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Breaking free of junk-food cravings

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We have all been there. Those times when we cannot get past the allure of that super-sweet/deep-fried/extra-salty something. 

No matter your logic, reasoning or “willpower”, you just need it.

Sugary and other hyper-palatable foods have been thought to “hijack” our brain chemistry, making us want more. In the words of Dr Robert H. Lustig, “No one can exert cognitive inhibition, willpower, over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute, of every day, of every year.”

There is continued research into understanding what is behind our food cravings, and for some, it may even reflect an addiction.

Sugar, junk food, and our biochemistry

It is suggested sugar enhances the activity of the ghrelin, a hormone that signals hunger to the brain, and that simultaneously feelings of satiety are suppressed by interfering with the normal transport and signalling of the hormone leptin.

What ensues? We reach for more!

Research also suggests that ghrelin may spur an increased release of dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that drives us to seek rewards that send us to the ‘pleasure state’. Substances such as cocaine increase levels of dopamine and evidence is growing to suggest sugar has a similar impact.

Consuming a high amount of junk food is also believed to reduce dopamine signalling, resulting in reduced pleasure from these foods.

Due to the down-regulation following junk food over-consumption, there is less dopamine and less feeling of pleasure or reward. Inadvertently, we reach for more of the sugary substance in order to supply us with the dopamine goodness.

Breaking free of cravings

Before we go on, it is important to note that food addiction and eating disorders are very real and very serious. Please do consult with a healthcare practitioner if you find you need support. There are organisations such as Food Addicts, SMART Recovery and The Butterfly Foundation that can provide help specific to food addiction and eating disorders.

If you are simply looking for ideas to kick the junk food cravings, here are a few recommendations following a symposium at the University of California San Francisco.

Identify your triggers
When the craving begins, pay attention to what has just happened. Are you feeling sleepy after a meal and want a sugar hit? Are you feeling overwhelmed with multiple people demanding things of you, so you reach for the potato crisps? Are you feeling a little low? As a woman, are you moving into your premenstrual phase? Triggers are hugely personal, but once you can identify them, you can work on managing these, to then manage the cravings.

Teach yourself to tolerate cravings
“Sugar cravings are a learned response,” says Kerri Boutelle, a University of California San Diego professor of paediatrics and psychology. If you can, go for a walk, or get up and have a drink of water or herbal tea, allowing yourself at least 10 minutes to let the craving fade.

Plan meals
Keep real, whole foods, including loads of veg, fruit, nuts, and seeds, nearby – in your cupboard, fridge, bag, car, or at your work desk. When you have on hand your own meals and snacks – comprised of real, whole foods – you are less likely to have, and desire, excessive amounts of nutrient-poor foods. It is much harder to go overboard on many carrots than many doughnuts.

Replace foods you feel you are addicted to with whole foods you enjoy
Work out the healthy foods you love, and keep them in supply. You don’t need to deprive yourself of the joy of eating!

Limit a child’s early exposure
The creators of the Yale Food Addiction Scale have found in their research that children are more susceptible to addiction than adults, and habits formed in early years have the propensity to carry on into later life. Occasionally having some not-so-great food or drink is fine, but the majority of what kids consume should be the real, whole stuff.

Manage stress
Stressing out is a big trigger for many to reach for the sugary or deep-fried food (a.k.a comfort food). Being in a stressed state changes the way we digest and metabolise our food and can counter healthy eating, so find ways to curb the stressed state with deep breathing, meditation, and exercise.

Reduce your intake of added sugar
This is what we are ALL about here at That Sugar Movement. Find other ways to satisfy the sweet tooth, allowing your taste buds to adapt to the natural sweetness from fruit, sweeter vegetables, and spices like vanilla and cinnamon.

Sugar-sweetened beverages are the best place to start – avoid or limit these as much as possible. Then over time, start noting where you add sugar to your food or drink, such as in a cup of tea or on your breakfast, and half the amount.

In pre-made or packaged products, get to know your nutrition labels. Keep an eye out for added sugars in the ingredient list – the further up the list the more added sugar is in the product.

Give yourself a break!
Most importantly, do not be hard on yourself if you have a serve of the not-so-good or super-sugary stuff. Accept it, and the next meal nourish yourself with something delicious and nutritious, comprised mostly of real, whole foods.

Change takes time

In trying to kick those junk food and sugar cravings, take it slowly and take it easy – make small changes, and these will make a big difference over time.

And know an occasional serve of such food or drink is okay! There may be various drivers causing us to reach for the Kit-Kat or KFC.

But for many of us, much of what we desire is due to habit and unhelpful habits. Take kindness (for oneself), time, and persistence to change. 

Ultimately, we just don’t want too much of the foods or drink we know (deep down) is not serving us.

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