Wondering what prompts the urge for that midday candy bar or late-night bowl of ice cream? Registered dietitian Lisa Fischer cautions against sugar’s pitfalls and explains what’s behind those cravings, and how to be smart dealing with them.
Health Matters: Is it ever the case that cravings are actually telling us something? Might I need those gummy bears?
Fischer: First of all, nobody needs added sugar.
There’s a popular misconception that we crave foods containing nutrients we lack. With few exceptions, the truth is that most people rely on culture or past experience to guide their choices, rather than the body’s intuition. In reality, food we crave is often the food causing us problems. The more sugar we eat, the more we crave it.
Every bite you eat is information for your gut microbiome—that’s the bacteria that resides in our gut and impacts our digestion and immune system. Research is showing that our gut microbiome may influence cravings as well as our behavior. When we eat sweets, we’re feeding bacteria that thrive on sugar, which crowds out healthier bacteria and alters the important balance.
The bacteria can then send signals to the brain to crave more sugar, impacting your decision-making. It’s not all about will power after all!
Health Matters: What’s the secret to beating the cravings?
Fischer: There are lots of things to try.
- Slowly increase fermented foods (e.g., kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, or kombucha) in your diet, which can help balance gut bacteria.
- Don’t go more than three or four hours without eating; incorporate at least one quality source of fiber and protein.
- Don’t overdo the salt.
- Drink plenty of water and unsweetened tea.
- Identify whether you’re physically or emotionally hungry, and decide whether and what to eat. (For help, see the flowchart above, designed by psychologist Susan Albers-Bowling from the Cleveland Clinic.)
If the craving is really emotional—which may be the case especially around the holidays—instead of giving in right away, call a friend, take a walk, or set a timer for 10 minutes and then decide whether to indulge.
If you go ahead with your treat, do so mindfully. Take a deep breath before you start, and pay close attention to each bite. Where on your tongue do you taste the sweetness? Does it trigger thoughts or memories?
Research shows that the first bite is the most pleasurable, and, after that, we don’t experience the same satisfaction. If you do pay attention as you’re eating your sweet, you may find you only need a few bites.
Health Matters: Are there any substitutes that might satisfy a craving?
Fischer: It’s best to eat a whole, unprocessed food that has naturally occurring sugar and fiber, such as fresh or unsweetened, dried fruit (juice doesn’t count). Or try:
- Chocolate: one ounce of 70 percent or darker chocolate
- Avocado pudding: 2 ripe avocados, ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, 3 tbsp. 100 percent pure maple syrup. Blend until smooth and chill; serve.
- Add spices to your food, like cinnamon and vanilla. Even savory spices (thyme, rosemary) can help curb those cravings.
- Eat a serving of healthy starch like a sweet potato, brown rice, or 100 percent whole grain bread.
Health Matters: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Fischer: It’s time to start following the example of the French and become “qualitarians”—people who choose their food based on quality rather than quantity. Swap the sugar-laden, processed products for high-quality, real foods that you recognize, with ingredients you can pronounce.
When you opt for quality, cravings often subside. The aim here is not deprivation; the aim is to reset our taste buds to derive more pleasure from the flavors and natural sweetness of real, unprocessed foods.
Slowing down and addressing the underlying issue is the trick. If this is difficult for you, consider reaching out to a registered dietitian at the University of Rochester’s Healthy Living Center at the Center for Community Health.
Lisa Fischer, MS, RDN, CDN, was a registered dietitian in Pediatric GI/Nutrition at Golisano Children’s Hospital at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital at the time of this publication.