Food cravings...what do they mean?
Have you ever experienced an intense, overwhelming urge to eat a particular food? Sure you have – no-one is immune to food cravings!
Food cravings are often thought to be the body letting us know that we are missing out on important nutrients. For example, some people claim that chocolate cravings are linked to low magnesium levels, and cheese cravings linked to low calcium levels. However, this ‘logic’ doesn’t quite work out in reality. If our body could tell us exactly what our nutritional needs were, most of us would be craving food like vegetables and legumes, not potato chips and muffins!
Perhaps cravings have less to do with our nutritional needs and more to do with psychology and hormone responses. We have listed six of the most the most common reasons, and how to overcome them. If you experience food cravings regularly you need to read this!
1. You’re not getting enough sleep
Lack of sleep can affect your hormones controlling hunger and fullness (ghrelin and leptin), resulting in food cravings. People who don’t get enough sleep often crave sweet and fatty foods – in fact, researchers from the University of Chicago recently demonstrated that people who had a good night’s sleep ate 400 less calories from snacks in the afternoon. If you fall into this category, try to prioritise rest. Experiment by aiming for 8 hours of sleep for a whole week, and see if you notice a difference!
2. You’re experiencing high levels of stress or other negative emotions
Food cravings can be triggered by specific moods. Chronic and persistent stress has been linked to an increase in food cravings, particularly food high in fat and sugar. Food is often used as a way to remove negative emotions, so during times of stress you may develop food cravings to satisfy emotional needs and ease anxiety. If you are experiencing stress, anxiety or depression, take positive action. Consult a family member, friend, colleague, GP or counsellor – not the pantry! Alternatively, find an activity that comforts you other than eating – such as a warm bath, reading a book, or taking a stroll.
3. Your brain has made strong associations
People often start to experience cravings at similar times each day. For example, the afternoon slump or at night after dinner. If the body becomes used to eating certain foods at certain times of the day, or in certain situations, the brain forms strong neural pathways and makes associations between food and the situation. In other words, we form a habit, which can trigger food cravings. One particular study used MRIs to investigate which areas of the brain are involved in food cravings. This study found that the areas that are involved in food cravings are the same areas that are involved in the brain-reward pathway, which helps us to form habits. It takes patience and persistence to undo old habits, and create new ones. But the thing is you CAN teach an old dog new tricks! Have faith in yourself, and create an accountability system to keep you focused on behaviour change (i.e. a food diary).
4. Your food intake is too restricted
Viewing foods as forbidden or ‘unhealthy’ can actually increase food cravings, with the brain wanting what it ‘can’t have’. This is why going on diets can increase the intensity of food cravings, and be impossible to stick to. Proving this theory, participants involved in a 5-day study, whereby all their nutritional needs were provided through shakes, reported significantly more cravings. Some people respond well to the ‘all or nothing approach’, whereas others don’t. If you fall into the latter category, and are trying to lose weight/improve diet quality, figure out a reasonable quantity and frequency of treats. This amount should be less than what you are currently having, but something you can stick to with confidence.
5. Your food intake is low in protein or fibre or too high in refined carbohydrates
Protein and fibre help to keep you full between meals, and balance out your blood sugar levels. Inadequate protein and fibre intake, paired with excess sugar and starch consumption, can create a ‘roller coaster effect’ with your blood sugar levels, increasing hunger and food cravings. The solution to this problem is easy – make sure to include a quality source of protein and fibre at each main meal and snack. In particular, many of us choose breakfast options low in fibre and protein (i.e. Vegemite toast or sugary cereal) – so consider more nutritious options (i.e. eggs on multigrain or natural muesli with yoghurt)
6. You are dehydrated
Not having enough water can lead to an increase in food cravings in some people. We often mix up our signals for thirst and hunger and end up eating food when a glass of water was all we needed. Keep a water bottle handy and aim to drink approximately 1.5-2 litres of water per day. It helps if you have a pretty, bright bottle to entice you!