We have all been there; watching a favourite show on TV and suddenly feeling as if we could die if we do not get our hands on a tub of ice cream, like now. In fact, some of us may be so taken by this urge to eat something sweet that we find ourselves leaving our warm, cozy home to get our sweet fix, or at least convincing our partners to go and get it for us or their lives may not be worth living.
The interesting thing about food cravings is that our food cravings actually give us much valuable information about what is going on in our bodies, and what may actually be missing from our baseline diet. We have all heard the stories of pregnant women aggressively convincing their partners to go in search of gherkins, ice cream and chocolate late into the night, and some would argue that this is simply the body’s way of telling a mum to be that she is in need to certain key nutrients in her diet. For those who are not pregnant, food cravings can also often be explained when we take a closer look at our physiology and what may be happening with our basic blood glucose control.
Hence when it comes to food cravings, understanding and managing them, the real question becomes; not what are you craving but why are you craving it?”
As a nutritionist who works with people to improve their dietary habits, the most common reason that I see people experiencing food cravings is that their dietary intake is not balanced throughout the day. Often a low caloric intake throughout the first half of the day, or skipping breakfast sees people crave sweet food for the remainder of the day. Not eating enough carbohydrate during the day, particularly for those people who also exercise intensely in the morning will in turn result in fluctuating blood glucose levels which can in turn result in strong cravings for sweet food. And then there are the situations in which people may also find themselves with a more specific craving, such as one for steak or fish or crunchy foods. Such cravings may be an indication that a key nutrient such as Vitamin C or iron may be missing from our diet – the body works in powerful ways hey?
Alternatively, a craving can be the result of programming the body to look for certain taste sensations at certain times of day. Such behavioural responses can become more serious dietary issues when it comes to programming our food behaviour long term. For example if you always eat a biscuit with your coffee at 10am, your brain is going to be looking for a biscuit with your coffee every day at 10am until you break the association over a number of days. In such scenarios poor food habits can easily become deeply entrenched as we psychologically link high fat, high sugar foods such as biscuits, cakes and chocolates to certain locations, situations and times of day, eating out of habit rather than desire or hunger. Such cravings need to be identified and ideally managed if we are to control our weight long term.
The good news is that such behavioural food cravings can easily be broken by undoing the food link to certain times of day, particularly when they have been developed with extremely sweet and/or salty foods. While breaking the link by going cold turkey on the food you crave is ideal, if you would prefer a slightly more gentle craving management plan, try at first to delay the craving. Rather than instantly eating one of the foods that would usually satisfy you, try and have at least 10 minutes doing something else. You will be surprised how many times you can eliminate this instant hit of sugar or fat from your diet, by simple slowing down the eating process and re considering if you really do want these flavours in your mouth a few minutes later. In fact a study actually found that a significant number of participants lost their craving for chocolate when they had to go for a walk before they were allowed to indulge the craving with any chocolate.
Secondly, never feed a craving with more of the same type of food. Remember that foods typically craved often have a rich taste and mouth feel. Giving the body more of this intense flavour and texture is only likely to make the craving worse.
Next, you need to change the taste in your mouth. Green tea and iced cold water with a lemon slice are green ways to kill a craving for sugar as can sugar free gum and mints. And of course brushing your teeth is a time proven technique.
Physiological cravings are also completely within your control. Significant drops in blood glucose levels which occur when uneven amounts of carbohydrates are consumed throughout the day are the most common reason individuals crave sugar. Remember that the body actually likes to have a constant stream of glucose to deliver to the liver and the brain and if you go without carbohydrates, particularly if you are training regularly or choose the wrong types of carbs, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to extreme sugar highs and lows. Simply aim to each a slowly digested, low GI carb every three to four, even in very small amounts to help support optimal blood glucose regulation and notice how much more in control of your cravings and food intake you feel.
Remember you never need to be a victim of your cravings and in most cases your cravings are telling you that your diet is lacking in something, somewhere else. Sure an occasional ice cream or chocolate hit is simply human, but demolishing an entire pack of Tim Tams on a nightly basis suggests that the behaviour needs to be examined at a little more closely and the question raised as to why you are really looking for such a hit at that time of night.