What Your Intense Cravings Are Telling You

I never believed that I was addicted to sugar. I didn't need "something sweet" to polish off a meal. I preferred chips over birthday cake any day. I wasn't a kid who went crazy over candy, unless of course, it was a Mr. Goodbar. 

As a product of the 80s and 90s, I believed that when I read food labels, I needed to pay attention to fat grams because I thought that eating fat makes you fat, right? (Breaking news: healthy fats do not make you fat).

In hindsight, I should have been paying more attention to sugar grams. And because hindsight is everything, I can now see how I was, and to a lesser degree still am, addicted to sugar. I mean, how can I not be, sugar is everywhere!

I had failed to connect the dots and see the signs of my sugar addiction. Bingeing on mini Reese's peanut butter cups in one sitting isn't healthy (and "mini" doesn't make it okay). 

Nor was hiding the last piece of French Apple pie in the fridge, praying that no one else ate it, then throwing a tantrum because someone did. 

And buying $60 worth of cookies and pastries from the gluten-free bakery was a sure sign of sugar cravings. I had mistakenly given myself the "green light" to stuff my face with them because I thought "gluten-free" meant healthy. (Spoiler alert: it usually just means more sugar.) 

When I finally accepted the fact that I had a sugar problem, I thought I could will myself to stop cold turkey. But controlling your sugar consumption isn’t always a matter of willpower.

For the past couple of years, I have worked hard and dug deep to understand the root cause behind my cravings. Because I believe that the better we understand our cravings, the more equipped we are to deal with them constructively.  

Now, I'm a realist. And when I talk about quitting sugar, I know that it's not realistic to think we will NEVER have sugar again. But the reality is that many of us consume WAY too much-added sugar.  

Sugar is in SO many of the foods we eat, and we usually aren’t even aware of it. 

We are inundated every day with foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.  Fast food, packaged foods, and junk foods are quick and easy, but we pay the price with our health and our waistlines.  

When we consume processed foods that are void of nutrients, our body knows it’s not getting what it needs, and that's when we start to have cravings. 

There are many causes for cravings including (but not limited to) stress, nutrient deficiencies, hormone imbalance and fluctuations in blood sugar levels.  I always recommend keeping a food journal so you can become more in tune with what you’re craving, what you’re eating and what you may be missing in your diet. You might also learn what your triggers are, which are often signals that change may also need to happen somewhere off your plate.

So what can we do to reduce cravings?

Here are five ways to deal with your sugar cravings (and other junk food habits). 

1.  Don’t skip meals.  

If I had a big dinner party, celebration or special occasion coming up, I would always skip meals to "save calories" so I could splurge at the big event. 

The problem with doing this is that by mid-afternoon, hunger would hit with a vengeance, and I'd give in to the temptation, and then I get upset at myself for binging and ruining my diet. 

It's so easy to start shoving in the closest food you can find when you’re “starving.”  

When you can time your meals evenly throughout the day, ensuring that your meals are made up of whole foods, and add a healthy snack when needed, your blood sugar is likely to be more stable. This mean no more energy crashes which can result in a craving for sugar to get your energy level back up.

Often, sugar cravings are our body’s response to needing energy. By eating balanced meals throughout the day, our energy levels stay up and reduces cravings.  

2. Don’t bring temptation home

If you want to make good choices, only keep good choices in your home.  It's as simple as it sounds.

If junk foods like sugary cereals, cookies, cakes, ice cream, chips, etc., are not there, you can’t eat any, right?  Stock your kitchen with whole foods that fill you up, satisfy your hunger and give your body the nutrients it needs.

I like to keep washed, pre-cut veggies with a yummy dip or hummus to ensure that I always have ready-to-eat snacks. 

3. Eat lean protein and healthy fats

The low-fat diet craze that I mentioned earlier taught me to fear all forms of fats, including healthy fats that we all need for our bodies to function properly. 

Healthy fats are crucial to providing essential fatty acids, which helps our body absorb vital nutrients, vitamins, and minerals and are a source of energizing fuel. 

By providing our body with nutrient-rich whole foods, the less we will crave junk food.
If eliminating junk food from your pantry shelves is a challenge for you because your children or spouse have snacks they “have to have,” try replacing one type of snack at a time. 

For example: Maybe instead of Doritos, which are full of artificial ingredients and MSG, switch to something like organic tortilla chips. And be sure you have fresh salsa or guacamole for a dip and serve with a plate of fresh cut veggies too! 

Starting with small changes and transitioning little by little can set your up for significant changes over time. I always say that small doses add up! You don’t have to do a major overhaul all at once, but you do have to start somewhere. 

4. Get a good night’s sleep

Are you sure you’re getting enough sleep each night? And how is the quality of your sleep?

You might be wondering, "What does sleep have to do with healthy eating and achieving your ideal weight range?" Well, a lot!  

Think about the difference of how your entire day goes when you wake up tired vs. how you feel and how your day goes after you get a full night’s rest. I don't know about you, but when I get eight hours of restful sleep, I feel like a million bucks!

If you haven't noticed, we often make different food and activity choices throughout the day when we are rested and feel energetic compared to days when we are dragging. 

Tiredness, stress, and exhaustion all trigger for cravings and food binges. When we’re tired, we get stressed more easily. It's like a vicious cycle. 

Studies have shown how signals from the brain, which regulate our appetite, are impacted by the lack of sleep. When we are tired, our the body craves energy, and we get more energy from food, so we end up eating more, and usually end up making less healthy choices. 

Think of this in the same context of skipping meals. When we skip meals, we then feel like we're starving and will binge on whatever foods we can get our hands on. Our body reacts the same way when we lack sleep.

5. Be a food label detective

I was taught to look at calories and fat grams on food labels. I never really paid attention to the actual ingredients, often because I couldn't pronounce most of them. I had no idea what most of them were. It’s quite shocking when we realize what our food is made up of these days. 

It’s important to know what's in the foods that we're putting in our bodies, and that means reading labels! 

Sugar is often disguised under different names as well as being listed more than once under the different names. Some other the names for sugar are high fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, raw sugar, beet sugar, cane sugar, sucrose, dextrose, maltose (just to name a few!). Before you put something in your grocery cart, know what it is that you are buying.  

When it comes to packaged foods, the front of the package is designed to be an advertising billboard to “sell” us the product. Words like “healthy,” “natural,” “baked,” “whole grain,” seem healthier than fried, right? Maybe. 

As I mentioned earlier, I love chips. But I know how bad they can be. So when Lays came out with Baked Lays, I was ALL OVER it. I thought it was a gift from God! But guess what - Baked Lays have more sugar than regular Lays Potato chips?  I honestly didn't think there was any sugar in potato chips. I was so wrong!

If reading food labels seem overwhelming to you, some apps can help! I use the Environment Working Group's (EWG) app. When I'm grocery shopping, I scan the barcode on the food package and gives me a rating on the quality of the food. 

Download the app and start scanning the food in your pantry.  It can be a fun way (or not so fun, depending on what you find!) to get the rest of your household involved in learning more about food labels. 

What About When You Crave Something That's Not Food? 

Sometimes cravings are caused by stress, boredom, loneliness or other things we feel missing from our lives. And often we use food to fill the void. 

When you feel cravings coming get real and ask yourself if you’re REALLY hungry, or is it something else? Get in touch with what you’re craving that’s not food and learn ways to nourish yourself without food.

When you understand the connection between WHAT you eat, WHY you eat, and HOW you feel, you will feel more in control and able to make better choices. 

We don’t need to feel guilty about food. We just need to understand our cravings better, so we figure out what we need and do our best to make choices that support our health and our goals.

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Naomi Nakamura is a certified Holistic Health Coach who takes a holistic approach through functional nutrition. Through her weekly show, The Live FAB Live Podcast, coaching programs, and safer skincare solutions, she helps people with acne and other chronic skin issues clear up their skin by teaching them where food meets physiology and how food, gut health, stress, and toxins are intricately connected to the health and appearance of our skin. Naomi resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can often be found romping around the city with her puppy girl, Coco Pop! Connect with Naomi at: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Pinterest.