Do you struggle with sugar cravings?

When people come to see me for help with their eating, they often feel they can’t control their intake of sweet food, or “junk” food or how much they eat when they get home from work (or on weekends). I hear people say “I’m good during the day/week, it’s afterwork… or when I have something sweet… or once my partner’s gone to bed… or when I eat out that’s the issue.”

These people usually have something in common – not eating enough during the day. Sometimes not enough carbohydrate, but mostly not enough food (ie calories) and typically they’re not even aware. In fact, it’s normal to think eating less is the “right” thing to do. Almost everywhere you look – TV, social media, your social circle, family, local gyms and even well meaning health professionals (including your GP) – eating less or restricting certain foods is validated as a “good” thing, what you “should” be striving to achieve. This is the diet culture we live in.

It is true that some people do eat more than what they need, however no person or meal plan can know how much anyone else needs to eat and this results in a blanket like calorie reduction which is not enough food for most people. Even if you plug your height, weight and activity level into an app, this can’t account for differences in metabolism between different people, or the natural fluctuations in your energy expenditure across the days and weeks. Wouldn’t it be much more powerful if you could work out yourself, through listening your body, what is the right amount of food for you? This may lead to eating less, but not so much less that you’re left feeling over-hungry or craving carbohydrates/sweets. If this sounds appealing to you, check out intuitive eating.

anti diet dietitian

In addition to the omni-present influence of diet culture, three more specific reasons I frequently see for not eating enough during the day are…

Skipping breakfast – many people discover that when they eat breakfast, they feel hungry again sooner, often around mid-morning. When you’re trying hard to eat less/cut calories, this can feel highly problematic and so people delay eating as long as possible. However, feeling hungry roughly every 3 hours is completely normal and it’s a reason morning tea exists. Not eating enough earlier in the day is a common reason for over-eating later in the day.

Trying to be too healthy with food choices – carrots sticks and hummus may be perfectly tasty and nourishing, but if this doesn’t float your boat or doesn’t provide enough calories, you’re probably not going to be fully satisfied and you may find yourself craving sweets (usually as your brain actually needs glucose and is running low). If a snack of toast with jam or peanut butter, or perhaps cheese and biscuits not only appeals more to you, but provides the necessary food energy, you are going feel more satisfied eating this and you may well find yourself not craving sweets as your brain has the calories it needs. When you brain doesn’t have adequate food energy, it releases a chemical called Neuropeptide Y to make you think about food, specifically food it can get good amounts of glucose from as glucose is the brain’s preferred energy source. Therefore, so called “sugar cravings” can occur simply because you need to eat.

Cutting carbs – diet culture, including some well meaning doctors and other health professionals, tell us to cut out the carbohydrates. No bread, no rice, no pasta, no potatoes and sometimes even, no carrots, no pumpkin and no fruit! Aside from this being completely unnecessary, including for people with diabetes, such dietary restriction can lead to…

  • Strong sugar or carb cravings
  • Over-eating to the point of binge eating behaviour (often later in the day)
  • Mental and emotional distress over food, eating and body image
  • A preoccupation with food to the point of what can feel like an obsession or sense of being out of control around food (you are not obsessed or out of control, you just need to eat more – if the room you were in suddenly started running out of oxygen, your brain wouldn’t just sit there calmly, it would demand you find more oxygen and right now!)
  • Feeling tired and weak, having difficulty concentrating (your brain runs best on a ready supply of glucose)
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Constipation

If any of this resonates with you, perhaps it’s time to stop restricting food and stop following someone else’s specific advice on what, when and how much to eat and time to start tuning into, and trusting, your own body with food. You can learn to do this through a non-diet/intuitive eating approach that is fully aligned with Health At Every Size®️. You can book with us, or a find a practitioner near you.

 

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Want to avoid feeling stuffed full this Christmas? It’s time to stop trying to “be good”.

Do you tend to overeat on Christmas Day? What if I told you the problem is not you or the food, the problem is diet mentality.

If you happen to eat more than usual on Christmas day (or any other gathering for that matter), you are behaving as humans have done for thousands of years where having an abundance of food on celebration days is part of how we celebrate and connect with others. Bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with doing this and the pleasure and satisfaction we receive from sharing and enjoying food with others is fundamental to our health.

For some people though, Christmas day can feel like a minefield, creating anxiety and distress around food and/or leave you feeling so stuffed full, the pleasure is diminished. While for some there will be other factors involved, I am going to put a huge chunk of the blame on diet culture and its obsession with “health” and weight.

We live in a diet culture where thinking about food in terms of macros (carbs, protein, fat), moral value (being good or bad) and our body size has become some normalised, few people stop to recognise the madness and futility behind it all. Even for those not dieting (or following “healthy lifestyle plan”), this creates a diet mentality where food is seen as good or bad, right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy and the belief that how we eat is the key driver for our body weight (tip – your body weight is much more complex than the food you eat). There’s a constant sense we must make the “better” choice, not eat too much, and if we do, we must pay a penance with more exercise, or being “good” the next day. Paradoxically, it is this very diet mentality that results in people overeating on days such as Christmas or any celebratory party.

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So why does our diet culture and diet mentality lead to overeating?

It is pure human psychology to desire more what is off limits or forbidden. Deprivation heightens our desire and we are more likely to think about and crave those foods that we restrict. How often do you find yourself carving lettuce over chocolate? On that point though, just as it is natural to want something more when it’s less available, most people have had the experience of craving salad after several days of eating out with richer food or more highly processed food – so it works both ways.

Do you routinely restrict food you enjoy? When that food becomes available, are you more likely to go to nuts and “splurge”? If you’re nodding your head, you are a normal healthy human. This type of behaviour is known as the “I’ll get while I can effect”, “the what the hell effect” or “the last supper effect” where you think “I’m just gonna write off today and I’ll be good tomorrow/starting Monday”. These effect are described in studies in a number of books including Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon.

You may also fall victim to the “I deserve it” mentality – “I’ve been good lately so now I can afford to have as much as I want!”

The paradox with all of this, is that you usually end up eating more than you actually want, not truly enjoying the experience and perhaps even regretting it, swearing off the food again… until the next time.

What it you took a more relaxed and less restrictive approach to how you eat? Imagine feeling you could eat whatever you feel like whenever you felt like it? Maybe sweets would become less enticing – if you like sweets, this doesn’t mean you’d stop wanting or enjoying them, it would just mean you could them in a way that felt good mentally and physically. While all this may sound like pie in the sky stuff (my clients often say this when we first meet), you can find this place of moderation with a non-diet/intuitive eating approach. The key is to start understanding how diet culture has influenced our thinking around food in a way that has us feeling we can’t control ourselves around food and therefore we must restrict the food when in fact it is this very restriction and way of thinking that is so often at the root of your struggle with food.

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Do you have a healthy relationship with food? – take our free quiz to find out
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When pizza may actually be healthier than a plate full of veggies…

Diet culture, and indeed mainstream nutrition advice, has most people believing a meal of fish with lots of veggies must be healthier than a pizza.

While both meals offer a variety of nutrition and both can be equally as healthy,  there are many instances where unconditional permission* to enjoy pizza can be the healthier choice.

Let’s look at some examples of what can happen when you see pizza as the unhealthy choice…

  • Your partner wants pizza for dinner and although you secretly would like pizza too, you refuse in the name of health and end up eating separately and not enjoying time together.
    .
  • Eating the fish and veggies, although tasty, doesn’t quite satisfy and you end up “searching” for something else, which results in you eating a tub of ice-cream later that evening.
    .
  • You’ve planned to catch up with friends for dinner and when everyone’s happy to go with pizza except you, you find an excuse not to go out with them.
    .
  • You really do like pizza and so you eat some, but then you feel awful about yourself and make a decision to restrict food (or be “good”) the next day, which then leads to bingeing behaviour that evening (or the following day).
    .
  • You miss out on the opportunity to enjoy a delicious meal that also gives you a good variety of nutrition. You may also miss out on what is truly the key to well-being – human connection.

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Bottom line is both meals provide good nutrition – while the fish and veggies might have more Vitamin C and B6, the pizza pictured has more calcium, iodine and zinc – but regardless of this, nutrition is only one aspect of health. Spending time with other people, sharing food, getting pleasure from food and not experiencing anxiety or guilt around food are equally, if not more, important to our overall health.

 

Unconditional permission* – this refers to freedom to eat a food without any thoughts or belief of needing to compensate for that choice. Common examples of compensation are, feeling the need to “burn” the food off, eating less or avoiding certain food over the next day or two.

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Cake is healthy

Context is everything, but social media grabs and headlines are generally not interested in the detail, it’s all about what gets the most clicks and likes. Eating cake will not make you a healthy person, but nor will it make you unhealthy.

The Context:

Having some sugar in your diet in the context of a nutritionally adequate diet is unlikely to be an issue. If health issues do arise, genetics, stress, activity levels and a myriad of other factors need to be considered, not just a person’s sugar intake or even their overall diet for that matter. In fact, even if a person was eating copious amounts of sugary foods at the expense of nutrition, you still need to consider the many of other factors. Food alone will not harm us or heal us. Quitting sugar is unlikely to address all the aspects of self-care one might need to manage their health and almost certainly will not address the underlying reasons a person is having excess sugar, if indeed they are.

Regardless of whether you agree with me on this or not, you might be thinking “but I feel so much better when I cut out sugar!”. If you’re human, chances are you changed a number of others factors along side cutting out sugar. Perhaps you started paying more attention to your overall diet, you may have started cooking more from basic ingredients, increased your vegetables and decreased your intake of more highly processed food, you may even have started paying more attention to your appetite and be over eating less often, many people also increase their activity when they make a dietary change. When all these changes occur, it’s way too simplistic to say cutting out sugar is the reason you feel better. “But if cutting out sugar means I make these other changes, then surely it’s a good thing?” I hear you say. Yes and no. If you’re someone who can make a clear cut diet change and stick to it long-term without any repercussions socially, psychologically or to how you enjoy life, then no problem. But this is not most people, most people at some point find themselves wanting to enjoy the food they’ve sworn against and then when they do eat that food, feel bad about themselves in some way. This can then lead to a problematic relationship with food which may result in the pendulum swing between being “good” and being “bad”, feeling “addicted” or a lack of control around certain food, weight gain, weight cycling and even eating disorders. While most people don’t develop an eating disorder, many develop disordered eating behaviours.

 

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With regard to any change in body weight with cutting out sugar, if a number of the other earlier mentioned changes occur along side the no sugar, can you be sure the weight change is simply due to the no sugar? Even if it was, will the change be maintained long-term? To this day we have no known dietary way to help people lose weight and keep the weight off long-term, almost everybody regains the weight at some point and the reasons people gain weight are always much more complex than just dietary.

Now that we’re on the topic of weight, let’s explore a little while focusing on diet and weight in relation to health can be so problematic. Just focusing on diet (or exercise) is always going to be insufficient with regard to addressing factors that affect weight, some of which are out of a person’s control and some of which can be attributed to behaviour. Even with those that may be attributed to behaviour, the things that drive human behaviour are complex and we over-simplify behaviour change with black and white, generic, dietary advice such as cut out sugar, reduce portions, eat less etc.  While there may be some people for whom such dietary advice appear straight forward and maintainable, this is not true for the majority. Continuing to ignore other factors such as social justice, genetics, psychology and the many assumptions around health and weight, can lead to disordered eating behaviours and increased psychological stress (such as shame, anxiety and depression) which adversely impact health independent of diet or body weight. In fact, many of the things people do in an attempt to lose weight do not qualify as self-care. For example; crash diets, detox diets, going too long without food or not eating enough food (and putting the body into starvation mode), no longer taking pleasure from food and eating, not socialising as much for fear of eating the “wrong” food, exercising too intensely or too often and the list goes on. Health is complex and layered and involves much more than attention to diet, fitness or weight.

So how can you manage your health (practise self-care) without restricting food you enjoy or focusing on weight loss? It is very possible with a non-diet/HAES approach.

 

Please note: Saying cake is healthy is not the same as saying eat as much cake as you want without any regard to nutrition or how your body feels. I actually prefer to say that cake is neither healthy nor unhealthy, it is just cake. I stated “cake is healthy” to do exactly what media tries to do, get people’s attention. Absolutely cake can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

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Do you have a healthy relationship with food? – take our free quiz to find out
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Two common reasons you feel you’re addicted to sugar and what you can do about it

In my 15 years practising as a dietitian, one of the most common things I hear people say is; “I can’t stop at just one.” While some people have a very complex relationship with certain food that goes beyond the scope of this piece, the majority of people I see discover they can stop at just one and that they are not addicted to sugar when they address the following issues.

Issue 1. Being hungry and simply needing to eat.

When your body needs food energy (aka calories), your brain releases a chemical that tells you to look for food – usually something with carbohydrate – as this is your brain’s preferred food choice. This is a basic biological need, as powerful as the need to breath and sleep.

If you haven’t eaten enough at lunch or breakfast (or you skipped one of them), you’re going to need even more fuel (calories) by the afternoon. While some people will notice they are hungry, others won’t and I’ll talk about later. When it’s time for your afternoon break, if you plan on a sweet biscuit or two, but always find yourself eating much more, this is because your body actually needs more food energy than can be obtained from a couple of sweet biscuits. This real need for food energy (calories) drives you to eat much more of the food than you intended. When this happens, you might mistakenly think it’s because sugar is somehow “addictive”, when in reality you just needed more to eat.

In my clinic, one of the most common presentations I see is people not eating enough during the day, very often they are not even aware they are not eating enough. In most cases, once people start eating more, their sugar cravings reduce significantly or disappear completely. In time, these people are able to enjoy sweet foods in smaller amounts, a block of chocolate can last all week in the fridge and the unopened packet of Tim Tams doesn’t disappear within a day.

Given this seems like such a simple “cure” for “sugar addiction”, why aren’t we just advising people to make sure they eat enough?

intuitive eating dietitian


Answer: Almost everything we are taught about managing our health – be that through various health/medical professions, media and diet culture – revolves around eating less, or restricting food, often with a goal to lose weight. When people are restricting food and actively eating less, our culture validates this with messages that we are being good, are disciplined and even comments like “I wish I could be more like you”. If weight loss also occurs, the food restriction is further validated with comments around how great a person looks. This validation happens regardless of the very real fact that behind the scenes, at some point in time, many of these people may be feeling out of control around food in certain situations, experiencing heightened comfort eating, binge eating and/or being preoccupied with thoughts about food and weight to the point of what can feel like obsession. This validation also occurs despite the food restriction or weight loss usually only being short term, often less than a year (for the record, short-term is anything less than 5 years).

Given this, it’s understandable why so many people end up under-eating. When your energy intake is low and blood sugar drops, it makes sense your brain wants you to eat high-energy food (often food high in sugar and fat) as this will replenish your fuel more quickly. In understanding that under-eating is a key driver of over-eating, it starts to make sense as to why so many people feel they are addicted to food and especially sugary food. After all, if you were deprived of air to breath, you would suddenly have a strong desire to get more air and when you found that air, you would be gulping it down.

I mentioned earlier that not everybody will recognise their physical hunger, this disconnect with appetite can occur as a result of dieting (or any form of restricting food to lose weight), disordered or chaotic eating patterns or just not paying attention to the body and is very common in our busy chaotic lives. If you feel addicted to sugar, or struggle with food cravings and over-eating, a useful first step is to practise getting back in tune with your appetite cues. You can do this through a process called intuitive eating, an approach that takes the focus of restricting food or calories and importantly, takes the focus off weight loss. While some will find this fairly straight forward, many will find it challenging and may need help from a practitioner experienced in this field.


A side note:
Diet culture and the associated “wellness industry” drives sugar addiction and then sells us the “solution” in the form of various diets or “healthy lifestyle programs” that for many people only serve to compound the feeling of addiction… Such programs include “I quit sugar”, “keto”, “whole 30”, “Paleo” to name just a few. I want to be clear that I am not saying these patterns of eating are wrong for everybody, if you are someone, or know someone, who eats this way and has truly benefitted long-term, then I have no issue. What I take issue with is how these programs or patterns of eating target everybody and for many people they are not the solution and long-term these people find themselves feeling even more “addicted” to sugar or experiencing more intense bingeing behaviour and feelings of guilt and shame.

 

Issue 2: Restricting sweets and then finding yourself in the “last super effect” every time you eat something sweet.

The last supper effect is what many people experience when they make a decision to take action on their eating habits, be that starting a new diet or eating program, seeing a dietitian or to stop eating a particular food. In the hours leading up to the intended diet change, you find yourself eating lots of the food you plan to never eat again. The last supper effect can be so strong that many of clients experience it before seeing me even though they know I’m not going to put them on a diet or tell them to restrict. To quote something I read “scarcity makes us anxious and abundance allows us to feel calm.” The very idea that you might not be able to eat a certain food again, can make you feel anxious to the point of wanting to eat as much as possible before it’s too late.

Along with the last supper effect, the idea that you shouldn’t be eating a certain food, or not too much of it, can lead to a range of diet mentality thoughts including:

“I’ll just have this one and then I’ll be good tomorrow”

“I just finish this packet so it’s not in the house and then I’ll never buy it again!”

“I’ve stuffed it now, I may as well write off the rest off the rest of the day and I’ll be good tomorrow/start again on Monday.”

“It’s so delicious, I’m just gonna eat it all and then I’ll be careful tomorrow.”

The problem with this diet mentality is you end up eating more than you intended, often to point that any satisfaction you could have received from the eating experience is ruined by feeling uncomfortably full and/or beating yourself up over it. In addition, as I know you all know, there’s always another tomorrow.

The ability to eat food to the point of satisfaction where you don’t feel you’ve eaten too much, or to leave delicious food on your plate, often only become possible once you truly start to believe that you can eat that delicious food whenever you are hungry for it. While this can seem like an impossibility at first, learning how to rewire your brain to change the way you think about food will allow it to happen. Just as it’s normal human psychology to want more of we can’t have with things that bring us pleasure, if you were made to eat an entire block of chocolate everyday, you might start to resent having to eat chocolate. This is not to say chocolate can’t be enjoyed daily (I enjoy chocolate most days), but if eating a whole block makes you feel a little sickly afterward, would you want to do it as often? There may be someone reading this who feels they can eat a whole block of chocolate and not feel sickly or experience any mental anguish, and that’s fine, this blog is directed toward those who do feel a level of physical and/or mental discomfort.

In summary, if you feel are you addicted to sugar (or any other food) and you haven’t explored whether or not you’re eating enough (as mentioned many people don’t even realise) or explored the process of not restricting food and rewiring your brain to change diet mentality thoughts, then I urge you consider these processes. The intuitive eating approach I mentioned earlier can help you do this. On the other hand, if you feel are you addicted to sugar and simply avoiding it works for you without any downsides emotionally, mentally or socially, then I have no issue with your choice – but please don’t expect that this is right for everybody.

dietitian melbourne

 

 

 

 

Do you have a healthy relationship with food? – take our free quiz to find out
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Want to learn how to nourish your body without dieting or restricting food?
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Are you struggling with Intuitive Eating or feeling it doesn’t work for you?

Intuitive Eating is becoming ever more popular with an increasing number and variety of health and fitness professionals using the concepts of intuitive eating with their clients. There are now numerous books that support the concept and most appear to hold true to original book, ‘Intuitive Eating’ by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch – a book I highly recommend reading.
 
While this should be a wonderful thing, unfortunately the concepts and process of intuitive eating are not always being taught or used effectively. Recently, I have had a number of people contact me for help – after trying the process through reading one of the books – saying “it didn’t work for me.”  Most often this is because weight loss continued to be a key goal for the individual or there was a promise of weight loss or changing how your body looks. Wanting to lose weight is one of the major sticking points with learning to eat intuitively. It’s not that it’s wrong to want to lose weight (or feel you need to lose weight), it is that focusing on your weight will interfere with the intuitive eating process.
Given the culture we live in, it is completely understandable and ok to want your body to change. The trick is being able to pop these desires on hold while you move through the intuitive eating process. This is one of the toughest aspects of the process and something an experienced dietitian or therapist will help you with. This is a key part of the work we do, click here if you would like help from one of our dietitians.
If, like many people, you are unhappy with your body and you try intuitive eating as a way to change your body, you will likely end up thinking – “Intuitive eating didn’t work for me.” As one of my clients expressed beautifully, when you focus on weight loss or changing your body, your eating will continue to be driven by body worries rather than instincts.

 

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So what is the purpose of Intuitive Eating?

Intuitive eating is about learning to trust your body’s cues (instincts) around appetite and food, it is about giving your body the fuel, nourishment and pleasure we all require from food to take care of our mental and physical health. Intuitive eating is also about letting go of food rules and all the “shoulds” and shouldn’ts” our culture imposes on how we are supposed to eat, it requires softening black and white thinking around food and recognising there are no inherently bad foods and that all food can be included in a healthy way of eating. Letting go of all the food rules and changing how you think about food frees up so much mental space and energy and will allow you to feel much calmer around food. In time, you will spend much less time thinking about food or worrying about what you “should or shouldn’t” be eating.

If you’re thinking such freedom with eating will result in you making all the “wrong” food choices and not eating enough of what you “should” be eating, you’re not alone. Many people have this belief when they first encounter intuitive eating partly because we are immersed in a diet culture which teaches us to fear food and that we can’t be trusted around certain foods. When you restrict food, or think you shouldn’t eat it, it’s very normal to go overboard and eat that food in excess whenever you have the chance. This reinforces your belief that you can’t be trusted around that food. What the intuitive eating process teaches you, is that when you start to allow that food in a non-judgemental way and listening to your body’s cues, you can trust your body and not go overboard. It can take some time to reach this point and may even require a period of relearning what your body’s appetite cues feel like, but even if this takes many months (or even a year or so), this is much less time than spending the rest of your life in the restrict-binge-restrict cycle that occurs with dieting or rigid patterns of eating.

If your weight of body shape does change through the intuitive eating process, this is purely a side-effect. However, if you make weight/fat loss the goal, you will struggle to ever trust your body’s natural cues and you will most likely feel intuitive eating didn’t work. It’s not that it didn’t work, you just didn’t give the process the freedom it needs to help you take better care of your health.

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Do you have a healthy relationship with food? – take our free quiz to find out
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