Diet is a controversial topic. Is a vegan diet better, a carnivorous diet, or is a moderate and varied eating plan like the Mediterranean diet the best choices for good health? Most people have their own personal beliefs about what makes up a healthy diet, and nutrition isn’t an exact science. However, what we eat impacts how we feel, how much energy we have to power up our daily activities. They also influence our disease risk, and how healthy we are.
What you eat for meals and snacks also impacts how full you feel and whether you have food cravings afterward. If you choose more whole, nutrient-dense foods high in protein, you’ll have fewer stomach rumblings and the desire to eat something sweet or unhealthy. However, science reveals that some dietary choices increase food cravings. These you want to avoid. Here are some dietary choices that may increase your desire to munch on something unhealthy.
Juice and Other Sugar-Sweetened Beverages
An excellent rule of thumb is not to sip your calories from a cup or glass. That’s because calories in liquid form are less satisfying than the energy you get from eating whole foods. Plus, juice lacks fiber, a dietary component that moderates the blood sugar response to a meal and makes you feel full. In fact, one study found that a type of fiber called inulin reduces appetite. When you consume food that contains insulin, the bacteria in your gut produce a compound called propionate that signals your brain that you’re full. In one study, participants ate 10% less pasta when they drank a milkshake with added inulin. Sources of insulin include onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, and sugar beets.
In addition, juice and sugar-sweetened drinks trigger blood sugar spikes, but once your blood sugar spikes it drops just as fast, leading to a sugar crash. In response, you become hungry and start craving sweet stuff. Substitute water and unsweetened tea for juice and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
Many people have a love affair with salty snacks and, by far, one of the most popular is potato chips. The combination of carbs, fat, and salt make chips a tasty and almost addictive treat for some people. One problem with chips is they lack fiber, the component that helps you feel full and reduces glucose spikes. But the way salty snacks cause cravings is more complicated than that. Some studies show that when you bite into a salty chip or other snacks, your brain releases more dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked with reward. To get that stimulation again, you crave more chips. Also, snacking on salty chips makes you feel thirsty and some people confuse thirst with hunger. So you may crave more chips when you’re thirsty. However, all salty snacks aren’t created equally. If you need a salty snack, choose nuts over chips. At least they’re nutrient-dense and won’t cause a blood sugar spike.
The desire to eat something sweet is almost universal, but some people try to mimic the taste of sweet without the calories, by using artificial sweeteners in little yellow, blue, and pink packs. These packets contain sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin respectively. However, studies show that rather than curbing cravings, artificial sweeteners may boost sugar cravings.
How can this be? When you eat or drink something with a sweet taste, your body expects calories and energy to follow. Tricking your body with sweetness that lacks calories creates a mismatch that can trigger sugar cravings. Plus, some studies find that artificial sweeteners alter the gut microbiome in a way that increases the desire to eat sweet stuff. In addition, a recent study found that consuming the artificial sweetener sucralose with carbohydrates reduced insulin sensitivity and markers of metabolic health.
Coffee perks us up in the morning and can even help us power through a workout. What you might not realize is that caffeinated coffee may boost your desire to eat something sweet. In a study published in The Journal of Food Science, researchers gave subjects coffee with 200 milligrams of caffeine or a decaf coffee. Both had a little sugar. What they found was those who got the caffeinated coffee believed the coffee was less sweet than those who drank decaf coffee. Because of the effect caffeine has on adenosine receptors in the brain, caffeinated coffee may cause you to perceive what you eat as being less sweet. Therefore, you might not get as much satisfaction from a sweet muffin or doughnut when you drink caffeinated coffee. As a result, you might crave more sugar.
You’re not surprised to see this one on the list, are you? Any kind of sugar or ultra-processed snack can trigger cravings because of their impact on blood glucose control. Blood sugar spikes are followed by a rapid fall in blood glucose and that triggers fatigue and hunger. You might get a short-term burst of energy after nibbling on a doughnut or brownie, but it won’t be sustained. To keep your blood sugar on an even keel, bite into a snack that contains fiber and protein. You’ll have enough energy to power through your afternoon without craving sugar.
The Bottom Line
Plan your diet better to avoid sugar cravings. Include more fiber and protein in your diet and eat your meals and snacks in a slow, mindful manner. But don’t forget about other lifestyle habits that nix cravings. Lack of sleep raises the appetite hormone ghrelin and that can bring on sugar cravings and overeating. One study found that people who slept longer consumed less sugar the next day. Emotional stress is another trigger for cravings. Be sure you have practical ways to manage stress. Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing are techniques that work for some. So, find a method for controlling stress that works for you and you may be rewarded with fewer cravings for something sweet.
· Journal of Food Science. Volume 82, Issue9. September 2017. Pages 2177-2182.
· Science Daily. “Cravings for high-calorie foods may be switched off in the brain by new supplement”
· HealthEssentials.com. “3 Reasons You Crave Sweet or Salty Foods”
· Medical News Today. “Combining carbs and sweeteners could affect insulin sensitivity”
· The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 107, Issue 1, January 2018, Pages 43–53, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqx030.