The hunger games

Eat smart to kill food cravings before they begin. Sujata Mukherjee tells you how

  • Published 3.01.18

Winter is a season of challenges for health-conscious foodies. You have been fairly disciplined throughout the year about what you eat and how much but faced with the buffet of deliciousness - Christmas cakes, gajar ka halwa and all the deep-fried, fatty food you meet at weddings - your control may crack and the healthy lifestyle you have been maintaining goes down the drain. When you finally face the bathroom scale, you find you have added more kilos in these two months than you have in the whole year, not to mention all those rolls of visceral fat and that spike in blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol-triglyceride for those who suffer from such problems.

You will be even harder hit if you have been restricting your calorie intake to 1,000 per day - that is crash dieting. A study at the University of Toronto, Canada, found that such a restricted calorie intake for just three days brings down the level of the hormone leptin - which helps regulate energy balance by sending the brain a fullness or satiation signal -- by 22 per cent. On the fourth day, the person tends to gorge on 44 per cent more calories from carbohydrate-rich food.

People facing a lot of stress are also fighting a losing battle with healthy eating. Stress leads to excessive secretion of the hormone cortisol, which controls blood sugar levels and regulates metabolism. We usually look for relaxation or satiation when cortisol sends a signal to the brain. This leads us to look for comfort food - usually something laden with fat and sugar. If, at the same time, you sleep late or are an insomniac the problem gets compounded. A University of Chicago, US, study found that the less you sleep the more satiation hormone (leptin) you need (18 per cent) to feel full; ghrelin, the hunger hormone, also rises by 30 per cent. The result: you feel very hungry. Your craving for starchy and sweet food rises by as much as 45 per cent!

Endocrinologist Dr Satinath Mukherjee explains the reason behind these cravings. "Our body has some thrifty genes. In ancient times, when food shortage was the norm, the body had a tendency to save some calories whenever one ate something, even if just a bit of nuts or grains. We still possess that propensity to save calories. This is why our brain encourages us to gorge on high-calorie food and save 'precious' calories. Unless you have a strong will power or know the trick to bog down craving, you fail to resist extra-sweet, fatty or salted food."


Have roasted peanuts, salad or cheese-pineapple-cherry along with your drink. The protein in peanuts and glucose in fruits brings down craving. Alternate a glass of water with every drink. Sip slowly. 

First pick a low-calorie dish such as a soup or salad and savour it for 5-7 minutes. When you hit the buffet, spend at least half an hour with the first few items. It needs at least 20 minutes for the brain to get the 
signal that you are no longer famished. Otherwise, you may overeat.  

If there is a choice between buffet and sit-down dining, always opt to sit down. In the traditional way of eating, you feel full faster as the dishes arrive slowly and your satiety centre gets enough time to signal you are full. 


• When extremely hungry, you crave unhealthy food, either calorie-rich or processed, and also overeat. To avoid this, stick to fixed timings for meals.

• Make proteins a big part (at least 25 per cent) of all your meals. This decreases you cravings by 60 per cent and cuts night cravings by half.

• Chew sugar-free gum to cut down craving for sweet or salty food.

• Sleep 6-8 hours a day. Less sleep leads to more cravings.

• Extreme emotions such as anger and sorrow can push you towards food for solace. Instead, listen to music, exercise, pursue a hobby or socialise.

• A bout of craving lasts 3-5 minutes. Try to hold out. If you can't, take a brisk walk or do light exercises for 15 minutes. Then treat yourself to a tiny potion. However, if you can't stop at a bite, don't start.

• Eat smart; if you are craving potato chips have nuts or popcorn; choose almonds or dark chocolate over chocolate; eat fresh fruits for dessert.

• Caffeine fights craving so have coffee or tea, without sugar, every day.

• Do not use a sugar substitute. Sugar makes you feel full because it excites the satiety centre of your brain; sugar substitute does not. "This is why I advise diabetics or obese people to have a little bit of sugar in their tea or coffee. This helps to cut down the craving for sugar," says Dr Mukherjee.