How to curb your sugar cravings

While you may roll your eyes at the thought of salivating over a bowl of vegies, research shows we can do just that.

While you may roll your eyes at the thought of salivating over a bowl of vegies, research shows we can do just that. Photo: Stocksy

Rebecca Harwin used to constantly hunger for junk food. She ate sugary cereals for lunch and gorged on chocolate when her energy levels dipped. As her weight ballooned, she grew tired of fighting each longing.

She decided her cravings - and their effect on her body - had to stop.

The 41-year-old began by adopting a dietitian's dream regimen: eggs for breakfast, a simple salad for lunch and a low-carb, vegie-loaded dinner.

Instead of sugary treats, Harwin snacked on fruit and nuts. "I found that when I ate this way, any cravings just disappeared without really having to try," she says.

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Unfortunately, conquering that desire isn't always that easy. After all, explains Sydney dietitian Lyndi Cohen, we're "biologically programmed" to crave foods rich in sugar and fat. But wouldn't it be great if we could train ourselves to hanker for foods that not only taste good but are good for us, too?

While you may roll your eyes at the thought of salivating over a bowl of vegies, research shows we can do just that. The study, published online in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, used functional MRIs to scan the brains of overweight or obese adults in response to food images.

At the beginning of the study, the participants' brain "reward centres" lit up when shown high-calorie foods such as fried chicken and doughnuts.

Six months later, brain scans of those who lost weight through healthy eating showed their reward centres activated in response to low-caloriefare such as lentil soup and vegie sticks with hummus. The participants were just as excited about the healthy stuff as they would once have been over the sugary or fatty grub.

While that all sounds good, can a plate of broccoli ever satisfy a true chocolate craving? According to Cohen, it is possible to train your brain. She says there are two components to those urges, habit and taste preference, with habit playing an important role. "If you get into the habit of eating in front of the television, next time you sit down to your favourite show your body will expect food and you will likely experience cravings," she explains.

By forming healthier habits, you can weaken this learnt response. For example, if you always tuck into chips in front of the television, replace them with an apple. In time you will not only expect an apple, you may actually crave it.

Changing taste preference takes three to six months, says Cohen. Firstly, you'll need to cut back on the levels of salt, sugar and fat in your diet. That way, when you eat those components you'll be more sensitive to their flavour.

"While food will initially taste bland, your taste buds and preferences will adjust over time," she says.

Once you've adjusted to a healthier diet, Cohen says your cravings will be less frequent. The key is to not give in.

"Psychologists refer to this as 'urge surfing', which is really about noticing the urges and 'riding the wave', so to speak, without needing to act on it," explains psychologist Louise Shepherd from the Sydney ACT Centre, which offers counselling and behavioural therapies for people with food issues.

She says people often eat the foods they're craving at the "peak of a wave" and fail to realise that after some time that urge would have subsided.

To avoid hitting that "peak", Shepherd suggests changing your routine so you're not vulnerable when most likely to be struck.

"For example, take a short walk around the office to chat to a colleague instead of popping down to the shop to grab a bag of lollies at 3pm."

Thankfully, Rebecca no longer needs to pop down to the shops for a 3pm sugar hit. Since embracing a healthier diet she has = said farewell to mid-afternoon energy slumps. Even better, her previous food urges are gone.

"I might have a hankering for a banana or some dates," she says, "but it's never that 'give me chocolate now or I'll eat your arm off' kind of craving."