Do you find yourself never being able to go to bed at night without having 1 or 2 chocolate chip cookies on the counter? Why do crispy, salty potato chips always call your name when you get home from work?
What are food cravings?
A food craving (also called selective hunger) is an intense desire to consume a specific food and is different from normal hunger.
What causes food cravings?
I talk a lot about our bodies being extremely smart and sending us messages, either physically or emotionally. I feel it’s important to listen to these messages in order to take control of our health and create a healthy relationship with our body.
Cravings can be tricky though. They can definitely be a message from your body about what food you need most in that moment, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. We have been conditioned by the modern world through advertisements, misinformation and unhealthy eating habits which results in us losing touch with what we really should be eating. Cravings have both biological and psychological components.
Beyond the physiological reasons for food cravings, they often have more to do with emotion and desire. They usually tell you what you WANT rather than what you NEED.
Stress, sadness, boredom, poor self-esteem, and negative body image can all be the culprits which make you want to reach for that slice of chocolate cake for comfort. This will release feel-good hormones in your brain, but it doesn’t last very long (a few minutes perhaps). In these cases food serves as a substitute for entertainment or to fill a void which isn’t being met.
Cravings for something sweet like chocolate, cream buns or candy bars is the most common craving. In this case, the craving IS communicating a particular message to you: your brain wants sugar. Now most people think this is bad and feel a lot of guilt and shame around this craving. They’ll either give in to their favourite junk food (and feel even more guilty) or force themselves to eat a high protein or fat dish instead, which will just result in your body crying out for more sugar soon after. Even savoury foods like pizza fall into this category because of all the refined sugar in the crust and toppings. Dairy is another one you might not suspect as a sweet craving, but the lactose in dairy is very high in sugar.
Understand that natural sugar is essential for brain function and this craving is your body telling you it’s tired and needs support. So it’s important to realise that this craving is OKAY and to be grateful your body is sending you this message. Thank it and give it what it needs by eating some dates, bananas, figs or blend up a big smoothie with coconut water and fruit. Nourish your body with what it truly needs.
When you crave caffeine it is also your desire for an energy boost. Caffeine is a stimulant which causes increased neuron activity in your brain, which in turn results in the release of a hormone adrenalin. This process gives you an immediate boost of energy, but in the long run it dehydrates you and puts stress on your adrenals causing you to feel more tired.
Leptin is a master hormone in the body that controls hunger and feelings of satiety. Leptin is secreted by fat tissue, so the more overweight a person is, typically, the higher their leptin levels. This can lead to leptin resistance, which reduces your ability to perceive your real appetite. This leptin resistance is sensed as starvation by the body, so you can experience out of control cravings.
A healthy diet with processed sugary foods, also high in fat, contains ingredients that actually trigger chemicals in our brain to become addicted and want more. They are also what you call empty calories – high in calories, low-to-no nutrition. So you literally feel like a bottomless pit because it never nourishes your cells and your body craves more food because it hasn’t got what it needs.
Eating unnatural foods, high in salt and sugar, increases the production of endorphins in the body, which make us feel relaxed. So when we eat these foods and experience this feeling, we want more! Did you know that sugar can actually give you a more intense feeling of reward than cocaine?
Gut biome imbalance
On a physical level, the bacteria in our gut control what we crave. If we have a higher amount of bad bacteria we will crave unhealthy processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt, whereas if we have more good bacteria we will crave healthier foods.
The feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, is produced mainly in the gastrointestinal tract and is directly tied to our moods and appetite. When our levels are low, we crave that hit of sugar which increases the immediate release of serotonin making us feel happy (temporarily). A low serotonin level is due to poor gut health as 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut.
If you are transitioning to a healthier lifestyle, your body will be eliminating old toxins from the body. When you are letting go of your favourite comfort foods you will also be letting go of the emotions related to them. Before you release those emotions you will need to feel them first, which will probably make you crave that food. The same when the old toxins hit your bloodstream to get transported out, you will crave that particular thing in that moment. Once you understand this process and why it is happening, you can make sense of it and it will be easier to relax, breathe and let that craving pass so you can finally be rid of it.
6 ways to reduce and control food cravings
For many of us, cravings kick into high gear when we’re stressed or anxious. Remember, eating processed junk food will only release serotonin and make us feel happy and calm for a short while, and even extends our body’s stress response in the long run. Instead, find another way to unwind like taking a walk, meditating, doing yoga, lying in the sun or reading a book.
Discover the under-lying cause
What’s the craving beneath the craving? How are you hoping that food will make you feel? The feeling of comfort after a fight with your loved one? A sense of relaxation after a stressful day at work?
Staying in an unhappy relationship, feeling lonely, feeling uninspired by your career, lacking a spiritual practice or exercise routine, can all be reasons for your cravings. Look at all areas of your life; work, exercise, relationships, spirituality etc. Be aware that it may not be the food you desire, but nourishment in another form.
Detox + create a healthy gut
Cultivating a healthy balance of good bacteria in your gut is essential to absorb nutrients from your food, pump out serotonin through your gastrointestinal tract and reset your taste buds to crave healthy foods.
How do we change our gut biome and ensure we have the right balance? By cleansing toxins out of our body and nourishing our cells with whole plant foods. This creates a healthy breeding ground for good bacteria in the stomach which grow and crave healthy food.
Depending on your situation and current state of health there are many detox paths you can go down. You can gently cleanse by cutting out things like gluten, dairy and processed sugar and eating more fruits and vegetables. Or you can speed up the process by embarking on a colon cleanse and juice fast followed by eating a raw vegan or vegan diet. Incorporating a high quality, plant based probiotic, like this one, and eating sauerkraut and fermented foods is also beneficial.
Express your emotions
Rather than expressing our emotions, we tend to suppress them with food, which our bodies translate as comfort and fulfilment. When people have difficulty identifying emotions they’re experiencing and ways to deal with it, they’re more prone to have food cravings. Make sure you’re checking in with yourself throughout the day and tuning in with how you’re feeling. The more authentically we can acknowledge and express our emotions, the healthier our mind, body and soul will be.
When you get a strong craving that feels completely overwhelming, grab a healthy substitute instead, or make something healthy. There are TONS of delicious, healthy recipes out there at the tip of your fingers – healthy versions of your favourite junk foods like pizza, pasta, fried rice, potato chips etc. Always make sure your pantry is stocked with healthy, whole food ingredients which are ready to use.
For example, instead of hoeing into that bag of chips, you can whip up a batch of crispy oven baked potato chips and marinate them with high quality sea/himalayan salt and your favourite spices. Instead of eating a processed pizza, you can make an easy, healthy pizza crust and load it up with your favourite plant food toppings.
Cravings can also be due to our bodies not being which cause low energy and vitamin deficiencies. Ensure you aren’t low in any nutrients by eating an array of colourful fruits and vegetables. If you are feeling low in energy and craving a caffeine hit, opt for fruit instead. It is a great alternative because it provides you with energy from bio-available glucose which wakes up your brain. Eating a highly raw diet is preferable because the food hasn’t lost any of its minerals through heat exposure. A healthy, balanced diet is also the best way to keep a normal balance of leptin in your body and reduce your chances of being swept away by cravings. The more you avoid packaged and processed foods, the more control you have over your food choices.