Somewhere between the hours of 3.00pm – 5.00pm, a great, hungry beast awakens in our bellies and demands a quick dose of what we usually consider to be ‘sometimes’ food. You know the creature – he’s the one that directs us towards the biscuit barrel or the chocolate stash or the microwavable popcorn. The more you try and ignore him, the angrier he gets. Are we destined to be subservient to our beastly cravings for the rest of our days, or is it really possible to take charge and avert the daily carbohydrate overload? Well, it helps to understand the biology that underpins our behaviours.
We’ve Got Chemistry, You and Me
Serotonin – you might know that this hormone makes you feel generally contented, and gets a good, healthy boost after exposure to sunlight, but did you know that carbohydrates play a role in its regulation? Having carbohydrates readily available in the body encourages the production of serotonin, which in turn helps to control hunger and cravings. Rather than seeing carbs as the big dietary evil, incorporate good quality carbohydrates into your diet, particularly at lunchtime. How can you pick a useful carbohydrate from an unhelpful one? Well, there are few accepted definitions out there, but the best place to start is to consider the Glycaemic Index (GI).
Why Oh Why Should I Think GI?
You’ve probably heard the terms low GI and high GI, but what do they actually mean? In simple terms, the higher the glycaemic index, the quicker your blood sugar levels will spike and crash again. Choosing low GI carbs eliminates the extreme peaks and troughs that throw our appetite into chaos. Examples of low GI options that will keep you satisfied for longer include: beans, fruit, grainy bread, porridge, lentils and soy products. Pasta is also considered low GI, but the total glycaemic load can still be high with large portions. At the other end of the scale, high GI carbohydrates include potatoes, short-grain rice (the kind used in sushi), and products made from white flour. This includes white bread, biscuits, cakes and muffins. If you plan your lunch around a moderate-to-low GI, you have a better chance of avoid the afternoon hungries.
Cortisol – The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is produced by our adrenal cortex whenever we feel under threat. It’s an area of the body that also produces adrenaline, and both hormones are a part of our body’s ‘fight or flight’ response which we evolved to respond appropriately to situations that might endanger us physically or mentally. Unfortunately, cortisol is not just produced in situations of healthy stress, like exercising and getting ready for work, but also in circumstances where we feel overwhelmed, under-slept, under pressure and overworked. This means cortisol’s usually helpful role in regulating nutrition can easily become skewed when we produce too much of it, and uncontrolled hunger and weight gain can ensue. Stress is not easily controlled in the moment, but a longer term strategy involving healthy coping, regular exercise and adequate sleep can change the way you handle stress.
When the Beast Strikes
Despite your most carefully planned breakfast and lunch, you can’t always prevent the maddening urge to crunch and munch away your afternoon. Keep something sensible on hand, whether you’re at home, at the office or on the move. The sooner you tuck into something small when those first pangs strike, the quicker you can regain control and get on with your day with renewed purpose. Preferable options include a handful of walnuts, a tub of unsweetened yoghurt followed by a piece of fruit, chicken or smoked salmon sandwich made with low GI bread (rye is a terrific choice), some dry Vita-Weet crackers with ricotta or hummus dip or a small tin of baked beans.
Always ask yourself if your hunger is genuine, or whether it is in fact boredom or restlessness. A good test is to start with a cup of tea or coffee and reassess fifteen minutes later. Sometimes, what we’re really after is a quick time out to re-gather our thoughts and renew our enthusiasm, and we find that our stomachs are pretty happy after all.