Food cravings are downright frustrating, aren't they? They’re one of the biggest reasons for getting off track when you’re trying to make the change to living a healthy life. I think I may be able to help a bit...
- A food craving, (also called selective hunger) is an intense desire to consume a specific food and is different from normal hunger. This desire can seem uncontrollable, and the person's hunger may not be satisfied until they get that particular food. It may or may not be related to specific hunger, the drive to consume particular nutrients that is well-studied in animals. While cravings can mean a number of things including psychological reasons, a strong craving usually indicates your body is low in a specific nutrient, vitamin or mineral. The craving is an indication that it wants to make sure it gets what it needs. The difficult part these days is we have so much processed, unnatural food at our disposal that we often get confused about what our bodies are actually asking for. The foods you crave may NOT contain that nutrient but and often the person eats unhealthy empty calories in place of nutrient-dense wholefoods.
- As for feeling hungry, you need to stop and ask yourself a question, "Has it been several hours since you last ate a good meal?" If so you may well be hungry but is not you may just be bored! Research has shown that 88% of Americans and 84% of Europeans "snack on bad foods" when bored. Do yourself a favor and learn to tell the difference between being hungry and just eating when bored.
Boredom is not the only reason we reach for 'junk food'. Overeating can also be attributed to stress, loneliness, low serotonin and dopamine levels, depression, low blood sugar, boredom and more. Pregnant women famously experience especially strong cravings, which may be due to hormonal changes that can disrupt their taste and smell receptors.
There have been a number of studies that have shown sugar can affect the same brain regions as do drugs and alcohol. People can experience momentary mood improvements when consuming sugar but that will not last long. Unfortunately, the sugar ‘high’ will soon be followed by a serious drop in mood and well-being; this is where people tend to reach for that sugary snack again. This pattern will set them up for an addictive cycle.
Some good news here is that research has demonstrated that food cravings last only about 3-5 minutes. So, knowing this you can better weather the storm of the sudden lust for chocolate, pizza, or that gut-bomb fast food burger. It should be noted that every person experiences cravings differently. Cravings are often for junk foods and processed foods high in sugar, salt, and fat.
White flour and sugar made up the majority of this person’s food intake with some bad fats tossed in for good measure. This person may see their food choices as different but essentially, they were the same day after day, and they will often have strong cravings for refined carbohydrates and sugar on a daily basis and may not even realize this because it’s so natural to them. They have trained their bodies to want more and more highly refined, heavily processed, calorie laden, foods.
What you eat regularly will also be closer to what your body will tend to crave. When a person tells me that they never crave vegetables, but they often crave sugar and salt, this person often doesn’t crave the veggies because their body, to some degree, has ‘forgotten’ how much they need them. You can’t really crave something that you eat rarely. The person in this example eats loads of salt and sugar (which all processed foods provide in abundance) so when they have not had some for a short period of time their bodies start to crave the foods that provide the salt and sugar. The danger with unhealthy food cravings is that it will often stimulate binge eating. This can be a serious health concern as it will contribute to obesity and poor health.
- Selective cravings are cravings for specific foods, which may be a person's favorite chocolate bar, a specific burger from their favorite restaurant, or a bag of potato chips.
- Non-selective hunger is the desire to eat anything. It may be the result of real hunger and hunger pangs, but it can also be a sign of thirst. Drinking water may help with intense non-selective cravings.
There are a variety of ways to reduce unwanted food cravings. These include:
- Reducing stress levels- Stress and emotional eating can influence a variety of health issues. Feeling stressed may promote emotional eating and cravings for comfort foods. One study found that stressed women are more prone to cravings for sweets than women without stress. Eating due to stress may also cause weight gain and a larger hip circumference. Stress may also cause weight gain on its own, without extra food cravings. Stress results in higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which may promote belly fat.
- Drinking plenty of water - Hunger and thirst can produce very similar sensations in the mind, causing it to become confused. One of the easiest ways to reduce food cravings is to make sure the body is hydrated throughout the day. Drinking plenty of water helps clean out toxins from the body, which may also benefit a person's overall well-being.
- Getting enough sleep - A 2013 study found that not getting enough sleep could alter the body's hormonal balance. This imbalance contributes to overeating and weight gain. The researchers noted that when the sleep-deprived participants switched to an adequate sleep schedule, they lost weight, which indicates that their hormones were brought back into balance.
- Eating enough protein - A healthful diet should contain plenty of lean sources of protein, as they have been shown to reduce cravings. A study in the journal Obesity found that overweight men were able to reduce their cravings by up to 60 percent by getting 25 percent of their daily calorie intake from protein. The same study found that a high protein diet helped reduce the desire for nighttime snacks by 50 percent.
- Chewing gum - Chewing gum keeps the mouth busy and may help reduce both sweet and salty cravings. One recent study in Amsterdam found a small but significant difference in sweet and salty snack consumption among people who chewed gum and those who did not. Those who chewed gum rated themselves less hungry, had fewer cravings for snacks, and felt fuller than those who did not chew gum.
- Changing the scenery- Changing habits, such as stopping at the park instead of picking up fast food on the way home, can help to reduce cravings in the long-term. Replacing habits can be difficult, and some food cravings may be due to long-term habits. For instance, if someone gets fast food on their way home from work every day, this practice may reinforce their cravings. In situations like these, it is best to start new habits. This can be as easy as taking a new route home from work or stopping at the park for a quick walk instead. For cravings at home, it may help to take a walk around the block, take a shower, or even call a friend. These things may help distract a person from their craving long enough for it to subside.
- Grow a Garden - Time and again research reveals that gardening has a positive effect on our mental health, it’s called horticultural therapy and people pay big bucks to get it! Some doctors, psychologists, and occupational therapists are now recommending that their stressed or overweight patients start building, planting, tending, and harvesting a garden as it has shown to be a therapeutic process in its own right. Plus, the benefit of a bit of fresh air and exercise is great too.
- Avoiding hunger - A healthful diet does not include frequent hunger pangs. In fact, dieting or ‘under-eating’ can have the effect of making food cravings worse or more frequent. When the body is very hungry, it may crave more calorie-dense foods than usual, including fried and processed foods. Instead of waiting for intense feelings of hunger, it is better to have a regular pattern of meals and healthful snacks planned throughout the day to avoid potential cravings.
- Controlling portions - For some people, completely avoiding the food they crave may make these cravings worse. This can lead to overeating or feeling miserable without that food. In this case, it may be better to satisfy the cravings with a small, portion-controlled treat. It can help to put this treat at the end of a healthful habit, such as going for a walk or completing an exercise routine. If a person is prone to binge eating, a better option is to replace the craving altogether.
So, what are the cravings telling us?
Here is a look at some of the most commonly craved foods, and what you can eat instead to help you stay on target to reach your weight loss goals.
- Chocolate - If you feel like you just can’t live without that chocolate bar, your body might be in need of magnesium, chromium, B-vitamins and/or essential fatty acids. Chocolate is high in magnesium, so it is best to reach for the 100% cocoa in smoothies or snack on nibs or eat the darkest chocolate you can find. Chocolate is also metabolized to serotonin, a mood boosting hormone, so cravings can also be related to an emotional need. Besides healthy cocoa or dark chocolate reach for a loved one, friend, pet or any activity that makes you feel good. Also, try eating a handful of almonds, pumpkin or sunflower seeds. They’re tasty and offer a satisfying crunch too
- Sugar-filled foods - If you’re craving sugar, there are a number of nutrients your body may be craving, oh, sugar. When you want it, this may indicate blood sugar imbalances and mineral deficiencies such as chromium and magnesium. Giving into biscuits, cakes, lollies, soft drinks or other refined sweets will only make the problem worse not better and will cause a blood sugar roller coaster that leads to more cravings. Instead, choose a piece of fruit when you’re craving sweets. Sugar cravings are also more common when you are dehydrated and may signal a need for more water. Chromium can be found in broccoli, grapes and grass-fed chicken. If it’s phosphorous you need, turn to grass-fed chicken or beef, fatty fish like wild-caught salmon, eggs, veggies or nuts. If you aren’t getting enough sulfur in your diet, try cranberries, cauliflower or cabbage.
- Carbs - If you’ve got a craving for carb-loaded foods like bread or pasta, there’s a good chance eating something that’s filled with protein will do the trick. Protein is essential to help keep you feeling fuller longer and more satisfied. Try munching on a handful of chia seeds or almonds. Craving processed flours may also indicate insulin resistance, hypoglycemia (blood sugar fluctuations), chromium deficiency or fatigue. This is separate from sweet cravings, often it can go unnoticed, people often crave crackers, savory biscuits, noodles, white breads, chips, etc. Including more fiber in your diet for better blood sugar control and eating more chromium and magnesium rich fruits and vegetables such as bananas, apples, apricots, capsicum, spinach, beetroot, avocado, broccoli, celery, chard, carrots, kale, and parsnip will help overcome this craving. If it’s time for lunch, grilled, wild-caught salmon is ideal. When time is of the essence, throwing together a quick, easy and healthy protein shake is another good alternative.
- Oily foods - Craving oily foods like French fries, cheese, potato chips, or basically anything else fried, like those especially waistline-damaging fried pork rinds, can be a sign that you’re low in calcium. Milk isn’t the only food that offers calcium – in fact, dark leafy greens are an even better choice! Craving fried foods and other oily foods can indicated a simple essential fatty acid deficiency, simply eating more good quality fats will solve this in a flash.
- Salty foods - Need that bag of chips? This can be aggravated from stress hormone fluctuations and low levels of electrolytes. If you’ve just got to have salt, it might also mean that you’re dehydrated, or you have a chloride or silicon deficiency. Be sure you’re drinking at least eight glasses of water a day, and more if you’re exercising a lot. Consume foods like seaweed and celery to increase chloride levels, and nuts or seeds to boost silicon levels. B-vitamin rich foods are important during periods of stress. Consume foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables. And remember, similar to sugar cravings, salt cravings can result from under hydration.
- Pica - Cravings for non-food items such as ice, clay, dirt and chalk can often mean an iron deficiency or mineral deficiency in general. Consume plenty of dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds for the prevention of pica. This is more frequently seen in children and during periods of greater nutritional need such as pregnancy.
OK, I covered some of this above but in some cases, people can easily satisfy their food cravings by choosing a more nutritious option. Alternatives for some of the most common foods that people crave include:
- Potato chips: To avoid potato chips, replace them with a salty snack that is higher in healthy fats and protein, such as cashews and walnuts. Nuts are high in calories, however, and people should eat them in moderation. Air popped popcorn is also a good replacement for potato chips.
- Chocolate: Cravings for chocolate may be a need for magnesium, and some people find they can satisfy the craving by eating magnesium-rich foods, such as almonds. If nothing but chocolate will do, opt for dark, milk-free chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa. The intensity of dark chocolate makes it easier to feel satisfied with less.
- Candy or pastries: Sugar cravings can be easily satisfied with whole fruits, such as peaches, cherries, or melon. Keeping dried fruits, such as prunes or raisins, on hand may also be helpful for combating cravings on the go.
- Soda: Sparkling water with a squeeze of fruit juice or a slice of orange can replace a craving for soda. It provides a similar feeling to soda but has far fewer calories and no caffeine.
- Cheese: Cheese cravings may be helped beforehand by purchasing low-fat and low-sodium cheeses. Some people also like nutritional yeast on their food, which has a savory, cheesy flavor and fewer calories than cheese. Nutritional yeast is rich in B-complex vitamins and folic acid and is often fortified with vitamin B12.
Don’t let cravings chain you to a life of poor eating habits! After all, once you’ve given your body what it really needs, instead of what you think it wants, that craving is likely to disappear! Be sure you’re drinking at least eight glasses of water a day, and more if you’re exercising a lot. Consume foods like seaweed and celery to increase chloride levels, and nuts or seeds to boost silicon levels.