Updated: May 2, 2020
What is Crowding Out?
When it comes to quitting sugar, junk food, smoking or other bad habits, the abstention strategy often fails because deprivation doesn't work for most of us. Crowding Out means Adding More of the good stuff rather than taking things away. That's why Crowding Out is such a brilliant strategy. Crowding out means adding more variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods to our diet rather than removing some 'forbidden' foods. As you focus on enjoying the benefits of real foods such as fresh vegetables, fresh fish or high quality produce from the farmers market, you are less likely to miss the junk or processed food that you want to quit.
Treat the Cause
Before we go further into the topic please check out my blog on deconstructing cravings. This journey begins with your awareness about cravings and the possible causes. Are you craving a snack because you didn't eat a big enough lunch or breakfast? Are you binging because you are stressed or sleep deprived or dealing with other emotional issues? You will likely need to go beyond the food you eat. Don't be judgemental, take an interest in listening to your own body, and dig deeper to find out why you are craving certain foods. Once you understand the genuine causes, you are more likely to succeed at nudging yourself in the right direction.
A few tips
Once you have figured out the cause of your cravings, here are a few tips and practical actions that may help with sugar cravings
Sleep is often an overlooked area but it does have a huge impact on our metabolism (energy balance/ fat burn) and appetite control. Sleep is extremely important for managing our appetite and cravings. When we are exhausted, sleep deprived or in a state of chronic stress, our brains are less able to regulate our metabolism and appetite. This may explain why we are more likely to crave sugar or simple carbohydrates such as potato chips, chocolates, cookies, cereal bars late at night. Many studies have shown the link between sleep deprivation and obesity related diseases such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
In reality it may be difficult to get the full seven or eight hour sleep every night, but we can work on the quality of our sleep and try to get the most out of whatever rest we can manage. Think about what you can do to improve your sleep hygiene and have a regular sleep pattern. Your body will really thank you for the regular routine, or just 5 more minutes of sleep every day for one week. Try to establish a regular sleep routine by setting a reminder to go to bed, make sure your curtains and doors are closed properly so they shut out all the lights from outside, stop checking your emails and stop all screen time (TV, iphones, ipads, e-readers) 30 minutes before bedtime, crowd out electronic or social media activities with restorative ones such as mediation, yoga or reading. If you struggle with a busy brain at night, try to keep a journal and a pen by your bed, write down what you need to do the next morning. There are countless ways to improve your sleep, feel free to find one that works best for you.
Eat Real Food
Natural whole foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, fresh seafood and meats contain far less sugar per gram compared to most packaged foods (cereals, bagels, whole wheat bread, protein bars). Fruits and vegetables are also full of vitamins, minerals, fibers and antioxidants, and far more nutrient dense than processed foods. To satisfy your sweet cravings, try to eat vegetables that are naturally sweet such as peppers, carrots, beets, onions and sweet potatoes. Homemade pickled onions, gherkins and cabbages are great options too. Eating real food is an excellent way to allow your palette to become more sensitive to naturally sweetened foods. Over time you will find the average chocolate bar or ice-cream too sweet and artificial for your taste buds. You will find real food more satiating than processed foods. Not all calories are the same, so make every calorie be as nutrient-rich as possible.
Have a Savoury Breakfast
Another practical advice is to start your day with a savory breakfast such as eggs, salads with healthy fats such as avocado, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, green vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, kale, nuts and seeds, healthy protein from good quality cheeses or full-fat yoghurt (low fat yoghurt is often too sugary and may contain less nutrients than full fat ones). There far more healthy options other than bagels, croissants, toasts or cereals. If you love having a morning oatmeal, try steel-cut oatmeal which is less processed and have lower glycemic load than rolled-oatmeal. You may even add a tablespoon of peanut butter or almond butter or some nuts and seeds into your oatmeal to blunt the potential blood sugar spikes. If you start your day with a savory breakfast, you are less likely to crave something sweet later in the day.
If you are a lover of chocolates, here is some good news to boost your mood. Chocolate (especially raw cacao) is a superfood. Chocolate contains plenty of minerals and antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, helps to stabilise blood pressure, protect against cancer and heart disease. Always go for dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content or higher for maximum benefits.
Drink Plenty of Water
There is no set rule about how many glasses of water we should drink per day. The amount of water we need changes depend on our activity levels, the weather and the season. Staying hydrated can reduce sugar cravings. When you have a craving, drink a glass of water and wait for a few minutes before you reach for your snack. If you are bored of water, try sparkling water with a piece of lime or some mint leaves or other herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme. Sparkling mineral water is also a great substitute for fizzy drinks.
Eat Whole Fruits, Say No to Juice
Avoid fruit juices at all cost, even if they are organic and freshly squeezed. It is true that fresh fruit juices contain plenty of vitamins and antioxidants. Unfortunately there is just too much sugar to justify the benefits and convenience. Note there is as much sugar in a glass of orange juice as a can of coca-cola! If you really want some fruit juice, it is much better to eat whole pieces of fruits. Whole fruits are more satiating (filling) and come with all the fiber and bulk to slow the passage of sugar into our bloodstream. As you drink a glass of fruit juice, blood sugar goes up quickly, and the pancreas reacts by releasing insulin to allow the body cells mop up and use the sugar. Any excess sugar that is not metabolised by the cells is eventually stored as fat. With fruit juices, there can be too much sugar causing too much insulin, which encourages excess sugar to be stored as fat, making it harder to lose or maintain weight.
If you are really craving fruit juices, try some other options such as seltzer/ sparkling water (ideally non-flavoured), coconut water, or a smoothie with avocado or nut butter which are filling and less likely to spike up your insulin level and your body is less likely to store fat.
Use Natural Sweeteners
If you really need to use sugar in your cooking or baking, opt for raw or natural sweeteners like small amounts of raw honey, maple syrup, cooked fruits (e.g. apples, oranges and pears) or dried fruits (e.g. dates, raisins). White sugar which is essentially empty calories, there is no nutritional value except for the energy/ calorie content. You can also use spices such cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves as natural sweetener for your food and drinks.
Forget About Exercise, Just Get Moving
Exercises can help to crowd out the psychological urge to snack but it may not be practical if you cannot fit a gym class into your full schedule and long hours in the office. You may wake up at six in the morning, go for an hour on the treadmill or spinning or kickboxing, then spend the rest of the day sitting in front your desk. That is one active hour versus 15 to 16 sedentary hours in a day, which is probably less active than a hospital emergency room staff or a waiter on a four-hour shift.
So, instead of worrying about missing your gym session this morning, think about how much movement you can add or fit into your daily routine. How about taking the stairs instead of the escalators? Are you able to install a standing desk in the office? How about walking over to your colleague's desk instead of calling them over the phone? Go out and buy your lunch instead of ordering a delivery. Take a detour when you get your afternoon coffee or tea. Be creative, you would be surprised how much more moving around you can add into a busy day.
Sugar Free Snacks
Another key success to reducing sugar cravings is to have some sugar-free/ low sugar snacks readily available. A couple of suggestions include raw nuts and seeds, carrot sticks, nori sheets, cheese, nut butters, eggs and jerky. If you don't have the time to prepare that carefully, even an apple or a banana or some roasted nuts are better than a Kitkat or a bag of M&M's. Gradually build up a habit of having a healthy snack in your bag so you won't be tempted by any junk in the vending machine or convenience stores.
1. Sleep and Metabolism: An Overview
2. Genetic dissection of sleep-metabolism interactions in the fruit fly
3. Sleep-Dependent Modulation of Metabolic Rate in Drosophila
Disclaimer The comments in this blog on food cravings is intended for generally healthy individuals and is not intended as medical advice. If you are dealing with a medical issue or an addiction, please consult and seek help from your doctor and qualified medical professionals.