How to overcome food cravings
There was once a school of thought that proposed nutritional deficiency as the reason behind food cravings.
But given most food cravings are sugar, salt and fat and these aren’t ingredients or foods that our bodies necessarily require for good nutrition, it may be fair to say that these cravings are stemming from a want more than a nutrient deficiency or need, lifestyle factors, emotional triggers or hormonal imbalances.
Our bodies are such incredibly powerful machines, relying on the intricate interaction of hormones to function, and when one hormone becomes imbalanced it often creates a cascading effect within the body.
Sweet cravings can result from an imbalance in leptin, one of the hormones controlling energy intake, energy expenditure and the master hormone of appetite. Balance of leptin and insulin are often affected by weight gain and obesity, resulting in reduced leptin or leptin resistance and an increase in the sweet tooth sensation.
The effect of this imbalance is that we often crave and eat more sugar which never really satisfies the sweet tooth or our brain. Weight gain and increased leptin resistance is often the result. It’s a vicious cycle and can be particularly challenging to break.
Exhaustion, and more specifically (and increasingly) adrenal fatigue, is another major causative factor for food cravings. Both exhaustion and adrenal fatigue can lead to increasing sugar and carbohydrate cravings, because it is these foods which give our bodies quick fix fuel and energy in the form of glucose.
Addressing these issues by implementing a stress management plan and consulting a natural healthcare practitioner or doctor is vital to reduce the ongoing effects of exhaustion but more specifically for the balance of our hormones. This ensures the depletion and changes in cortisol and adrenalin, our primary stress hormones, does not further impact other hormones.
Hormonal change such as during premenstrual syndrome/menses or pregnancy for women can also be the cause of food cravings.
If we take premenstrual syndrome as our example, many women experience cravings for chocolate. While chocolate does contain magnesium, which can improve energy and reduce cramping, the reality is most of the chocolate women reach for is usually laden with sugar and doesn’t truly have the nourishing benefits of good quality raw cacao blended with wholefood, unprocessed, unrefined ingredients.
So when that time of the month hits (or the 9 months for that matter too) and the chocolate cravings come crashing in, perhaps question whether it’s a timely triggering ‘want’ and justification for eating chocolate or whether the need instead could be switched to magnesium rich foods such as leafy greens, raw cacao blended into smoothies or warm milk (without the additional sugar hit) or nuts and seeds to help balance the cravings and provide nutritional support.
Different regions of the brain – the hippocampus, caudate and insula – that are responsible for emotion, memory and reward are activated by certain foods, experiences and the connection between the two. From my time in clinical practice, the notion of food as a reward has proven itself as the key trigger for food cravings stemming primarily from:
- complex emotional issues – work, personal stress, relationships
- feeling the need for personal ‘rewards’
The impact of this reward based system with food however, is our brains very quickly become addicted to opioids produced and the high experienced from eating your trophy, resulting in very little engagement and consciousness with what, how much and why we’re eating. Long term this can lead to very complicated relationships with food and habits hard to break. The first step to break the cycle? As with most food cravings…mindfulness is key. Stop, check in, breathe, regroup and then decide if this is the best practice in dietary habits for you.
Lifestyle factors such as social media, daily routine and exercise have a solid contribution to food cravings too. We simply cannot ignore that, thanks to social media, we are more frequently bombarded with images of food (good and bad) coffee, chocolate and all other sorts of #foodporn. Unless you physically switch off (phones and apps) it’s basically inescapable.
So, we’re left with a couple of options to reduce the cravings and the addiction to both social media and taste sensations.
Limit your social media to three times throughout the day: morning, lunch and evening. Sounds tough to start but it’s worth it. Social media always sucks more time from your life than the five minutes you think you’ve spent on it, and the exposure in that time to insane images of food can result in another five minutes or more of thinking about the food you’ve just seen.
Or, if that’s too much to handle, and social media prevails, at least let the food not have the same addictive effect. Should you see something you like and begin to crave, journal it and understand why these triggers are so strong for you.
If dinner always leads to dessert, enact change to make room for something other than food cravings. Step away from the kitchen completely, brush your teeth, switch off the tv and read a book (it’s much harder to read and eat than watch tv and eat), or make a pot of herbal tea and hit the sack. All great habits to form after dinner and a nourishing, peaceful way to wind down into restorative sleep too.
Exercise can be a double-edged sword when it comes to food cravings. It can be one of the more effective means to reduce them, but often post exercise people ‘allow’ themselves to dive into foods, primarily rich sources of carbohydrates to either replenish energy or as a reward.
If this sounds like you, try this approach instead: have a meal or snack prepared to have immediately after exercise with a good balance of quality protein, carbohydrates from vegetables and a good spoonful of healthy fats to refuel. The body needs proteins to restore muscles after exercise before anything else so these should be the focus. Once you begin retraining the way you think about post-exercise replenishment the cravings begin to curb.
Liked this? Read these!
Got something to say? Get it off your chest here
The Juice Daily is a Fairfax Media owned website