I used to think that I had experienced food cravings; I had grabbed a Cookie Time at the petrol station, I had scoured the cupboards for a box of crackers, I had experienced the 3pm hunt for anything sweet I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t until I was an utterly exhausted mother of a young baby that I really knew what a true craving was. It was when I couldn’t believe there was no chocolate in the house, when I was outraged about it, when I had to call up my Dad and ask him to rescue me, because I couldn’t possibly sort this out by myself. He arrived, a massive slab of Dark Ghana chocolate in hand, my knight with shining (foil-wrapped) treasure.
I had experienced cravings when I was pregnant of course too, but these were of a different nature. I would have a nap in the afternoons during my first trimester and wake up ravenous for green stuffed olives and cottage cheese on toast. Second trimester it was mandarin season and I bought huge bowl-fulls of beautiful organic mandarins that I would completely devour in two days. When she was born I estimated my daughter was ⅓ mandarin.
Forgive me my autobiography, but there is a lesson here. Our cravings tell us so much about what our body needs, but sometimes it isn’t what we think we need, and isn’t what we WANT! I recently read that over the past year 100% of women and 70% of men have had some kind of food craving. If this is even close to being true, most of you will understand the strange urgency that can overwhelm us when it comes to seeking specific foods.
Sometimes food cravings tell us what we need to make up for what we’re lacking- for example my mandarin craving was probably a sign that I needed Vitamin C, bioflavonoids, and heaps of fluids to support my growing baby. Thankfully mandarins supply all those quite nicely thank-you! And cottage cheese and olives? Definitely my baby was needing a protein and calcium hit methinks. Again, these foods fit the bill.
The other kinds of cravings are the ones where we crave a food that is actually not doing us any good at all. Some foods have an opiate-like or drug-like action in our bodies, especially if we are sensitive to them, and therefore we crave them just to get our hit! Sugar can be like this, as can dairy and gluten.
So sometimes food cravings serve us, like when they remind us that we need to eat, and sometimes they do NOT, like when they compel us to eat the whole packet of chocolate biscuits… for the fourth night in a row.
- Nutrient imbalances:
Low levels of any number of essential vitamins and minerals can have a huge impact on our appetite and cravings, specifically: Zinc, Iron, Magnesium, B Vitamins, and Chromium. These are some common ones, but everyone is so unique, and it’s always worth identifying your own imbalances and addressing them.
As an important aside here, most pre-menstrual cravings that women get before their period each month can be sorted out with good diet, and the right supplements. Often B vitamins, magnesium and zinc are all indicated and can be so helpful!
- Reactivity to foods:
As we outlined above, sometimes we actually crave what isn’t good for us. Whether it is the drug-like effect already discussed, or by other means, many people report that they hanker after the foods they know they react to. If you have a really close look at the foods you crave, do they make you feel good? Does that feeling last? Sometimes the immediate ‘gratification’ we get is just a dopamine or serotonin (happy hormones) surge, and after that wears off, we are left feeling rubbish. As with all the ways we learn about ourselves, this can take some brutal honesty and courage to sort out!
There is a theory that says that many of our food cravings or feeling of hunger are actually our bodies crying our for water. Try having a decent glass of water every time you have a food craving and waiting fifteen minutes to see if it endures.
- Stress, emotion and adrenal fatigue:
There are so many ways in which our emotional state affects our appetite, our desires, and the foods we choose. This is in part hormonal, and in part more complex. When stress persists we either don’t eat at all and live on caffeine and adrenaline, or overeat in the most outrageous ways. Everyone is different. If we don’t eat enough or rely on the ‘false’ energy that comes from our stress hormones ramping us up, then this sets up all sorts of cravings as our body is hanging out for some real food. For others who over-eat with stress, food has a calming effect and so becomes our comfort. Emotional eating often serves to divert our attention from uncomfortable feelings we don’t want to feel, so if this sounds like you, it might be worth taking a few deep breaths before you eat and bring more awareness to your food and food choices.
Salt cravings can kick in with chronic stress as the adrenal glands become depleted, so if a packet of chippies is your go-to snack of choice, consider whether there are pressures in your life that have accumulated over time.
- Not eating the right foods, or Not Eating Enough!!!
If what we are eating is too sweet, too easily converted to sugars, too rapidly broken down, or too ‘empty’, it won’t sustain us for long enough and we will start looking for more food and more energy pretty quickly. What keeps us feeling full and happy in our tummies is protein and fibre.
Protein takes longer than carbohydrates to break down into energy, and fibre bulks everything out nicely and literally ‘fills you up’. There are lots of different kinds of fibre, but for the purposes of keeping you full, any of them will do. This means having enough whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains etc. If a food is ‘empty’, that means it really doesn’t have anything going for it- no nutrients to feed your body with, just refined flour and sugars that give you a rapid blood sugar rise and then disappear into nothingness, making you reach for the next one. Lollies, donuts, slices, pastries are mostly in this category. Additionally, the more sugar you eat, the more you want- your taste buds get used to foods being hyper-sweet, and come to expect this. If you start to reduce your sugar intake, you will be amazed at how subtle and fine-tuned your palate becomes.
In the same way that sugar gives you an energy hit that quickly disappears, coffee or caffeine can do the same, even if you don’t take sugar. Because coffee triggers the release of stress hormones in the body, giving us that nice sensation of being alert and oh-so-capable, it also mobilises stored sugars to be released into the bloodstream, giving us a double whammy of stress with a side of sugar. Cutting down your coffees can make a huge difference to your other cravings too. I have seen so many clients who give up their morning coffee be amazed by how they stop having afternoon sweet cravings.
Also many people simply don’t eat often enough, thinking that two or three times a day is ample. This is especially so for those who are weight-conscious or over-stressed and busy. If you don’t eat enough real food, often enough, it stands to reason you will ‘crave’ something for your body to run itself on. Having good quality snacks and eating often enough (5-6x daily) can make a huge difference to our ‘cravings’.
So if you are having insatiable cravings, consider these steps:
- Identify and address nutrient imbalances
- Identify foods you may be reactive to
- Drink plenty of water!
- Cut the coffees, cut the sugar
- Assess whether stress or emotion is a contributing factor to your cravings
- Eat protein and fibre-rich foods with every meal and snack to maintain good blood sugar balance, satisfy hunger and feed the body!
The final word on this has to come full circle back to my story about being a tired sleep deprived breast-feeding mama. When I was really tired, I couldn’t figure out if I was hungry or thirsty or what it was that I needed. I felt like no amount of food or water could be enough to fill me up. What I needed was sleep. If you’re tired, you’ll want some energy to prop you up, it’s simple. What does quick energy look like? Sugar, caffeine, more sugar. Does this last? No. When it wears off, you need more…and more and more. And what you really need is a good roast chicken dinner and to be put to bed for a ten hour sleep. So if you are reading this perhaps you need someone to come and tuck you in too. Just saying.