Real hunger is physical. You can feel it. You get a little groggy and lose your ability to focus. These are messages from your body telling you that the tank is running low or it's already on empty. You need to re-fuel.
These messages are from your brain telling your stomach and intestines to release digestive fluids. This may even cause your tummy to let out a bit of a growl. It's saying, "feed me."
Cravings on the other hand are different animals. You could have just finished the largest meal of your life and still have an intense craving for a piece of chocolate cake. What gives?!?
Understanding Food and Sugar Cravings
When you're hungry your body wants food. It may not care what type of food you eat, it just wants you to eat. Understanding that your body gets hungry does little to help you understand your cravings. You could be completely full and still have cravings for something sweet.
You shouldn't feel guilty for having sugar cravings. In fact, it's normal and biological. There are 5 main tastes that we all crave. They are sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami (savory). Surveys have shown that 100% of young women and 70% of young men have experienced cravings in the past year. I think that covers everyone.
What causes you to have cravings is complex. Three regions of the brain come into play during cravings - the hippocampus, insula and caudate. These three regions of the brain are responsible for memory and associating specific foods with reward.
Research by Marcia Levin Plechat, PhD, a Monell Center sensory psychologist stated:
"During a craving we have a sensory memory or template for the food that will satisfy the craving. The food we eat has to match that template for the craving to be satisfied. It's as if our brain is saying, 'It has to be chocolate ice cream, lemon pie just won't do.'" She continues, "Cravings are also like habits. We often reach for a craved food without thinking of it."
There are processes at work during food cravings that are out of your control. This doesn't mean you can't control your response to cravings or how you deal with your sugar cravings. In fact, you can take steps to minimize the frequency and intensity of your sugar cravings.
What Causes Sugar Cravings?
There are many things that can lead to craving certain foods but it seems that stress is the leading cause for sugar cravings. Stress can be biological or emotional.
For example, not getting enough sleep, being dehydrated or being hungry are all biological stresses. Emotional feelings like sadness, guilt or being upset can lead to feeling stressed and also lead to sugar cravings.
There are also environmental triggers that we have to be aware of. These are usually external but they are still powerful. A great example of environmental triggers is going to a movie.
When you walk into a movie theater usually the first thing you notice is the overwhelming smell of buttered popcorn. Then you turn towards the concession counter and see the brightly colored boxes of every kind of candy imaginable. You see the overstuffed boxes of popcorn and you can hear more corn being popped by the second.
Are you craving popcorn yet?
This is where all that memory stuff kicks in. You're familiar with this scene. Maybe you've experienced a movie with a big box of milk duds at your side. I know I have. Your mind connects that buttery popcorn and those sweet milk duds with the pleasure centers in your brain. You have pleasurable memories of eating those foods and satisfying your cravings. So it's natural for those cravings to show up when you're in this type of environment.
Hopefully you understand that environment is key. It's hard to reduce sugar cravings if you're surrounded by sugar and environmental triggers that cause you to crave sugar. These triggers can become more powerful the more you give into them.
This is part of the reason why you might experience intense sugar cravings or processed carbohydrate cravings 10 days into your paleo challenge. Your body is so used to eating high sugar foods and highly processed carbohydrates that your brain has strong memories associated with those types of foods.
How to Stop Sugar Cravings
The first thing to do is to gain control over your environment. Don't keep sugary, high-processed foods in the house. If someone in the house insists on having these foods around ask them to hide them and not eat them in front of you.
Next, change the meaning of those foods in your mind. When you understand how blood sugar works and how elevated insulin levels can lead to obesity and a plethora of other health problems you might look at the cookie jar in a new light.
Consuming sugar is a lot like consuming alcohol. It's not necessarily the worst thing in the world if you consume it in moderation but you need to understand what it does to your body. Once you understand the effects you can make a reasonably educated decision about consuming these types of substances.
Your friends and social gatherings can also trigger sugar cravings. Understand that it's 'OK' to say 'no thanks'. If you've decided that consuming that piece of cake is not something you want to do, then don't do it.
What to Do When Sugar Cravings are Overpowering
There are a few tricks I use when I'm having a really intense sugar craving.
1. The first one is to drink some water. You can even add lemon to it if you like. As mentioned above, dehydration can cause you to have sugar cravings. If you're craving sweets you may want to down 12 ounces of water.
2. You can also try drinking green tea. Green tea naturally increases the amount of the hormone CCK released in the intestines. The release of CCK reduces appetite. Consuming green tea could be a powerful tool in helping you curb sugar cravings.
3. Take a nap. Try for 10 to 15 minutes of shut-eye and you may find that your sugar cravings go away. Poor sleep or sleep deprivation can lead to sugar cravings. Along with naps make sure that you're getting enough sleep in general. Sleep is crucial to living a healthy lifestyle. It's an area I'm working on right now and I plan on writing more about this in the future.
4. You could also go for a quick walk outside. This will help increase your feel good hormones and give you a little bit of vitamin D. The mix of vitamin D, fresh air and exercise has an amazing impact on regulating hunger and sugar cravings.
5. If all else fails and you just have to eat something sweet opt for some berries or other in-season fruit. In fact, my favorite ninja paleo snack for fighting sugar cravings is an organic Honeycrisp apple sprinkled with Saigon cinnamon and dipped into almond butter. Not only is the snack filling but it's good for you.
Sugar from whole food sources will always be a better choice then eating foods full of processed sugar. [Tweet This]
The main trick for you to break sugar addiction is to start living a healthier lifestyle and taking control of your environment. Plan ahead as much as possible and make good choices at the grocery store. Pack healthy snacks like apples, nuts and berries to take with you to work. Keep some of these foods in your desk drawer so you're always prepared. Most of all, know thyself. Know what triggers your sugar cravings and be prepared for them.
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Image credit D Sharon Pruitt