Have you ever had a seemingly uncontrollable urge to eat something you know isn’t the best for you and probably won’t make you feel great? Perhaps it’s that midafternoon slump around 3pm when cravings hit or all you want to do is grab the candy bars out of the vending machine at your office, the non-stop nighttime snacking, or munching mindlessly while watching TV and guilting yourself about it later. We’ve all been there at one time or another.
One client of mine has a particularly common complaint, which is that she is regularly starving between 3 – 5pm. This is someone who eats a fairly nutrient-dense diet by most standards and takes good care of herself, so why the cravings and need to overeat in the middle of the afternoon?
There are several ways to approach this kind of issue, and nutrition isn’t the only factor at play. Below are three nutritional ways to manage cravings and overeating, as well as three lifestyle choices that can have a huge effect as well.
Let’s begin with some areas to check in with and readjust nutritionally:
Before you indulge your craving monster, try drinking a glass or two of water. Often we mistake our thirst for hunger, especially if distracted or thinking about other things. I’ll use myself as an example. For a while, I was finding that on the nights I watched TV after dinner rather than read or go for a walk, I wanted something to eat and would make a batch of popcorn or eat more chocolate than is typical for me, basically anything salty or sweet I could get my hands on. I started noticing that while I was drinking lots of water throughout the day, I would stop drinking once I got home because I was either distracted by preparing dinner, or simply forgot. Once I figured this out, I started filling my water bottle before I left work to drink on the way home, as well as making myself an herbal tea to drink while I made dinner. Right away, my cravings decreased significantly.
Try increasing the fiber in your diet. Fiber keeps us feeling full for longer, keeps the digestive system moving to keep you regular (if ya know what I mean 😉 ), and can help to stabilize blood sugar, all important factors to managing cravings.
Some examples include raw and cooked vegetables, particularly cruciferous veggies such as Brussel sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli, sweet potatoes and apples, beans, peas and lentils, chia seeds, ground flax seeds (not whole, as the body cannot break them down in whole condition), avocadoes, dates, raspberries and blackberries. You can be sneaky about adding some of these to your diet as well. Chia seeds or ground flax seeds can be sprinkled on salads, stirred into oatmeal or added to shakes, and chia pudding made with coconut milk is delicious as well. Both flax and chia seeds absorb liquid and can serve as thickeners as well.
However, this is a fine balance. If you don’t currently have much fiber in your diet, I would suggest adding a very small serving each day and building your fiber intake slowly to avoid issues with your bowel movements.
If you’re finding yourself hungry all the time and battling cravings regularly, look to increase your protein levels. This is because of the three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat), protein is by far the most filling. Increasing your protein levels can be done a variety of different ways, and will looks different for each person. If you currently have half of a chicken breast with your lunchtime salad, go for a full one. Add an extra egg to your breakfast, or try more plant-based options. Once again beans, lentils and grains like quinoa are high in protein and a great choice.
There are other ways to add protein to your diet without adding a ton of bulk, since that can cause digestive distress. I’m a big fan of particular brands of grass-fed collagen powder, which is a fine powder that is completely tasteless and can be added to almost anything. Soups, baking, smoothies, oatmeal, even your coffee or tea. It sounds odd, but it won’t change the texture of the food or drink to which you are adding it, and the side benefit is that it is great for your hair, skin, nails and digestive tract.
Many times protein powder is a very helpful option, particularly if people are trying to fit more protein into their diet without a huge amount of volume. I prefer recommending high quality plant-based varieties, and there are many on the market now that can include hemp, pea, pumpkin seed, rice, and other kinds of proteins. Look for one that has no sweetener (usually “natural” flavour), or is sweetened only with stevia.
Pay close attention to how you feel. Some people don’t react well to beans right away and this is another area one may need to introduce gradual servings. For carnivores, adding in extra servings of meat is a delicate balance because meat needs extra fiber to balance it out, as meat is lacking in fibre.
All of these ideas are helpful, but they don’t mean much if you aren’t able to manage your lifestyle choices at the same time. This is where things get tricky and can require shifting how you manage your lifestyle. For some, changing the diet is relatively simple in comparison to a shift in more engrained habits. Let’s take a look at some of the factors that can influence cravings from a mindset standpoint.
This is a big one, and can be one of the most difficult to manage. Stress is all encompassing, and don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s going to go away anytime soon. While stress will always ebb and flow in our daily lives, it will always be there. The key is to manage stress to prevent the ill effects stress can cause when we become overly stressed.
A small amount of stress in our lives can be a good thing, but when we are overly stressed and for long stretches of time, it releases cortisol. In excessive amounts, cortisol can boost appetite, particularly in women as opposed to men according to one study out of Finland. When times of major stress hit, so do the cravings. Usually we reach for foods that are high in carbohydrates, fat and sugar. These kinds of foods give us a hit of dopamine and serotonin, and we feel better for a for minutes. Until, we don’t. It’s a short-lived fix to a bigger issue.
Stress can also come in different forms. Over-exercising can cause immense stress on the body and set off a cascade of cravings that can be difficult to manage. If you are struggling with constant cravings, it’s a good idea to pull back on your workouts, both of long-duration cardio session or super intense resistance training. Too much of an otherwise-good thing can wreak havoc on our bodies and throw hormones out of whack if we push our bodies too hard.
One of the best suggestions for lowering stress is walking, particularly in nature. Walking lowers cortisol levels, and walking in natural settings has been shown to significantly lower anxiety as well. While this is technically a form of exercise, walking is part of our every day life and is considered more basic movement than anything else. For more on the difference between the two, check out this Metabolic Effect podcast episode. Other suggestions could be cuddling with a pet or loved one, spending time with people you care about, laughter, meditation, yoga, reading a great book, having sex, or even watching a funny movie with a glass of wine.
I covered a few ways to improve your sleep last week, but it’s worth mentioning again because it is so closely related to stress, cravings, overeating and mindless eating. Sleep is actually another form of stress on the body. Lack of sleep can often trigger cravings for high-fat and sugary foods as well, and one of the best tips I can offer for battling cravings on little sleep goes back to one of my other main points, hydration. Drink lots of water and up your protein more than usual on days when you are extra tired. Ideally, a nap would be helpful as well but sometimes there simply isn’t time.
Our general mental and emotional state can have a significant impact on how and what we choose to eat. If we re feeling sad or depressed, it’s much more likely we will reach for those comfort foods like the bag of chips or the chocolate bar. Additionally, mindless eating can come into play here. If you are watching TV or scrolling the web, you are likely not nearly as actively engaged as you would be doing something like walking outdoors or playing with your kids.
Let’s examine this more closely. You’re watching TV and start craving all.the.things. One thing leads to another and before you know it you have mindlessly devoured an entire bag of chips and are probably not feeling great physically or mentally. Now what?
It’s your next move that concerns me the most. I want you to move on. Don’t spend time beating yourself up over it or regretting it, feeling ashamed that you gave in to your craving. I’ve been there. Not following the nutrition “rules” we have set for ourselves, or that others have imposed upon us, can throw us into a tailspin of guilt and shame. I know from experience that this self imposed guilt makes things so much worse. Frankly it has made me want to eat all.the.things even more.
Going down that road of shame can cause a vicious cycle of overeating. The most important thing I want you to remember is that focusing on the negative or carrying guilt for eating something that made you feel shitty doesn’t make you feel better. It’s about what you do with those feelings and how you learn to overcome them, to rewrite the story you have created in your mind. It’s all part of the journey where you learn all about yourself and what makes you feel your best inside and out.
How do you make this happen in reality? Hydrate thoroughly and make a different choice at your next meal. Try some of the suggestions about upping your protein and fibre, and eat something that makes you feel fantastic. Release yourself from the negative mindset that cravings can bring on and this will have the added benefit of lowering your stress, which puts you in a better position to manage your cravings. Next meal, please!
Good health doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of a million tiny decisions every day. Moreover, consistency will beat perfection ever time. So-called “perfect” eating generally leads to massive cravings, binging and overeating that makes our stress surrounding food much worse.
Let me know how it goes! I would love to hear how these tips work out for you, send me an email or hop on over to my Facebook page and we can chat. I’m going to be diving into more of this stuff later this week as well, so stay tuned!
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