Dealing with cravings and impulses to eat (or overeat) is a challenge we all face at some stage.
Cravings differ from hunger in that they tend to manifest as an intense desire for a particular food, rather than a desire to eat. What you need to understand is that cravings usually happen for either physiological, hormonal or psychological reasons.
A physiological reason for a craving may occur because of a nutrient deficiency, such as a lack of specific vitamins. However, this is unlikely to cause cravings for sweet or sugary foods as these offer no nutritional value. Having said that, a drop in blood sugar levels generally results in a physiological craving for sugar.
A psychological food craving can result from different emotional states or associations with food. For instance, stressful situations, or bouts of depression may result in cravings for sweet foods as the resultant rush of energy can lift our mood and often heightens our awareness. It is also a natural human habit to seek out feelings of pleasure and comfort, which is why cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods are often linked to a psychological need.
Hormonally driven cravings tend to occur when our bodies release powerful hormones in excess. For instance, high insulin levels can lead to cravings, because it is released when our blood sugar levels rise too high and has the effect of driving circulating sugar levels down.
Similarly, a burst of the brain neurotransmitter dopamine, which acts on the reward centre in the brain to promote feelings of enjoyment and pleasure, and create a brief feeling of euphoria, can prompt a craving for sugar, which has a similar effect. The stress hormone cortisol can also cause spikes in blood sugar when we’re stressed. The resultant dip often sends us running to the pantry cupboard in search for a chocolate or sweet treat. Cortisol can also block the release of leptin and insulin, which can increase cravings for high-energy foods. Many women also report that they crave carbohydrates, sugar and salt before menstruating. The reason is that the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone influence our appetite, how much we eat, and the regulation and distribution of our fat cells.
Therefore, because of the relationship between sex hormones and hunger, you may find that you crave specific foods at certain times during your menstrual cycle.
Here are some ways to keep your cravings in check:
KEEP BLOOD SUGAR STABLE
The best way to prevent or control rampant sugar cravings is to keep your blood sugar levels stable. This can be achieved by eating a balanced meal that consists of complex carbohydrates, proteins and fats at each meal, and fuelling your body with smaller meals, eaten more frequently throughout the day.
KEEP HUNGER AT BAY
It is important to eat before you become too hungry, to maintain your blood sugar levels and prevent overeating at the next meal. The quality of the foods we eat is also important to prevent any nutrient deficiencies that could result in physiological cravings.
ACTIVELY MANAGE YOUR CRAVINGS
It is also recommended that you don’t deny your cravings, as this can cause them to rage out of control. Rather learn to indulge your cravings by eating a small portion – a block or two of chocolate, instead of devouring the whole thing. However, willpower can be fickle. If you find it impossible to maintain control when eating sweet foods, clear your home of sweets and other temptations.
SUBSTITUTE BAD FOR GOOD
Substituting the unhealthy food you crave with a nutritionally sound replacement is another smart way to take back dietary control. For example, try eating apple slices with peanut butter instead of gorging yourself on ice cream and cookies. Or why not aim to eat magnesium-rich foods like nuts, seeds, or a little dark chocolate instead of giving in to a craving for milk chocolate?
Need help with some food swaps? READ: Food Swaps That Help Cut Cravings
KICK THE SUGAR ADDICTION
It is also vital to stay away from processed foods and sugar. To cut sugar from your diet, stop adding sugar to your meals, or during the cooking process, cut out all sugar-sweetened beverages, and read food labels to determine how much sugar is in the packaged and manufactured foods you buy, then buy options with lower sugar contents. Once the sugar withdrawal subsides, you should also experience fewer cravings and will start to regain a sharpness in your taste buds that an overconsumption of sugar usually blunts.
PROVIDE A DISTRACTION
Distracting yourself with a non-food related activity until the craving goes away is another way to resist temptation. When a craving hits, go make a cup of coffee, listen to some music, go outside for some fresh air, or hit the gym! Hopefully when you’re done your craving would have passed. Ultimately, we need to accept that cravings are a part of life, but effectively managing your cravings will give you an edge in your quest to attain the body you want and maintain optimal health.
This article was adapted from a Fitness magazine feature written by Pedro van Gaalen, Managing Editor for Fitness magazine.
Author: Logan Leigh Rix
Logan blends her passion and profession by working as a digital and social media marketer and content creator in the fitness, health and wellness industry. She’s also a personal trainer, former Face of Fitness finalist and Fitness Magazine featured athlete.