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‘Eating junk food now and again is not an issue’ (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

It’s been a difficult day – your manager has piled on the pressure. You didn’t sleep well last night and after lunch you just want to snooze. But of course, you can’t.

So you end up eating the chocolate that’s supposed to be for your children.

And you work late which means you have no time to cook a proper dinner so it’s another night of takeaway.

Extra challenging

Maybe some or all of this sounds familiar?

We all have days that feel extra challenging but this year, especially through lockdown, many of us have faced a whole load more additional pressure.

During lockdown have you found yourself comfort eating more? Maybe you feel you’re becoming addicted to certain junk foods? If so, you’re not alone.

This is a perfectly normal reaction when you’re feeling stressed.

Why stress makes us crave junk food

When we crave certain foods or eat more than we need to, we’re responding to a basic survival mechanism.

We have what’s known as a natural ‘fight or flight’ stress response and this can sometimes go a little overboard. It’s supposed to help us escape injury or death in an emergency and then return to normal after we’ve fought or flown. 

Fortunately, most of us are not in situations like these! But that doesn’t stop our brain thinking we are, and it can become a long-term habitual reaction.

We can crave sugary foods like chocolate, cakes, and biscuits, to give us that instant hit of energy – to ‘fight’ or ‘fly’. This need can feel even greater when we’re not sleeping well too.

A boost

Sugar and fat also release brain chemicals that make us feel good emotionally, albeit temporarily, which is another reason you may crave these foods when you’re stressed or upset.

After the initial boost your sugar levels will drop, making you feel tired and you’ll then crave something to pick you up again.

Eating sugar accentuates the natural fall and rise of your blood sugar levels throughout the day. This can lead to a vicious cycle where you feel like you need more sugar to counteract the slump. Sugar is highly addictive too – the more you have, the more you want.

The ‘bliss point’

Food companies employ food scientists to create foods with tastes and textures that are hard to resist. It’s their job to find that perfect ‘bliss point’ of the food that’s being manufactured. 

They know there are certain substances that people will want more of. An example of this is salted caramel mocha – that flavor doesn’t exist in nature.

Although most people wouldn’t find a plate of sugar and a plate of fat particularly appealing, combining these together with some flavourings and a few other ingredients and you have the basis for many of the products we find irresistible, such as cake and ice-cream.

What can we do?

Eating more whole plant foods can help to reduce your cravings for junk.

Junk foods tend to be high in fat and sugar or salt and your tastebuds become attuned to these flavors. The good news is that by gradually eating more whole plant-based foods your taste buds adjust to more subtle flavours and your cravings for junk food diminish.

Among many other functions gut microbes help to stabilise our blood sugar levels. So having plenty of good gut bacteria can help to reduce sugar cravings.

Eating fruits, veggies, pulses, nuts, seeds, and wholegrains will help to increase your good bacteria. You might also want to consider adding in fermented foods such as kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi.

Why you may be craving certain foods

Some people believe your cravings may occur because the foods you’re eating are not giving you the nutrients you need. 

If you crave chocolate, for example, it can be an indication that you might be deficient in magnesium

There are plenty of much healthier sources of this mineral, including green leafy veg, beans, chickpeas, lentils, dates, seeds and nuts so try reaching for these instead.

Specific foods to help reduce sugar cravings

Dark green veggies, such as spinach, kale, cabbage, and broccoli contain structures called thylakoids. These have been shown to reduce cravings for sugary, sweet food.

If you eat plenty of fresh veg, fruit, pulses, and wholegrains you’ll also be getting plenty of the all-important fiber – only found in plant foods. 

Fiber can not only help you feel fuller for longer, it also helps to slow down the absorption of sugar from your gut into your bloodstream. This naturally helps to stabilize your blood sugar levels which reduces sugar cravings.

How to be a savvy shopper

Learning to navigate through the sea of information on packaging means we can make more informed choices about what we’re eating.

Packaging will often highlight the benefits of the product and not mention those that are less appealing, which means it can be quite misleading.

The front of the package is designed to be an advert to ‘sell’ you the product and the food manufacturers know how to trick us! They know the buzzwords that fool us. Words like ‘healthy’, ‘natural’, ‘baked’, ‘whole grain’, ‘full of fiber’ and so on.

Promotional words

These promotional words and phrases either don’t mean anything or they’re a distraction from the fact the product is high in salt or sugar, for example.

Let’s look at cereal. Many cereals are advertised as ‘wholegrain’ and ‘high in fiber’. What the packaging won’t highlight is that even a very small portion of cereal will typically have a couple of teaspoons of sugar.

A product labelled vegan is also not automatically healthy when it comes to levels of fat, sugar and salt.

Labels

If you want to cut back on sugar, you’ll need to check savory products as well as sweet ones. Sugar comes under a lot of different names too, such as glucose, glucose syrup, invert sugar, maltodextrin, sucrose, dextrose and maltose.

The great thing is if you’re eating mainly whole foods it can speed up your shopping because you won’t have so many labels to check. Many of them don’t need a label and those that are minimally processed tend to only have a few ingredients. You can also concentrate on just a few aisles!

Your cravings may be nothing to do with food

Cravings can be caused because we feel there’s something missing from our lives and food helps to fill the void, in the same way some people may use alcohol or have a compulsive need to shop.

We’re not always aware that we’re trying to fill a void. So the first step is awareness. This can simply be a case of asking yourself whether you’re using food because something is missing from your life. And be honest.

Ask yourself if you’re really hungry…or is it something else? If you just ate a meal an hour ago and felt satiated, maybe you’re not really hungry. See if doing something else takes your mind off mindless snacking as a distraction.

Boredom

Boredom can be a big trigger for cravings. We can crave food because we’re bored and eating gives us something to do.

Here are a few things you can try instead:

• Take a walk

• Do a quick workout

• Enjoy a hot shower or relaxing bath

• Spend time with friends – this could be combined with going for a walk or arrange a virtual coffee

• Practice yoga

• Learn something new

• Read a book

• Do some painting or colouring

• Watch a film

• Spend time doing something you love that has meaning for you

These are just a few ideas. The important factor is to find things that work for you and that you’ll enjoy.

Finding balance

By getting in touch with what you’re craving that’s not food you can, over time, learn ways to respond to how you’re feeling and meet those needs – rather than automatically reaching for food.

In time, you may develop a greater understanding of the connection between what you eat, why you eat, and how you feel. This can be so powerful in helping you feel more in control and able to make better choices that support your health and your goals. 

Eating junk food now and again is not an issue. Eating something that we crave from time to time is not a problem either. It’s about what we do 80 percent of the time that matters in terms of our health.

Coral Sirett

Coral Sirett is a plant-based body confidence coach, qualified nutrition and weight management adviser, workplace wellbeing consultant, speaker and the founder of Zest Health. Based in the UK, she works with clients worldwide offering private health coaching and consultations, a personalised nutrition report, and an online programme. Coral’s approach is gentle and sustainable as she believes that becoming body confident should be an enjoyable and positive experience. Find out more at Zest Health.