Why do we get cravings?
Food cravings are common and we all experience them from time to time. It is described as a strong desire to consume a particular food and quite often, nothing else will satisfy the craving until you have eaten the specific food. Common food cravings include chocolates, ice cream, chips, pretzels, and cheese.
Cravings are thought to be triggered by a combination of social, cultural and psychological factors. We know that our upbringing and cultural background play a major role in influencing our diet and food preferences. Research has found that chocolates and chips are the most popular foods craved in the Western society.
Our body can be ‘conditioned’ to crave certain foods in responses to certain triggers. For instance, you may crave for ice cream or desserts after dinner because you were brought up with the rule of finishing your plate before you get dessert. This becomes a habit that is carried through to adulthood and you will feel that your meal is not complete until you have had something sweet.
Studies have shown that people tend to experience more cravings and emotionally eat when they are bored, stressed or upset. Consuming high sugar foods stimulates reward centres in the brain and triggers the release of endorphins, the ‘feel good’ hormone which makes you feel better instantly. Cortisol and leptin levels are also found to increase during periods of stress. These hormones are linked to cravings for sweet foods and overeating.
Not having enough shut-eye and feeling sleep deprived disrupts hormonal balance, affects appetite regulation and lead to stronger cravings. A lot of people tend to reach for caffeine or sugary food to boost their energy level when they are tired. This may be why some people seek out chocolates and lollies as a pick-me-up to help them get through the 3 pm afternoon slump.
The biggest challenges
The biggest challenge my clients face when experiencing cravings is to try and fight it with their willpower. They know that there are chocolates sitting in the pantry cupboard, but they keep telling themselves they can’t have it. Eventually, it fights back and they cave in. And they think to themselves, “since the damage is already done, why not just finish the whole packet of Tim Tams and I will start the diet again tomorrow”.
Our desire for certain types of food is shaped by our taste preferences. If someone is used to having a highly processed diet consisting of high fat, high sugar foods, their taste buds are trained to crave the same type of food. For example, when a person is used to drinking soft drinks regularly, water naturally tastes too bland and unexciting so they tend to reach for cordials, juices or flavoured milk to satisfy their thirst. If they are looking to change their dietary habits, they will need to retrain their taste buds.
Tips for managing cravings
1. Do not skip meals
If you are skipping meals and making the mistake of only eating when you get to the point of ravenous hunger, you will be more likely to make poorer food choices. The key is to have regular meals and snacks and try to eat something every 3 to 4 hours.
A nutritionally balanced diet will help to promote consistent energy levels throughout the day and minimise cravings. Include complex carbohydrates that are low in glycaemic index such as wholegrain breads and cereals, brown rice, sweet potato, legumes, and lentils. They will provide you with a slow release of energy and do not cause your blood sugar levels to fluctuate. Ensure that you are also including a high-quality protein food at each meal to keep you fuller for longer. Good sources of protein include eggs, lean meat, poultry, nuts, legumes, and yoghurt. Filling up your diet with fresh produce and minimally processed food will leave little room for less healthy choices, a practice we refer to as ‘crowding’.
2. Remove the temptation
Do a pantry clean out and get rid of the lolly jar at work. Once they are out of sight, it will be out of mind. Only buy treat foods when you feel like it instead of keeping a stash at home or you might end up bingeing on them.
Another tip is to avoid doing a grocery shop when you are hungry. You will be more likely to pick up less desirable choices, particularly the highly processed food because they are on sale. Online grocery shopping is great if you are easily tempted by bargains so you can avoid getting unnecessary items.
3. Find a distraction
When you have a food craving, find a distraction that will take your focus away from food. Take your dog out for a walk, phone a friend or have a shower. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, also known as the ‘feel good’ hormones. Endorphin reduces stress and will help to reduce food cravings.
4. Get enough sleep
Aim to get about 7 to 8 hours of sleep per day. A well-rested mind will help you to boost productivity and get through the day without needing to reach that extra cup of coffee. As a parent with a young toddler, I recognise it when my body craves for coffee and chocolates when we have had a ‘bad night’ in the household.
5. Be in tune with your body
Learn to identify your triggers for cravings, then develop strategies to manage them. This is more effective than trying to rely on your willpower. If stress is a trigger for you, have a bath and put on some soothing music or try deep breathing techniques. Go for a walk along the beach or at the park to get some fresh air.
Practice mindful eating techniques to help you develop an awareness of your eating habits. Learn how to distinguish between physical hunger and cravings. Avoid distractions when you are eating, slow down and take time to enjoy every mouthful.
Remember that food cravings are absolutely normal. The key to a sustainable diet is to focus on having a healthy, nutritious diet with minimally processed food and leaving some room for an occasional treat. Having a piece of chocolate and enjoying them mindfully is better than depriving yourself long-term as it can lead to bingeing.
There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods. Food is food and it is not the end of the world if you ate chocolates. It certainly doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person so don’t beat yourself up for it.
Part of this article was featured in The West Australian on May 8th, 2018.