We’ve all been there, you’re working hard, trying to keep it super-healthy. Then all of a sudden, you’re struck with a monster craving for something you know you shouldn’t be eating. What do you do when that craving just won’t budge? Why are you having these cravings in the first place? Today, I’m shedding some light on this topic to help you understand where your food cravings come from, and how you can get a handle on them.
Common Causes of Food Cravings
It’s important to understand what triggers food cravings. Let’s discuss some common causes first, to get a better idea of where these cravings come from.
Our bodies are complicated machines, with all kinds of different signalling pathways. This allows us to function as the complex beings we are. However, it also means that sometimes we make mistakes when interpreting these signals. One common mistake we make is interpreting thirst as hunger, as these signals tend to be very similar.
Another theory used to explain cravings is that we crave certain foods when we are missing vital nutrients. These cravings tend to be for specific items the brain equates with the nutrient we are missing. Inadequate nutrition can also lead to hormone imbalances which can further fuel food cravings.
I’ve talked about this a little before, but many of the processed foods that are common in today’s diet have been formulated to be addictive. Food manufacturers aim to perfectly balance the quantities of fat, sugar and salt in their products, in order to create a strong pleasure response in the brain. The idea behind this is that by causing consumers to become addicted to their foods, they’ll boost sales for their products.
This technique, while detrimental to the population, is extremely effective. These pleasure signals come from the reward centre of the brain and have often been shown to be as strong as the pleasure response caused by addictive drugs.
Dr. Neal Barnard speaks to this in his program for reversing diabetes:
“Here is the most important thing to understand about cravings: They are not caused by weak will or gluttony. Cravings are triggered by biological properties of the foods themselves. That is, certain foods have chemical makeups that cause us to crave them in very much the same way that drugs, alcohol, and tobacco have addictive components.” – Dr Neal Barnard
Not only do these foods cause addiction, but they also skew our palates and pleasure responses. As a result, real foods no longer taste as good or elicit the same amount of pleasure. Instead, consumers are driven to eat more of these unhealthy addictive foods, starting a vicious cycle.
Our hormone systems are very complex in nature. Many hormones create multiple responses in the body at once. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is involved in the fight-or-flight response and helps to temporarily increase energy production. Cortisol has also been found to increase appetite and cravings for high-calorie foods.
Low Serotonin Levels
Low serotonin levels could also be a big factor. Serotonin is a chemical produced by our bodies that is associated with feelings of happiness. It acts as a natural mood stabilizer. When levels are normal, you tend to feel happy, calm, focused and stable.
Many report food cravings tied to emotions like stress and sadness, that are often associated with low serotonin levels. Eating certain foods, like carbohydrates, tends to raise serotonin levels, resolving the cravings for food.
Tips to Fight Food Cravings
So now that we understand a little more about where food cravings come from, how do we fight them?
Today, it’s very common to find people who expend a lot of energy taking care of others, but spend very little energy on themselves. While the intentions are good, you can’t fill from an empty cup. So, these first few tips are all about the things you should do for yourself. As it happens, they are also very effective at curbing food cravings.
Its common advice given to those wanting to lose weight, but it’s good advice for all of us, stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids during the day to stave off dehydration and keep cravings in check. When feeling hungry, a good first step is to have a glass of water and wait to see if the feeling resolves. So, keep a water bottle handy during the day and take a drink when food cravings hit.
Get Your Sleep
Poor quality sleep or lack of sleep can significantly increase food cravings. Your body needs the energy to continue functioning, so when you don’t get adequate rest, it looks to food to get the boost of energy it needs. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt hormones responsible for appetite. This can lead to strong food cravings. Aim to get sufficient sleep each night and you should see a reduction in cravings.
Eat a Nutrient Rich Diet
This is one area where I must seem like a broken record, but friends, nutrients are important. Inadequate nutrient intake has been shown to cause food cravings, as well as impact hormone production. By consuming a nutrient-rich diet, you ensure your body has all it needs to continue working hard for you. Not only will this help you stay healthy, but it will also help you avoid food cravings, the natural way.
Extreme hunger will cause extreme cravings. When you go too long between meals, your brain is not likely to let you forget so easily. To avoid this, eat nutrient-rich foods regularly through your day to stave off strong feelings of hunger and cravings. Also, be sure you’re eating adequate calories in a day. If you aren’t consuming sufficient calories you can be sure you’ll be suffering from food cravings regularly.
Food Choices Count
What we eat can have a big impact on our food cravings. These next few tips cover some choices you can make to keep cravings at bay.
Avoid Addictive Foods
This is a no brainer, but also an unpopular piece of advice. Avoid addictive processed foods. They are not formulated with your health in mind. If you cut these from your diet, you’ll stop feeling the addictive pull of these foods. Be aware that you may feel some intense cravings and some detox symptoms (depending on how much processed food you were eating) at first. It may take a couple of weeks before your cravings and palate go back to normal, but it’s worth it.
Ditch the No Calorie Sweeteners
The diet industry loves to lead people to believe in magical products that just don’t work. One of those is artificial or zero calorie sweeteners. These lead people to believe that they can continue indulging their sweet tooth without the extra calories. The problem with this is that you never break your palate of that intensely sweet taste that it craves. As a result, naturally sweet foods, like fruit, will continue to seem ‘not sweet enough’ to resolve that craving. Instead of moving from processed foods to artificially sweetened foods, eat whole foods (like fruit) when you have sugar cravings.
Include Fibre and Protein
Some foods are just more satiating than others. If you find yourself hounded by cravings, aim for a meal or snack that includes both fibre and protein. For example raw vegetables with hummus, or whole grain toast with nut butter. Beans and legumes have also been found to reduce food cravings. The combination of fibre and protein will leave you feeling satisfied longer.
Peppermint has also been found to blunt food cravings. Try sniffing some peppermint oil, eating something minty or brushing your teeth with a minty toothpaste. Brushing your teeth has the added bonus of making any food consumed afterwards less palatable. As such, a great way to avoid snacking in the evening is to brush your teeth after dinner.
Physical activity has been shown to increase serotonin and other feel-good hormones that may be responsible for food cravings when levels are too low. When cravings hit try going for a jog, or dancing around to some music. Get your heart rate up to release those feel-good chemicals in your body. Your cravings will quickly be forgotten.
Hunger and food cravings are more pronounced when our minds are idle or bored. This explains why many people find themselves idly snacking while watching TV or a movie. When you feel the cravings hit, get up and get busy to distract yourself. It can be anything from doing some chores to reading a book or calling a friend. Playing a game, doing a crossword or writing in your journal. Change your setting and get your mind engaged and focused on something else until those cravings pass.
Are you someone who always has popcorn while you watch a movie? Or a snack while you watch TV? Does a long car drive usually mean a sugary coffee beverage? Or is a bad day rewarded with chocolate? The brain loves to find patterns in things we do. So, when you consistently associate food with certain situations, your brain comes to expect it, whether you’re hungry or not. You can end these kinds of cravings by breaking these associations. It may take some time for more ingrained habits, but it can be done.
Do Something You Enjoy
Especially when trying to kick a processed food addiction, engage in activities that bring you pleasure but do not involve food. Take a bath, listen to music, or paint your nails. Any activity that you enjoy doing will help. Bonus points if this includes physical activity.
Plan Meals in Advance
I know I’ve talked about meal planning before, but it’s helpful in a lot of ways. On a daily basis, we make hundreds of decisions, many of them involving food and food selection. By planning meals in advance, you don’t allow mood or cravings to influence your food choices.
The Bottom Line
It can be frustrating to continually battle food cravings while you’re trying to eat healthier. With many potential causes, it can be hard to manage them. The good news is, a diet of whole plant foods will fill you up with fibre and essential nutrients without causing abnormal cravings as processed foods do. Removing those processed foods will take care of the majority of food cravings for most people. You also now have a bunch of tips and coping strategies to help you give your cravings the boot.
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