Diabetes Hunger and Food Cravings | Reducing Your Increased Appetite
How can you tell the difference between real hunger and a temporary craving? The latter is inevitable when you find yourself making dietary changes, as is common for people recently diagnosed with diabetes who are changing their dietary habits.
But submitting to cravings can lead to overeating, blood sugar spikes, and other avoidable health consequences. Therefore it is important to learn to understand when your body is craving something and when it is truly looking for sustenance.
Occasional cravings are normal, but frequent cravings encourage you to habitually make often unhealthy choices. Using the following information and tips, you can better manage your diabetes and overall maintain healthier eating habits.
The Diabetes Diet
This subheading is a bit misleading, as there is no real “official” diabetes diet. Everybody is different, and every individual has different needs. However, any person with diabetes will have to adjust their diet at least a little bit in order to better manage their health. Significant lifestyle choices are hard to make and even harder to maintain, but for people with diabetes these dietary changes are necessary.
To review, diabetes is a condition where the body’s insulin production or sensitivity is not enough to manage blood sugar levels effectively. Without insulin to transport glucose from the blood to the cells, the amount of glucose in the blood can remain too high and can cause serious consequences over time. Your brain, muscle, and tissue cells all need glucose to function properly.
While some of the body’s glucose stores come from what our body stashes away in the liver, the overwhelming majority is converted from the food that we eat. Since blood glucose levels are crucial to managing diabetes, and our diet informs the amount of glucose we have access to, diabetes and diet are inextricably linked.
There are three types of food that the body turns into glucose:
- Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body — 100% of carbohydrates are converted into glucose. Within this category there are three types: sugars, starches, and fiber. Carbohydrates that are rich in fiber are both nutritious and digested more slowly over time, so they are less likely to negatively impact your blood sugar. Sugary and starchy carbohydrates, on the other hand, are digested more quickly, and your blood sugar will be raised by these foods within 1-2 hours of eating them. As such, these types of carbohydrates can be dangerous if insulin is not appropriately dosed to counteract the coming spike.
- Fats: Only up to 10% of fats are converted into glucose, so they have little effect on blood sugar on their own. It also takes a much longer time for the body to absorb glucose from fat, so it will not cause a significant or drastic change in your blood sugar. Even so, people with diabetes should avoid unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats) as much as possible, and prioritize healthy, unsaturated fats, such as fish and nuts.
- Protein: Some of the protein you eat is converted into glucose, but actually the majority of it is stored in the liver and is not actually released into the bloodstream. If you are experiencing some change in your blood sugar, protein-based glucose is very unlikely to be the culprit. Similar to fats and carbohydrates, there are healthier and less healthy types of protein, so make sure to be conscious of serving sizes if you’re not sticking with a lean or plant-based protein.
As carbohydrates have the highest impact on blood sugar, this is the food group that people with diabetes need to focus on most closely. By avoiding refined and processed grains and snacks, as well as carbohydrates high in sugar, sodium, and unhealthy fats, you can better maintain a stable blood glucose level. Whole grains and carbohydrates that are rich in fiber have lower glycemic index values, so they will have less of an impact on your blood sugar.
If cutting your favorite carbs out of your diet was not enough, you may also find you have to make changes to other parts of your diet as well. Since the presence of excess fatty tissue can increase insulin resistance, modest, doctor-regulated weight loss can be helpful in improving blood sugar management and increasing insulin resistance.
As such, making non-starchy vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, low-fat dairy sources, and healthy fats central to your diet is essential. You should also note that sugary drinks like soda and fruit juice are digested (and therefore impact your blood sugar) much quicker than food, so be mindful of this when you’re looking for something to quench your thirst.
Significantly adjusting your diet can be extremely difficult, and many people with diabetes that try to do so start to experience cravings as a result. In order to stick to a healthy diet and avoid the consequences of succumbing to cravings, learning how to differentiate between real hunger and cravings, and learning how to resist the latter, is a useful tool.
Hunger vs. Cravings
The best definition of hunger is that it does not discriminate. This means you are less likely to be hungry for a particular type of food, and are instead hungry for food and nutrients in general. This makes sense, as hunger is your body’s way of telling you it is ready for more nutrients. Hunger will not appear suddenly, but rather will grow gradually, and will not go away even if you distract yourself.
Cravings, on the other hand, are more sudden than hunger, and are typically focused on a particular food or flavor (usually salty or sweet). We would probably welcome cravings if they made us want to eat fruits and vegetables more often. But unfortunately we tend to crave foods that are bad for us.
Let’s be honest: cravings do not come along when you are busy at work or in the middle of exercising. More often than not, you start to crave foods when you are feeling bored or restless. And while the cure to cravings is certainly not to pack your schedule to the point of having zero time for yourself, distracting yourself when you feel a craving coming on can be extremely effective.
If you are unsure whether or not the sensation you are experiencing is hunger or a craving, go take a walk, call a friend, drink a glass of water, or read a book, and see if the sensation remains even after you have distracted yourself. If it does, this means your body needs some nutritious food. If it does not, congratulations! You have successfully evaded a craving.
Dangers of Regularly Succumbing to Cravings
Any adjustment to your diet can be difficult to maintain, especially when it involves eliminating or cutting down on the foods you love most. If only the foods that tasted the best were also the healthiest for you! Given this, it is completely natural to feel added cravings after changing your diet. Food is meant to be relaxing and enjoyable, and dietary needs can make eating feel anything but.
Problems arise when you try to balance out an absence of one type of food by then over-indulging in it later on. Not only does overeating counteract any good you may have done for your body by eating more well-balanced meals, it also facilitates rapid blood glucose changes you’ll need to take appropriate action for.
Foods with high sugar contents all have high glycemic loads, meaning they will have a rapid, destabilizing effect on blood glucose. Glycemic load also takes into account for serving size, meaning it is a highly accurate measurement. Since overeating involves eating a food well beyond the recommended serving size, the subsequent spike in blood sugar can be severe.
Almost all foods are best in moderation, but you should be especially strict with high-carb, sugary, junky foods. If you know you are unable to control yourself when it comes to certain types of foods, remove them from your pantry completely. It’s hard to fill cravings for chips or cookies when they’re not readily available in your house.
How To Reduce Cravings
In order to limit cravings, eat healthier, and manage your diabetes best, follow these guidelines:
- Eat foods that make you feel fuller for longer. In general, well-balanced meals will satisfy your body’s nutrient needs and slow the onset of cravings and/or hunger. Healthy fats and proteins, as well as foods rich in fiber, take longer for the body to digest, and will maintain a sense of fullness. Fruits and vegetables, which contain high amounts of fiber and water, will also make you feel full. Just be careful with certain fruits, as they may contain natural sugars and may negatively affect your blood sugar in high servings.
- Find ways to eat the foods you love in a diabetes-friendly way. Just because you have to cut sugar from your diet does not mean you are doomed to never eat dessert or pizza again. There are plenty of creative ways to make foods healthier for you without losing the delicious taste. The Diabetes Food Hub, run by the American Diabetes Association, is a great resource for finding diabetes friendly recipes (not to mention we’re constantly adding food recommendations and guides to the Banting blog!).
- Regularly check your blood sugar as needed and take medication if necessary. Any dramatic swings can make you feel hungry even when you are not (in addition to other adverse side effects).
- Live a healthy lifestyle. This means exercising regularly, getting 7-9 hours of sleep every night, and reducing stress as much as possible. A lack of any of these things can trigger cravings. If you are looking for ways to minimize stress, frequent exercise and adequate sleep are great ways to do so. Since a condition like diabetes can be stressful or anxiety-inducing at times, limiting stress is helpful to achieve good health.
In order to maintain a stable blood glucose level and manage your diabetes, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is absolutely vital. Quitting your favorite foods, on the other hand, is no easy feat, and will increase your likelihood of acting on cravings and overeating, both of which may cause an unsafe spike in blood sugar.
By eating foods that make you feel fuller for longer, proactively managing your blood sugar through diabetes medication, regularly exercising, being conscious of your diet, and getting adequate sleep every night, you can limit cravings and live a healthier life.