At one point or another in life, most people will experience a strong hankering for a specific food, known as a craving. Some commonly craved foods include chocolate, sweet treats, salty indulgences, and foods that are high in fat — your classic comfort foods. Cravings like this are fairly common, with one study showing 97% of women and 68% of men to have experienced them. So why do we have food cravings and where do they stem from? Are there any strategies you can use to combat them? How do you deal with them once they strike? Keep reading to learn about the science behind food cravings and what you can do to fight them off.
Firstly, let’s think about why people get food cravings. There are many different possible reasons. Some speculate that cravings signify a deficiency in certain important nutrients. But is the science there to back it up?
In certain instances, this is indeed true. For example, a condition known as pica can occur when things not thought of as food are eaten, such as dirt, ice cubes, or paint chips. Gross! In some cases, pica can indicate malnutrition or iron-deficiency anemia, and the craving will disappear once the deficiency is corrected.
However, a lack of nutrients isn’t always at the root of your cravings. As noted earlier, salty foods are a common craving, but most Americans have plenty of salt in their diets — some might say too much! If it’s not a nutrient deficiency, what else could be at the root of our food cravings?
For some people, the restriction of certain foods or dieting can trigger cravings. If something is off-limits, you’re more likely to want it, leading to an unhealthy cycle of restricting, craving, indulging, and overeating.
People often eat as a way to cope with overwhelming feelings. We call this emotional eating, and it usually stems from sadness rather than physical hunger, but still contributes to the food craving cycle. For example, if you eat chocolate when you feel down, your body might train itself to want chocolate every time you feel upset. This is called a conditioned response.
Strategies and solutions
Now the possible root causes of food cravings have been established, let’s jump into some solutions. Remember that every single person, their situation, and relationship to food is unique. What works for one person might not work for another. With this in mind, here are some tips to help you handle food cravings when they strike, or keep them at bay altogether.
Balanced meals and snacks
If you’re skipping meals or eating fewer calories than your body needs, you may notice those cravings creep in. The solution here is to make sure you’re eating regular meals with the right balance of nutrients and calories for you, spread throughout the day. Avoid getting into a state of over-hunger by including nutritious snacks in between meals to tide you over until the next mealtime.
Get enough Fiber
Fiber can help you feel fuller faster and also promotes heart and digestive-system health. However, many Americans don’t eat enough fiber in their diets. The amount of fiber we need varies from person to person, but on average, females need around 25 grams each day, while men need about 38 grams. Some fiber-rich foods include beans, whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. Yum!
Upping your daily fiber comes with a caution: increase your intake slowly to avoid stressing your digestive system, and be sure to drink plenty of fluids alongside it.
Don’t forget Protein
Like fiber, protein also plays a role in helping the feeling of fullness for longer. Focus on lean protein for overall health, such as skinless poultry, fish, beans, soy products, and low-fat or fat-free milk or yogurt. Make sure your meals and snacks have a good source of protein.
Keep your stress in check
Cravings can sometimes stem from emotions such as stress, sadness, or boredom. If your emotions are triggering you to head to the snack cupboard, replace this response with something that will address those feelings. Lots of people find calling a friend, writing in a journal, or going for a walk really helpful.
Get enough ZZZs
Lack of sleep can cause your body to mix up the feelings of tiredness and hunger, so it’s really important to get your beauty sleep! Most adults need between seven and nine hours a night.
For some, totally avoiding the food you’re desperate for can make the cravings even worse. Try allowing yourself a small portion of the food you’re craving now and again. When a food is no longer off-limits, it becomes less desirable. If you do try this strategy, make sure you treat yourself to just a small serving, and stash the original container somewhere out of sight. This way, you won’t accidentally eat more than you meant to.
Try a healthy swap
For others, indulging just a little can be a slippery slope. If one bowl of ice cream quickly turns into three or four, you should consider a healthy food swap instead. Here are some ideas that can help satisfy different types of cravings:
-Fresh veggies: snap peas, carrots, celery, cucumber, jicama, bell peppers
-Small bite of dark chocolate
-Cocoa with a low calorie or calorie-free sweetener, such as stevia
-Low-fat or fat-free plain yogurt with cocoa powder, lightly sweetened if desired
-Unsweetened chocolate flavoured almond or soy milk
-Fresh or dried fruit
-Frozen banana, thinly sliced or blended
-Plain low-fat or fat-free yogurt topped with fruit
Salty or savory
-A few olives
-Avocado toast or guacamole
-Hummus with pitta bread or whole-grain crackers
Soda or sweetened drinks
-Unsweetened sparkling water
-Infused water: make your own by adding slices of fresh fruits, cucumber, or fresh herbs like mint, basil, or rosemary.
-Add a splash of juice into plain sparkling water for a lightly sweetened sparkling beverage
If you feel preoccupied with food, experience a loss of control when eating, or if you’re concerned that you may have an eating disorder, it’s important to seek professional help. You can find additional resources through the National Eating Disorder Association.
Liz is passionate about helping people improve their health and wellness through lifestyle and nutrition changes, and she is especially interested in diabetes prevention and management. Liz enjoys working with clients to find individualized strategies to improve their health in ways that last. Outside of work, you will likely find her rock climbing, biking, or spending time with her family.
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