer "hear" the messages telling it to stop eating, burn fat, so you remain hungry, you crave sweets, and your body stores more fat. Leptin-resistance also causes an increase in belly fat, sending you on a vicious cycle of hunger, fat storage and an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, etc.

Eating too fast is also another contributing factor and this is something we spend a lot of time coaching our clients to spend time to eat their food slowly. This on its own can correct a lot of problems around portion control and over-eating.

See article – Why eating too fast ruins your health

But by far the most common reason is not finding the right balance with carbohydrates, proteins and fats when you eat a meal.

 

How To Prevent Cravings & Break The Cycle

Firstly before we even look at what you are eating it is important you exercise.

Anyone who exercises intensely on a regular basis will know that regular amounts of high intensity exercise is one of the best "cures" for eating healthy. There is a dramatic reduction in insulin levels that occurs after exercise. Elevated insulin levels are one of the main factors attributed to food cravings, and if insulin levels are reduced many of these cravings will simply fade away.

A combination of strength training with some cardio training is a perfect fit. You will find tons of workout ideas in the article – 3 Reasons people find it hard to lose belly fat

But by far the most effective method is to Eat Right for your Metabolic Type.

When you feel a craving, 9 times out of 10 it is because you have eaten too many carbohydrates on their own, usually the sugary type or pastas or bread. Remember the effect of sugar on the body we described earlier? Well the same thing happens when you eat excessive breads, pastas and grain type foods.

Having said that it can also happen when you try to eat what you believe to be super healthy foods like a bowl of salad! The reason for this is in both cases these meals are missing protein and fat. A very simple solution in this case is to make sure you add some protein and fat to both meals. If you have already made the mistake of eating too many carbs on their own all you need to do is eat some protein by itself and you will find the craving goes away. For example you could eat a handful of nuts or boiled egg with nothing else.

Why does this happen?

When you eat too many carbohydrates your body gets a surge of glucose (sugar) and what goes up fast also comes down fast. When the glucose begins to suddenly crash your body wants to balance out the insulin and blood sugars by sending you a craving to eat more food. The food that is balances out this crash is what? You guessed it, SUGAR.

One of the best ways to explain this to people is to use the analogy of using firewood to light a fire.

Think of carbs as kindling for the fire, they burn fast and quick and great for starting a fire but not for keeping it going. Protein & Fats are the logs that burn slow and long but not good for starting a fire. If the fire is burning too fast (eating too much carbs) put a couple of logs (protein/fats) on the fire which will slow the burning down and make the fire last longer.

The opposite reaction can also have an effect and this is where can you eat too much protein or fat making you feel sluggish, tired, and lethargic. A bit like eating too much roast meat on Christmas Day! In this case you would want to eat a small amount of carbohydrates to speed the fire up. This scenario is much less common but something to be aware of.

This is what Metabolic Typing is all about. Paying attention to the signals your body is sending and balance out the ratios of proteins, fats and carbohydrates accordingly.

Grab a copy of our Nutrition report below that provides you with all the tools and information you need to get your food ratio right. Click here to see more.

 

Using The Keto Diet To Eliminate Cravings

One of the popular eating methods in recent times is the Ketogenic Diet. Since April 2019 I myself have been following the Keto diet as it perfectly aligned with my Metabolic Type of a protein type. There was just a few things different that made all the difference and I feel amazing!

Now before you rush out and adopt this eating because is worked so well for me, beware! One man’s medicine is another man’s poison. You must experiment and spend time learning what foods work best for you. When I eat the right meal for me I feel very satisfied with my meal and there is no energy spikes or slumps and there is definitely no cravings.

Here is a quick summary of the Keto diet.

  • Low Carbohydrate: I have eliminated all below ground vegetables and only include above ground vegetables in my diet, for example, lots of zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower, leafy greens. I do occasionally add sweet potato into my meals. The below ground vegetables are too high in sugar / carbohydrates and too much of these foods will lead to food cravings, especially sugary sweets.
  • Protein: I include protein with each meal, however I have reduced the portion size of my protein as I found I was eating too much. I include a wide range of proteins from red meat, chicken, to many types of seafood and fish.
  • Fats: Good fats are essential to the Keto diet and if you eat the correct quantities it will keep you fuller for longer and more satisfied. This was the key for me and I was able to easily ward off food cravings by eating more fat! Make sure you eat good fat which include foods like avocado, cream, butter, olive oil, avocado oil.

A quick breakfast that I enjoy is a poached egg, bacon, cheese and avocado, no bread.

 

This type of breakfast enabled me to avoid the mid-morning sugar hit I struggled with for some time. This is typical of the person who eats a sugar loaded cereal or has a toast with jam for breakfast. The foods set you up to crash as there is too much sugar and not enough fat and protein. Remember the firewood analogy?

Another great food example is a great chicken recipe shown below. This is so delicious but also really quick to make and I often have this for lunch.

Keto Creamy & Cheesy Baked Chicken, with Sweet Potato, Zucchini and Cauliflower

Ingredients

  • 1/2 roast chicken cut into chunks
  • 1 zucchini sliced
  • 1 sweet potato sliced
  • 1/2 cauliflower cut into chunks
  • Cream
  • Cheese

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees
  2. Place chicken, and vegetables into a bowl and toss with cream, enough to coat the ingredients
  3. Place in a baking tray and cover with foil and cook for 45 min
  4. Remove from oven and remove foil, sprinkle with cheese and cook until cheese is golden brown.

For more information read our detailed article about the Keto diet and intermittent fasting

Other Factors That Trigger Cravings

What if you have your food under control is there anything else that can derail you? We briefly discussed this earlier when we discussed stress so it is important to also look at what triggers our cravings. Is it emotions? Is it eating the wrong foods at the previous meal? Are you bored? Is it who you are with?  A way of working this out would be to keep a journal or make or make note of what’s happening when you have a food craving.

There is an amazing work sheet that I found through Precision Nutrition, it’s not complicated and is simple to use. Click here to get your free copy.

We also need to look at changing behaviours and patterns which may also be triggering food cravings, for example having dessert every night after dinner. So next time you have a food craving, before you reach for the chocolate or packet of chips ask yourself, “Am I actually hungry or am I bored?”, “Is this snack helping me to reach my goals?”

Don’t reach straight for the snack, workout if you are truly hungry. Take 5 – 10 minutes and use this time to do something proactive like go for a walk or read a book. After the 10 minutes if you weren’t really hungry the craving should have gone away.

One of the most important tips is to eat well during the day and avoid skipping meals as this can set the cycle in motion. Skipping meals can lead to a drop in our blood sugar levels which will bring on food cravings, so by eating regularly we are keeping our blood sugar at a constant stable level.

I love this article from Precision Nutrition which gives some other great ideas about some of the things I have written about in this article: Junk food alternatives

Conclusion

Cravings are not a sign of weakness with your willpower. Often they are a signal that you have not eaten the correct ratio of proteins, fats and carbohydrates and your body wants to balance out the blood sugars. To prevent them from sabotaging your health and fitness plan you must make it a high priority to identify the trigger of these cravings and change it. Keep a food log and track the reactions to eating certain foods and more importantly the ratio you eat. Remember that sugar is very addictive so begin by eliminating that and along with grains you will find you will have a much more balanced energy throughout the day that is devoid of cravings. A good nutrition plan has the right ratio of these nutrients and one that has no cravings! Eating healthy and enjoying food is not as difficult as it seems, if you start applying some of the things discussed in this article you will be able to enjoy your food and still be able to maintain your health and fitness.

If you would like to know more about our Personal Training programs click the image below and I will be in touch within 24 hours to schedule a time for a free health diagnostic consultation.

About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 14 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Precision Nutrition 
  • Nutrition & Physical Degeneration - By Weston A Price
  • Big Fat Lies - By David Gillespie
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek