Cravings are pesky little so-and-so’s. But what exactly are cravings? And more importantly, what can we do about them?
Food cravings are extremely common, reported by the majority of young women and over half of young men. The most common food craving is chocolate. As if you didn’t already know!
When you crave something, you get a yearning or desire for a certain food, and they can be intense. So intense that even the drill sergeant major himself showing up on your doorstep could not keep you from the Cadbury’s.
They happen as a result of a pleasure response to food. This is particularly true for chocolate. Cravings for chocolate seem to be largely, if not entirely, sensory. In other words, we crave it because we like the taste of it, the smell of it, and how it makes us feel.
A common belief is that food cravings are as a result of certain nutrient deficiencies. A malnourished brain may lead to depression and extreme mood swings, so just like every other organ in the body, we must nourish it.
Low concentrations of essential fatty acid omega-3, B vitamins, folic acid, and some minerals can affect the way we think, feel, and behave, by disrupting mood-changing chemicals in our brain.
A diet rich in whole foods such as vegetables, lean meats, oily fish, eggs, nuts, legumes, fruits, whole grains, and some dairy will help prevent any of these nutrient deficiencies and potentially lower the risk of depression and extreme mood swings.
Curbing Complex Cravings
If you have a hankering for Haribo, or a craving for chocolate, it’s unlikely because of our bodily wisdom expressing its needs for certain nutrients, but more likely that we are looking for a pleasure sensation hit.
We tend to crave chocolate especially when we feel emotionally low. Chocolate, along with all other palatable foods, stimulate endorphin release in the brain and lifts mood. Other similar feelings, such as boredom, sadness, loneliness, and anxiety can also manifest themselves as food cravings, particularly sweet foods.
Eating carb dense foods and sugar can provide a temporary lifted mood and people often self-medicate by eating an excessive amount of carbs, such as chocolate and cakes, to increase serotonin levels.
But what goes up, must come down, and inevitably a drop in blood sugar will follow and you’ll end up craving more of the good stuff and ultimately feel worse than before. The vicious cycle thus ensues. Not only is this a short-term solution, but it is also a cause of weight gain.
Food deprivation is another very real cause of cravings. Extreme dieting or restrained eating can also lead to increased cravings of the food we’ve deprived ourselves of.
Depriving ourselves of certain foods not only deprives us from energy but also deprives us from eating the foods we enjoy to eat. Eating boring monotonous foods can also lead to increased cravings.
The first call to action is to fix any nutrient deficiencies that you may have by eating a varied balanced diet, drinking lots of water, getting adequate sleep, and indulging in some treats every now and then to avoid feelings of deprivation.
Next, control blood sugars to help diminish sweet cravings. A good approach to keep blood sugars balanced is to reduce refined carbs, eating frequent meals every three to four hours to keep mood swings under control, and eating plenty of vegetables and protein with each meal.
Delay. Distract. Decide.
Instead of masking the cracks of our cravings by eating a spoon of coconut oil (yes, I’ve read that advice), or replacing them with alternative forms of sugar, dig deeper and yank it up by the roots.
Address the underlying cause - our thoughts and behaviours - is a much better way to deal with our cravings, so we can leave the problem in the past.
Instead, play a more active role in your food choices. Be mindful of your choices, and be aware of the consequences of your decisions.
When we get cravings, we usually just cave in. If we cave in to our cravings all the time, we will only continue to strengthen the association between the trigger and the food.
It is hard not giving in, but if we do, we are only making it worse for the next time.
Try not caving in. This will weaken the association between the trigger and over eating, and will become weaker and weaker each time you avoid caving in to your craving.
Win the battle then win the war!
A good tool to deal with cravings is to “Delay, Distract, then Decide”. Delay giving into your craving, by distracting yourself. Go for a walk, phone a friend, even take a shower if the craving is overwhelming, then after 30 minutes decide if you are still have cravings.
The majority of the time you will find that the cravings will disappear.
Before giving in to your cravings, ask yourself “is giving in to my cravings going to help me reach my goals?", “is giving in going to satisfy me in the long run and bring me happiness or is it just a temporary fix that will ultimately leave me frustrated”, "how am I going to feel after I eat this?".
The answer, most likely, will be that it will leave you feeling frustrated, annoyed and guilty. If we give in to our cravings, we are perpetuating a cycle of frustration, anxiety, and further distress.
Also ask yourself, "what if I don’t give in? How will I feel then?" Probably pretty great to be honest!
Then the next time you are tempted, you can recall this feeling of greatness and choose not to reach for the food. Repeat this behaviour enough times, and before you know it, you will no longer be reaching for the food out of habit.
Chocolate Cravings Are Real
This is especially true for the fairer sex and it has been shown that there is a link between fluctuating hormones and chocolate cravings before and during menstruation. But hang on just a second, don't go nuts on the Snickers just yet...
Reach for a few squares of dark chocolate instead of regular milk chocolate. Milk chocolate contains masses of sugar, among other processed refined ingredients, and very little actual cocoa.
Real chocolate has a high percentage of cocoa, has very little sugar, is higher in fibre, and is loaded with good antioxidants. So if you’re going to eat chocolate, get a high percentage cocoa with at least 85%.
So ladies, if you are PMSing, then go ahead, reach for some dark chocolate, treat your taste buds, stimulate your brain and reduce stress hormones!
Thanks for reading,
Karen, your local Nut Coach
[As published in The Herald on 12th Janurary 2015 as part of my weekly nutrition column - Look Good Feel Good]