Defined as “an intense desire for a specific food”, this desire can sometimes seem uncontrollable and typically is only satisfied when the person gets that particular food.
Some experts believe that food cravings tend to last only about 3-5 minutes (Medical News Today, 2017). For anyone who has ever tried to diet knows that food cravings can be the major roadblock to a healthy food regimen and weight loss. Luckily, the team here at FINA has identified the main causes of food cravings and ways in which they can be overcome and managed. Read on!
Cravings for certain types of foods are caused by the regions of the brain that are also responsible for memory, pleasure and reward (surprise, surprise!). A hormone imbalance, such as that of leptin or serotonin can cause imbalances in those regions of the brain causing a craving for foods. Emotions may also be involved in food cravings, typically due to the habit of eating causing comfort or a certain pleasure, mirroring an addiction to food for certain body and brain responses.
Pregnant women, particularly, may experience strong cravings, due to hormonal changed that can disrupt their taste and smell receptors.
There is a strong possibility that your food cravings are actually trying to tell you something about what’s missing or needed in the body. Carbohydrate or refined sugar cravings (pizza and donuts sound familiar?) can sometimes occur due to blood sugar levels dips. Unfortunately, blood sugar dips can also be caused by eating those groups of food in the first place, due to the “rebound” effect of insulin quickly absorbing that sugar into your cells. Basically, you are essentially creating your own vicious cycle.
So how do we stop these selective or non-selective cravings, whatever the cause? Well, it is first of all important to identify what exactly is causing these cravings, as nutrient-deficient cravings can easily be solved by taking the appropriate supplements or trying to incorporate a more healthy and balanced diet into your life. Habitual or emotion-based cravings are somewhat harder to shake, though not impossible. We break down our top 10 coping mechanisms when it comes to cravings:
1. REDUCE STRESS
Stress can be a major reason for food cravings and can influence eating behaviours, particularly for women. Women under stressful periods of time have been shown to eat significantly more calories and experience more cravings than non-stressed women (Healthline, 2018). Though easier said than done, combatting stress can be as simple as taking more walks outside, practicing mindfulness and meditation, making sure you are working out regularly and engaging in fun social activities with friends and family.
2. DRINK WATER... LOTS OF IT
Hunger and thirst are often mistaken as they produce very similar sensations in the mind. One of the simplest and healthiest ways to reduce cravings is to quite simply make sure that the body is hydrated, meaning at least 2 litres of water every day - trust us when we say this is often the miracle cure for a lot of ailments and body related concerns.
3. GET YOUR Zzzz's
This should be written across your forehead at this point, however, sleep is absolutely vital for the proper functioning of the body and the brain and incidentally also happens to affect the body’s hormonal imbalance if it does not receive enough of it. A 2013 study found that such imbalances can heavily contribute to overeating and weight gain (Healthline, 2018).
4. EAT MORE PROTEIN
A healthy and balanced diet should incorporate plenty of lean sources of protein, which are shown to reduce cravings and overeating. A health journal “Obesity”, found that overweight men were ablate reduce their cravings by up to 60% by getting 25% of their daily calorie intake from protein and furthermore reduced nighttime cravings by 50%. Lean sources of protein include white-fleshed fish and skinless white poultry meats, though red meats can also be a source, provided they are “round” or a “loin”.
5. AVOID HUNGER
Hunger is one of the biggest reasons why we might experience intense cravings, as the body is physically depleted of nutrients. To avoid getting extremely hungry and overeating, make sure you are eating regular meals (three or more times a day) and having healthy snacks at hand for when you feel snackish.
6. REPLACE YOUR CRAVINGS
In some cases, cravings should be satisfied to avoid starving the body and leading to an “unhealthy food lapse” later on. This doesn’t mean, however, that we’re giving you the green light to eat an entire Cadbury bar and choosing more nutritious and healthier alternatives can soon become a habit you look forward to. Some alternatives to the most sought after food salty and sweet cravings can be: nuts, dark raw chocolate, whole or dried fruits, sparkling water with a dash of lemon or cut up veggies.
7. PRACTICE MINDFUL EATING
You might have heard about this practice in movies and diet books, however, it is essentially a type of meditation, just relating to food and eating as opposed to the stresses of life. It teaches you to develop a deeper awareness of your eating habits, emotions, hunger, cravings and physical sensations. It draws on the practices of distinguishing between cravings and actual hunger and helps you chose your response, instead of acting mindlessly or impulsively. Eating mindfully teaches you to really be present when enjoying a meal and avoiding unhealthy habit forming activities such as eating in front of the TV or your computer.
BREAKING BAD HABITS
A naturopathic approach to eating identifies three types of hunger which once you understand, helps you to identify what’s really stopping you from losing weight and start squashing those bad habits.
1. STOMACH HUNGER
A purely 'medical' hunger also commonly known as hunger pangs. Hunger pangs, or hunger pains, are caused by strong contractions of the stomach when it's empty. This uncomfortable sensation is often accompanied by hunger, or the desire to eat. Despite being called “hunger” pangs, these pains don't always indicate a true need to eat.
It'll be very hard for you to manage your mouth hunger or heart hunger if you don't first take care of your hunger pains. This is done by making sure you are adequately nourished throughout the day, honouring and respecting your body's physical need for food by not skipping meals.
2. MOUTH HUNGER
Mouth hunger arises whenever your mouth (or rather tongue) feels like its craving something, whether it's sweet, fatty or salty. If we really begin paying attention to our body and mind, we would understand that such cravings are really only in our mouth! Mouth cravings typically occur after we eat certain foods. And the fix is always simple. When I eat any 'bad' delicious carb-heavy meal (like a plate of carbonara or a cheesy pizza), I always feel like I'm then craving a cookie or a milkshake, not because I actually want one but because the tongue wants something sweet to follow the fatty and salty.
Mouth hunger is satisfied by the senses. The mouth is a sensation junkie, an organ of pure desire. "We were born with a mouth that desired food. Without it we would have died. The mouth desires variety, variety in flavor and texture. If we are not aware of what is happening in the mouth, the mouth feels chronically deprived and convinces the hand to keep feeding it more" (Jan C. Bays, Mindful Eating, 2009). The key to battling this type of hunger is to start bringing awareness to the changes and sensations that are going on in our mouth when we eat good fuel. Even when the meal is simple, like an overnight soaked oats bowl, when you place awareness and curiosity to the experience, the dullness all of a sudden turns to something entirely different and surprisingly satisfying.
A practical quick fix would be to brush your teeth straight after you eat certain bad foods, quite literally removing or 'scraping' the craving off your tongue before it can convince the mouth otherwise.
3. HEART HUNGER
Alternatively called “emotional eating” (Dr Allana Polo, Naturopath), heart hunger is triggered by feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion. This is easier explained by the body’s need for positive associations accessed through eating. Every time you get this type of hunger, ask yourself: Is the food I’m about to eat a reward?
Acknowledge the times that you’re eating to soothe or silence emotions and find a better outlet for them instead. Finding a hobby that gives you the same feel-good hormones such as exercising is a good way to channel your emotions away from overeating. If you feel your emotional eating has gone too deep, seek the help of counsellor so that you can really untangle the roots of the problem.
THE BOTTOM LINE
We all experience cravings, whether sweet, salty, constant or rare, selective or non-selective. It is important to distinguish between the different types of hunger and the underlying cause to be able to approach this barrier to a healthier you. Understand whether you are craving certain foods out of habit, emotional connotations, nutrient or vitamin deficiencies and start taking measures to replace those habits with new healthier ones and not beating yourself up if you do let in to your cravings once in a while, after all, we’re just human!