Cravings: do you feel plagued by them day and night? Our expert blogger for Health & Wellbeing Renée Leonard-Stainton gives us her tips on how to beat cravings once and for all!
Must. Eat. Chocolate. NOW! We’ve all experienced it… That loud and tenacious voice inside our head consuming us with thoughts of a specific food, convincing us that we won’t be content until we get our fix. That’s cravings for you. They’re pretty darn demanding and while they can (and should) be healthily indulged every now and then, the not-so-sweet side of cravings is that they can lead to overindulgence and unhealthy habits if they’re allowed to get out of control.
Cravings are a natural part of our relationship with food and can occur during emotional disturbances, hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficient diets or strict restrictive diets. Many people seek solace in high fat and/or high sugar foods during times of stress, depression and loneliness. Though cravings feel as though they overtake us without warning and without reason, research shows that they’re actually very predictable, arriving at particular times and in particular situations. You’ve probably noticed that you feel your strongest food cravings at specific times of the day – or month. So, just what triggers these overpowering desires for certain foods and what can we do to keep cravings in check?
Causes of Cravings
Drop in blood sugar
Cravings commonly occur about 3-6 p.m, when our blood glucose drops, making us sluggish and in need of a lift. All it takes now is a fast-food billboard on your drive home or a whiff of baking cookies to potentially bring on a major craving!
Being stressed or upset
Bad moods frequently give rise to cravings. We imagine that if we eat some chips or a chocolate bar, we’ll feel better - and often we do. That’s because starchy or sweet foods increase the secretion of the brain chemical serotonin, which in turn can improve mood.
Cravings are particularly bad in the days preceding a woman’s menstrual cycle. Many women find that they overeat carbohydrates in an attempt to raise serotonin levels to counter the bad moods and mild depression related to PMS. Hormonal changes during pregnancy can also have an impact on taste and smell, leading to bizarre cravings.
Short, wintry days can increase cravings for carbohydrates like bread and pasta. People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (depression related to diminished sunlight-exposure) may be especially affected.
We often crave foods with associations to happy past times. If summer signals fish and chips on the beach with family, we may find ourselves craving this greasy favourite when the weather gets warm. Eating sweet treats like ice-cream can also subconsciously bring back enjoyable days of our childhood. Grabbing a sugary treat is a common stress response and it’s a behavior many adults have been practicing since childhood.
Doing a certain activity may trigger a craving (ie. watching a movie and craving popcorn) or it may be an absence of a particular activity that triggers the craving. Those who stop smoking tend to crave foods as they need to do something with their hands and mouth.
Food cravings often occur while an individual is on a particular diet or weight-loss program. Often knowing a certain food is ‘not allowed’ can cause a craving for it!
Tips to Manage Cravings
Restrict sugar intake
Refined sugar has almost no nutritional value other than the “empty” calories it provides. Not only can we get addicted to the neurotransmitters that are released by the consumption of refined sugar, consuming sugar also causes our blood sugar levels to rise quickly and then plummet back down, resulting in a craving for more sugar.
Start a cravings journal
List down the foods you crave, with the timing when you feel these urges, your emotional status at that time, and the quantity of the food you ate to satisfy your craving. This food journal helps you keep track of specific craving patterns and is a starting point to decide how best you can deal with them.
Exercise releases ‘feel good’ hormones such as serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and adrenaline. Research suggests that people who exercise regularly are less likely to get food cravings.
Eat a balanced diet
The more balanced your diet is, the less likely you are to crave a particular food group. Try to eat carbohydrates, protein and a little fat at every meal. When we eat meals that are lacking in one kind of food, we may be more likely to crave it later. Protein and fat take longer to digest than carbohydrates do, so including them, along with more fiber, in any meal means that you’ll feel satisfied longer.
Give in occasionally
If your craving is especially persistent, denying yourself that cookie or bag of chips will only make the urge more intense. Allow yourself a moderate portion of the craved food.
Distraction helps divert attention from your cravings. Change your environment or situation for an hour and try not to think of food. And, if you still feel you want what you’re craving for, just have a little.
Choose healthy substitutes
If say, your ice cream craving is so intense you just can’t control it, try a healthy alternative like frozen yogurt. If you can’t resist potato chips, choose baked tortilla chips. Prepare a list with healthy food substitutes you can choose from to guide you in times of intense cravings.
Address your stress
If cravings hit when you’re anxious or stressed, seek consolation in other ways rather than turning to your “comfort foods”. What is it that you really need? A comforting conversation with a co-worker, a walk, or a shoulder massage from a friend may do the trick.
Cravings are an innate human experience, and they’re not limited to food. People crave knowledge, love, attention & intimacy… The list is endless really. Depriving yourself completely of craved foods often backfires with an insatiable and almost obsessive desire for that food. A better strategy is to indulge moderately and occasionally and when you do, savour every morsel. Enjoy the sweet satisfaction that you’re not alone dealing with cravings!