A lot of you have asked me to write about how to manage food cravings. I have a section about cravings in my book Good Food, Bad Diet, but I can tell you right now that cravings aren’t the horrible thing you’ve maybe been conditioned to believe they are. You don’t submit to your cravings because you have no ‘willpower.’ Cravings are powerful forces, as you probably know.
The good news is that you can use your cravings not only to figure out what you’re missing in your diet, but also to help you heal your relationship with food.
So yeah, we’re going to put a positive spin on food cravings today. I know you’re all down for that, right?
First off, let’s talk about the difference between cravings and hunger, because they’re two completely different things. I’ve done a nice graphic to show you what I mean.
Even though at times you might not be able to distinguish between cravings and hunger – and sometimes, you might have both – it’s important to know what these feelings are that you’re having.
There has always been this belief that we crave foods with the micronutrients our bodies need, but that has never been proven.
In the case of a condition called pica, which is more common in pregnancy, a person will crave inedible substances such as chalk, laundry starch, or dirt. Even then, we aren’t sure if that’s a function of a micronutrient deficiency.
And even though most food cravings appear to be emotion-based, there are some chemical reasons why you might have them.
Women tend to have food cravings during the luteal phase of their cycle (aka right before your period), because of fluctuations in progesterone, estrogen, and serotonin.
A 2017 study in Obesity showed that the appetite hormone ghrelin plays a role in ‘hedonically motivated food behavior’ – aka what I feel when I’m full, but there’s chocolate cake in front of me. The study suggested that people with greater baseline levels of ghrelin tend to have more food cravings. Stress and dieting are two things that elevate ghrelin. We already suspect that stress may cause food cravings, whether that’s rooted in blood sugar, or in a higher level of permissiveness and desire for a reward – as in, ‘I’ve had a bad day, I deserve that ice cream.’
So what else do we need to know about food cravings?
Eat enough. Especially carbs.
Not eating enough or shorting yourself on carbs can lead to cravings. If you’re on a low-carb diet and can’t stop thinking about what you can’t eat aka sugar and bread, you may need to add some of those things back. A lack of carbs may trigger a release of neuropeptide Y, which may increase cravings for carbs specifically, although this research has been mainly done in animals.
Aside from being miserable AF, low calorie diets may elevate cortisol, increasing appetite and fat storage.
Sleep as much as you can.
I know, it’s hard. Especially if you’re a parent. But missing out on sleep can mess with hunger hormones, and lead to food cravings, especially for quick-energy carbs. Our body knows that sugar and other refined carbs = quick energy, so that’s what we tend to crave when we’re tired. Listen to your body!
A recent study in the journal Sleep showed that a lack of sleep has also been shown to activate the endocannabinoid system. This system is thought to regulate a host of physiological processes, including appetite. When subjects were sleep deprived, researchers found that their endocannabinoid levels were increased, which in turn increased their preference for hedonic eating.
Cravings can be situational.
Do you always feel like something sweet after a meal?
How about that sudden craving for popcorn when you walk into a movie theatre?
I used to bring carrots into the movies because I wanted to avoid eating popcorn. I’d laugh at the memory, if it wasn’t so sad.
Anyhow, food cravings can be situational, but these tend to be habits. There is no physiological need for sweets after dinner. If you tend to crave the same thing at the same time every day, ask yourself why you want this food. Are you bored? Hungry? Are you looking to fulfill a non-hunger need with food?
If you’re in a certain situation that seems to trigger a desire for a particular food, stop for a second and really listen to what your body wants, instead of habitually and automatically making a connection between a situation or location, and the food.
Do you love eating popcorn at the movies because it contributes to the experience? Is it something special that you don’t want to do without? Or, is it just a habit that leads to a behaviour that doesn’t really need to happen? Cravings can eventually subside if you distract yourself, but it’s up to you to determine on a case-by-case basis if that’s the direction you want to go in and if you believe that letting your craving go is going to be fulfilling…and successful.
That being said: eating out of pleasure (not hunger) is okay, and it’s part of what makes our lives full and happy. You should be enjoying food! But it’s important to be intentional about eating, too. Meaning, knowing why you’re consuming something and being able to do it mindfully.
I’m not going to tell you to take yourself out of the situation, because there will always be another situation with another craving. But learning to anticipate them and meet them head-on instead of avoiding them can really make a difference.
It’s okay to satisfy your cravings!
Let’s stop looking at food cravings as these negative entities that are hell-bent on destroying us. We’re human. We crave stuff. Get over it.
If you have a craving that just won’t quit, satisfy it.
When you don’t, this is what happens:
You crave chocolate.
You don’t want to eat chocolate, because it’s ‘bad’ for you, and you think that once you start, you won’t stop.
To avoid eating the chocolate, you eat something that’s completely unrelated to chocolate, like fruit. And let me tell you right now, that nobody I’ve met in my life, has ever satisfied a chocolate craving with an apple. So all of those ‘how to satisfy your cravings’ articles online that tell you to eat something ‘naturally sweet, like fruit!’ to blunt a craving, are full of shite.
After you eat the fruit, you still want chocolate.
Eventually, after eating a bunch of other food in a bid to hide your chocolate craving, you give in and eat the chocolate. Except by then, you REALLY want chocolate, because you’ve told yourself for so long you couldn’t have it. So you eat more of it than you would have originally, because you know that tomorrow, you’ll be back to forbidding yourself from eating chocolate.
The cycle continues. AGHHHHHHH!!
Let’s take this from the top, with a different perspective:
You crave chocolate.
You get some chocolate, and you eat it. (Here’s a great recipe for mug brownies, FYI) You enjoy the chocolate, but you know that you can always have more, so you don’t feel the need to eat a ton of it.
Or, you eat more than you intended to, but you understand that sometimes, we overeat and that’s okay.
You go on with your life.
Doesn’t that sound better?
Once you start telling yourself that no food is off-limits, you might be surprised at how your cravings diminish.
In order to get on that road, we all need to let go of the ‘shoulds.’
Telling yourself that you should eat something you don’t feel like eating, because some external influence told you to, only leads to sadness. Seriously.
You need to get rid of the ‘shoulds.’ The ‘shoulds’ happen not because of us, but because of other peoples’ expectations of us that we take on.
I should eat this.
I shouldn’t eat that.
I should be this way.
I shouldn’t do that.
And with food cravings, this stuff comes up a lot:
I shouldn’t eat this cake.
I should eat carrots instead of popcorn at the movies.
I shouldn’t trust myself with food.
I should be ‘good’ and not eat what I want.
Letting go of the ‘shoulds’ frees us up to make the decisions we want to make for us, without getting other people involved. In the end, nobody should be managing your diet and food choices but you.
Food cravings and hunger are different.
Stress, low calorie diets, lack of carbs, and lack of sleep may all impact cravings.
Some cravings are situational, and pop up because of habit, boredom, or to fulfill a non-food need.
Honoring your food cravings and not ‘shoulding’ yourself out of eating what you want can help defuse cravings.