Dear Coach Meg,
I'm having trouble controlling my urge to snack on sugary stuff. I feel like I'm eating healthy foods at my main meals, but find that when 2:30 or 3pm rolls around I really want to dig into the candy dish at my office, or grab a treat from the coffee shop. The same thing happens after I finish dinner and am trying to relax before bed - I just can't get my mind off the cookies that I know are stashed in my cupboard. Any tips on how I can control these urges? I'm never able to stop at just one and I feel like I've ruined my whole day of healthy eating by binging on unhealthy snacks!
Snack-ey in Seattle
Ah, yes, the pesky "sugar dragon." We've all done battle with it from time to time, and it can make us feel like we have zero self-control.
1. Make sure you're eating ENOUGH good stuff.
The first thing I look at with clients who want to get a handle on their cravings is what they're eating the rest of the day. Too often, I see that people are eating a small breakfast (or no breakfast at all), sticking to a really light lunch, and coming to a workout on an empty stomach and waiting for an hour or more afterwards to eat again. This creates a pretty extreme caloric deficit that leaves your body really depleted in energy - so by the time the afternoon or evening hits, even if you eat a big dinner, your body is crying out for replenishment in any form. What's the quickest way to get energy? Refined carbohydrates, also know as SUGAR. And before you know it, even if you've made what you think are good choices throughout the day, you're facedown in the bag of Oreos after dinner.
What are some ways I can improve this?
Step 1: Check your breakfast! Starting your day with a meal that's centered around dense lean protein, adequate carbs and fat, and fiber (ie: veggies) is a game changer when it comes to controlling cravings later in the afternoon. Depending on your size, aim for 1-2 palm-size servings of lean protein with your first meal. This can come from any source that you're comfortable eating - although I prefer meat/fish for most people, there are alternative options if you have digestive or ethical issues with animal products. Making a conscious decision to front-load some of your calories by making your breakfast a bit more nutrient dense can really help offset that evening hunger.
Step 2: Ensure you're getting adequate food, especially carbs, around your workout. Do you exercise first thing in the morning, before you eat? Your body's preferred fuel source for intense activity is carbohydrate (it can technically survive on low or no carbs, but surviving is not the same as thriving). If you're already eating a diet that's fairly low in carbs AND you're doing tough aerobic exercise (think strength and conditioning at our favorite House, or long runs on the weekends), you're demanding a lot of your body's energy systems. Being intentional about replenishing those depleted stores can help you manage cravings later in the day. And giving your body just a hint of fuel before you train allows you to work harder in class, which translates to finding more intensity and lifting more weight, which in turn means you keep getting stronger and faster!
2. Make sure you're drinking enough water.
If you're chronically under-hydrated, your body will look for energy anyway it can. Aim for half of your bodyweight in ounces of water throughout the day, but don't go crazy! If your urine is totally clear and you're going to the bathroom every 15 minutes, you can probably back off a bit. Feeling bored with just water? Feel free to turn it into tea (hot or iced), seltzer up, or add some fruit or cucumbers for flavor.
3. Write it down
You can't modify what you don't measure. Jotting down what you're eating for regular meals, the times of day you tend to crave sweets, and what you're eating when you feel like you're going overboard can give you an objective picture of the effect these instances are having on your progress. When we see it all written in front of us, it becomes easier to find patterns in your behavior. Do you tend to crave sweets more on days that you've slept poorly? What about on days that you worked hard in the gym or were more active than usual outside of the gym? Ladies, do your cravings coincide with your menstrual cycle? Do you tend to reach for sugary things after a stressful day? Are you consistent with getting more protein with breakfast?
Don't make this complicated! Feel free to jot notes on your phone, in a daily planner, or a simple notebook.
4. Don't make it harder than it has to be.
The ultimate goal is to cultivate a sense of sanity and control around food. It's freeing to be able to enjoy a treat every once in awhile without going totally off the rails (it's never just a single cookie or glass of wine that stalls progress, of course, it's when the single cookie turns into the entire bag, which then results in a weekend of junk food binging with a pledge to "start again on Monday.") While you're working on creating new habits, though, give yourself a little grace and make things as easy as possible. If you know that ice cream is tough to resist, just commit to keep it out of your house for awhile. Want some ice cream? Go for a walk to your nearest fro-yo place, get a serving, enjoy the crap out of it, and let it be done. Love nut butter? Try a single serving packet of Justin's instead of buying an entire jar and spending the next days forcing your willpower muscle to obey. And of course, when you do indulge, make sure it's TOTALLY worth it. Think Grandma's special Christmas cookies or dessert at your favorite fancy restaurant over stale birthday cake in the office kitchen or leftover mac and cheese from your kid's plate...and then make sure your very next meal is balanced and back to basics.
Got questions or want to work individually with me? I offer discounted one on one consultations to FUELhouse members, helping you build sustainable habits for better health, performance, and body composition. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or to schedule an appointment. Here's to a life that's healthy, happy, and delicious!