Why you crave sugary foods and how to change that

Have you noticed a difference in the foods you tend to eat when you’re stressed? Are you someone that eats a tub of ice cream when you’re sad? Perhaps you have noticed it’s easier to eat nutritious foods when you’re happy or have picked up on what you feel after eating certain foods. Maybe eating a multipack of crisps makes you feel happy while you’re eating it, but your mood lowers as soon as you’re finished. This blog will help you identify the reasons why you crave sugary foods and how to change that.

The mind, body and environment are intrinsically connected, which means the way we treat one impacts the other. The food we eat is instrumental in keeping us happy and healthy. 

Here at RESET, we believe that everything starts with self-awareness so learning your patterns and triggers is the very first step to having a healthy and nutritious diet. We have also started sharing some quick and healthy diets with our clients, which you can access here and here.

The link between nutrition and mental health was not always recognised

In the past, the link between food and mental health was not well understood and the importance was often overlooked. For a long time, there has been a separation between mental and physical health with mental health being viewed solely as a psychological issue and the role of diet not given any attention. Today, we know that our mental health is directly influenced by our diet.

In recent years, research has developed our understanding of this area and increasing evidence is coming to light that the food we eat has a significant impact on our mental health. The World Health Organisation has even identified diet as an important modifiable risk factor for mental health and has recommended that a healthy diet be considered a fundamental component of mental health promotion and prevention. 

Before we look at what a healthy diet might look like, let’s consider why some of us might struggle to achieve this. 

Why do I eat my feelings or why am I “emotionally eating”?

One way that we can see this mind-body-environment connection is when we emotionally eat. We are triggered by something in our environment, which leads us to feel anxious or sad; we then might use food as a way to cope with our emotions which has an impact on our body. 

So why do we eat emotionally? While emotional eating does lead to temporary relief, it can also get us into a vicious cycle of overeating, then feeling ashamed, then overeating again, and so on. If you are someone who struggles with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression then your brain has found a way to cope. However, this relief is often short-lived and can ultimately lead to a more negative impact on your mental health as we can often shame ourselves for overeating. If we shame ourselves for overeating this can lead us to overeat even more, and we get stuck in a vicious cycle.  

There are several reasons we tend to emotionally eat and these are all due to processes in the brain. So, for instance, when we eat something sugary or something that we perceive as pleasurable, the reward centre in the brain is lit up or activated and this leads to the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good and therefore we repeat the behaviour because we want this feeling again! It’s no wonder we eat emotionally, our brain tells us this is a great thing to do!

What does my upbringing have to do with my diet?

The first information we learn about diet comes from our parents and our teachers at school. When we are young we are very dependent on others to feed us and this means we form food habits before we have autonomy. If we grow up in a home where our parents don’t cook us vegetables it is likely we will grow up to not eat vegetables. Now let’s explain why this lack of diversity in our diet might cause us some problems. 

Feeling sad and/or lacking in energy? You might need more diversity in your diet! 

There is one key element to a healthy diet: DIVERSITY. 

Studies have shown that a poor diet is one that is high in processed and sugary foods, low in nutrient-dense foods and low in diversity of foods. This type of diet is associated with an increased risk of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. 

On the other hand, a diet that is rich in nutrients and antioxidants and has a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods has been linked to improved mood, reduced stress and overall better mental health. When we eat a nutrient-dense diet, we are less likely to have a deficiency which can impact our brain functioning thus leading to a negative impact on mental health. 

Some examples of nutrients found in foods that have been shown to be great for mental health are:

  • Omega 3 fatty acids found in fish like salmon as well as nuts and seeds have been shown to improve brain function and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. 
  • Vitamin B12 is important for the production of neurotransmitters that regulate mood, these are mostly found in animal products but if you are vegan, you can get this from fortified plant foods like soy milk and nutritional yeast, or the yoghurt in this Vegan Burrito Bowl recipe!
  • Zinc is important for brain function and has been linked to a decreased risk of depression, this can be found in things like beans (just like the ones in the burrito bowl), nuts and whole grains.

How our diet affects our Gut Health and why that matters

The health of your gut is directly linked to your mental health. This is because the gut and the brain are interconnected through a network of neurons, hormones and other signalling molecules known as the gut-brain axis. The food we eat can directly affect the composition of our gut microbiome (the microbes that live in your gut that run the show), and guess what diet your microbiome likes? A diet rich in diverse plant foods! 

Eating fiber-rich, diverse plant foods that promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria can improve your mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

What do I do with this knowledge?

In terms of diversity of diet, we are not recommending that from now on you cut out all ultra-processed foods and only eat a diet of fruits and vegetables. What we would recommend instead is try to increase the amount of plant foods you are eating in your diet at a pace that suits you! Be creative! Try new recipes! There are so many fruits and veggies out there that you may not have even tried yet. Be adventurous and give them a go. Your mind and body will thank you! 

A paper published by the American Society for Microbiology recommends that eating 30 different plant foods a week is optimum for health and well-being (this includes herbs, nuts, seeds and legumes). However, if you are someone that is just eating five a week, you will feel the benefits just by eating five more a week. Start small and make your goal achievable. 

Eating a diverse diet can also lead to increased enjoyment of food. Food is such a huge part of culture, trying new foods and flavours from different cultures can help us to make eating exciting! 

Tips for a more diverse diet

Some tips for making your diet more diverse are:

  • Try new foods: Challenge yourself to try one new food each week! 
  • Experiment with different cuisine: Look up recipes from a cuisine that you don’t normally eat to get inspiration for new things to try. Maybe Thai, Mexican or Mediterranean!
  • Eat seasonal produce: Eating seasonal fruit and veg can help you to try new things!
  • Don’t be afraid of spice: Herbs and spices can be a great way to make veg that you might not normally like taste great. 
  • Sign up for a veg delivery box: Companies like Oddbox send out fruit and veg boxes that contain fruit and veg considered too ‘odd’ to sell at the supermarket. This is a great way to try fruits and veggies you wouldn’t normally eat whilst helping to save the planet! Don’t worry, we are not sponsored, we just want to help you be healthier and happier 🙂
  • Bring awareness to when you are using food as a coping strategy: Although this isn’t necessarily related to diversity of diet we think it’s an important tip. As we described earlier, emotional eating can impact our mental health and we can get stuck in a vicious cycle. Notice when you use food to cope and see if you can utilise other coping strategies. 

The food you eat has an impact on the way you feel not just physically but mentally too. The gut and the brain are in constant communication and the way we look after one impacts the other. Nutrition can become quite complicated and easily turn into a minefield but, generally, everybody agrees that a diverse diet rich in vitamins and minerals is the key to health and happiness. To get started, you can follow our quick and easy vegan burrito bowl recipe

Shannen Poulton is a Psychology BSc, MSc and Senior Assistant Psychologist at The RESET Health Group with over 5 years of experience in mental health services.

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Why you crave sugary foods and how to change that