Cravings are all about blood sugar. If your levels are consistent throughout the day, your eating patterns will be, too. But when you starve yourself for hours, cravings call. And you will answer.
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“Your blood sugar can fall too low after just 4 hours of not eating,” says Valerie Berkowitz, M.S., R.D., nutrition director at the Center for Balanced Health in New York City. So you search the fridge, food court, or seat cushions for carbohydrates, which will provide a quick boost.
Trouble is, fast-rising blood sugar triggers your pancreas to release a flood of insulin, a hormone that not only lowers blood sugar but also signals your body to store fat. And in about half of us, insulin tends to "overshoot," which sends blood sugar crashing. “This reinforces the binge, because it makes you crave sugar and starch again,” says Berkowitz.
The most effective way to keep blood sugar in check is to avoid foods that are made with added sugar — soda, some fruit juices, baked goods. You can eliminate those entirely. As for foods that contain high amounts of starch — pasta, rice, potatoes, bread, or any other flour-based food — we'll admit they're delicious, and they can also provide vitamins and fiber. But you should limit yourself to 30 to 40 grams(g) of total carbohydrates at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and 10 to 20 grams at any given snack. (Check labels.)
In addition, follow these three rules.
- Eat regularly. Approximately every 3 hours. This allows you to eat smaller meals without becoming hungry.
- Have protein and fat (meat, cheese, nuts, or eggs contain both) at every meal. This slows the digestion of carbohydrates, which helps prevent spikes in blood sugar.
- Go whole grain. Shop carefully for carbs. Make sure any bread, pasta, or rice that you eat is 100 percent whole grain. Because whole grains contain fiber, their effect on your blood sugar is reduced.
Eight ways to tame a raging appetite
1. Guarantee success
How long do you think you can stick to a new plan? Find a duration that you're 100 percent confident you can achieve, even if it's just a couple of days. “Once you make it to your goal date, start the process over,” says Mary Vernon, M.D., president of the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. “This not only establishes the notion that you can be successful, but also gives you a chance to start noticing that eating better makes you feel better, reinforcing your desire to continue.”
2. Find more motivation
If your diet's only purpose is to help you finally achieve six-pack abs (or even just a two-pack), it may be hard to stick with for the long haul. The solution? “Provide yourself with additional motivators,” says Jeff Volek, Ph.D., R.D. He suggests monitoring migraines, heartburn, acne, canker sores, and sleep quality, along with common measures of cardiovascular health. “Discovering that your new diet improves the quality of your life and health can be powerful motivation,” says Volek.
3. Don't dwell on mistakes
Okay, you overindulged. What's the next step? “Forget about it,” says James Newman, a nutritionist at Tahlequah City Hospital, in Oklahoma, who followed his own advice to shed 250 pounds. (That's right, 250 pounds.) “One meal doesn't define your diet, so don't assume that you've failed or fallen off the wagon,” he says. Institute a simple rule: Follow any “cheat” meal with at least five healthy meals and snacks. That ensures that you'll be eating right more than 80 percent of the time.
4. Eat breakfast
Sure, you've heard this one before. But consider that if you sleep for 6 to 8 hours and then skip breakfast, your body is essentially running on fumes by the time you reach work. And that sends you desperately seeking sugar, which is easy to find. “The most convenient foods are often the same ones you should be avoiding,” says Berkowitz. That's because they're usually packed with sugar (candy bars, soda), or other fast-digesting carbohydrates (cookies, chips). Which leads to our next strategy.
5. Install food regulators
It's time for a regime change. Clean out your cupboard and fridge, then restock them with almonds and other nuts, cheese, fruit and vegetables, and canned tuna, chicken, and salmon. And do the same at work. “By eliminating snacks that don't match your diet but providing plenty that do, you're far less likely to find yourself at the doughnut-shop drive-thru or the vending machine,” says Christopher Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., president of Mohr Results, in Louisville, Kentucky.
6. Think like a biochemist
It's true: They make all-natural cookies. But even if a cookie is made with organic cane juice (the hippie name for sugar), it's still junk food. Ditto for lots of “health foods” in the granola aisle. That's because hippie sweeteners raise your blood sugar just like the common white stuff. “If you're going to eat a cookie, accept that you're deviating from your plan, and then revert back to your diet afterward,” says Berkowitz. “By convincing yourself that it's healthy, you're only encouraging a bad habit.”
7. Recognize hunger
Have a craving for sweets, even though you ate just an hour ago? Imagine eating a large, sizzling steak instead. “If you're truly hungry, the steak will sound good, and you should eat,” says Richard Feinman, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, in New York City. “If it doesn't sound good, your brain is playing tricks on you.” His advice: Change your environment, which can be as easy as doing 15 pushups or finding a different task to focus on.
8. Take a logical approach
“Before you take a bite of food, consider whether it's moving you one step closer to your goals or one step farther away,” says Alwyn Cosgrove, C.S.C.S., owner of Results Fitness, in Santa Clarita, California. This won't stop you from making a poor choice every single time, but it does encourage the habit of thinking long-term about what you're eating right now. The payoff is that “80 to 90 percent of the time, you'll make a better decision.”
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