The body is an amazing source of intelligence. It's always there for you, pumping blood, never skipping a heartbeat, and digesting whatever food you put in it. Why would this reliable, sentient being have food cravings? Perhaps your diet is too restrictive or devoid of essential nutrients. Perhaps you are living a lifestyle that is too boring or stressful. Your body tries to correct such imbalances by sending a message: a craving.
Cravings are not a problem but don't ignore them since they may be contributing to weight gain, poor health, or mood swings, so it's important to understand why you crave what you crave. Learning to decipher and respond to your body’s cravings may bring you a deeper and lasting level of health and balance.
Craving something sweet could suggest that you have blood sugar fluctuations. When your blood sugar drops, your body may be trying to get you to give it more fuel to keep your blood sugar levels stable. So it's important to choose the right type of food to bring your body back into balance. Giving in to cookies, cakes, candies, or refined sweets will only make the problem worse and cause a blood sugar roller coaster that leads to more cravings.
More generally, sweet cravings could mean that you need more protein or other nutrients. If you specifically crave chocolate, it could mean a magnesium deficiency. A sweet craving could also suggest you need more exercise, more water or maybe even more love in your life. If you are prone to bouts of depression, eating sugar foods releases endorphins that calm and relax us, and offer a natural "high.” The key to stopping the sugar craving is to understand and deliver what your body really needs.
Similarly, if you are craving salty foods like chips or popcorn, it could be related to multiple factors. You could be having stress hormone (adrenal gland) fluctuations. The adrenal glands help your body cope with stress, and in our fast-paced, hectic lives, they tend to become worn out from excessive stress-hormone production. And if you specifically have a cheese craving, you may be deficient in essential fatty acids (healthy fats), while if you have a meat craving, you could be iron-deficient.
The next time you have a craving, treat it as a loving message from your body instead of a weakness. Try these food and lifestyle changing tips to respond to your body:
General Food Tips to Managing Cravings
1) Have a glass of water (preferably with a twist of lemon), and wait 10 minutes. You will be surprised by how fast your craving subsides. And if it doesn't, there are always healthier choices to satisfy your craving.
2) Combine foods. If you are craving something sweet, combine a banana with chocolate sauce, or eat it with 1 or 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. If you are craving chocolate, combine a handful of chocolate chips with 10 to 15 unsalted almonds or peanuts, or mix it into a healthy smoothie or your breakfast cereal, or eat a small amount (a piece of two) of dark chocolate. And eat other foods high in magnesium, such as nuts, seeds, fish, and leafy greens, because you would need to eat a lot of chocolate to meet your daily magnesium requirements!
3) Eat healthier alternatives. You could just eat a healthier version of what you crave:
a) If you crave something sweet, try eating sweet fruits like a small apple, 4 to 6 strawberries, or 2 to 3 small oranges or 1 large orange. If the sweet craving doesn't go after 10 to 15 minutes and you still want something sweet, rest assured you will be less likely to eat the whole bag of M&Ms or bar of chocolate, because of the nutritional sugar you got from the healthy complex carbohydrates in the fruit.
b) If you crave salty/savory snacks, try half a cucumber sprinkled with a little salt, pepper, and lemon juice; a piece of a dill pickle; or 10 to 15 walnuts or almonds. If you crave cheese, eat a handful of walnuts, mix in 2 tbsp ground flax meal in your morning yogurt, cereal, or smoothie, or eat ¼ of an avocado with some healthy crackers, which may cut down cheese cravings altogether.
c) If you crave meat, eat more iron-rich beans and legumes or un-sulphured prunes, figs, and other dried fruits. If the craving persists, eat lean, organic red meat like lean beef or bison. Whether you eat meat or not, eat vitamin C-rich foods that help with iron absorption regularly with your meals, like lemon, lime, red peppers, tomatoes, or berries.
General Lifestyle Tips to Managing Cravings
1) Give in a little. Eat a bit of what you’re craving, maybe a small cookie, a bite-sized candy bar, or just one square from that chocolate bar. Enjoying a little of what you love can help you steer clear of feeling denied and could help prevent binge-eating on foods you crave. Try eating only half to one-third of the portion size you really want, then put the rest away and distract yourself for 15 minutes. See how you feel after that time has passed. Chances are, you'll be as equally satisfied as if you had eaten the whole thing.
2) Try and go cold turkey. Some people find that going cold turkey helps diminish their cravings after a few days; others find they may still crave sugar but over time are able to train their taste buds to be satisfied with less and less sugary foods.
3) Get up and go! When a sugar craving hits, walk away. Take a walk around the block, do some long overdue home improvement stuff, chat with a friend, or do something to take your mind off the food you’re craving. Another option is to sip something warm, like a cup of herbal tea or just warm water with a slice of lemon. Drinking a hot beverage takes time, is filling, and stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps manage digestion and can decrease cravings, especially for sugary foods.
4) Choose quality over quantity. If you need a sugar splurge choose a decadently rich sweet. Choose a perfect dark chocolate truffle instead of a king-sized milk chocolate candy bar, then savor every bite – slowly.
5) Eat regularly. Waiting too long between meals may set you up to choose sugary, fatty foods that cut your hunger pangs when you are starving. Instead, try eating every three to five hours to help keep blood sugar stable. Your best bets? Choose protein, fiber-rich foods like whole grains and produce like apples, oranges, carrots, cucumber, or celery. You could also break-up your meals. Have a toast in the morning with peanut butter & jelly perhaps, and a cup of yogurt with fruit a few hours later. You could break up your lunch the same way to avoid a mid-afternoon slump.
Next time you have a craving, stop for a few minutes and pose these questions to yourself: What is out of balance in my life? Is there something I need to express, or is something being repressed? What happened in just before I had this craving? Did I sleep badly? Was I stressed and overworked at home or in the office? Did I argue with someone?
When you eat the food you are craving, enjoy it, taste it, savor it, and notice its effect. Then you will become more aware and free to decide if you really want it next time.
And there is always additional support available at your fingertips. If you need some help managing your cravings or just need some guidance on healthier eating and living, click here for a free health consultation.
Wendy Fries, 13 Ways to Fight Sugar Cravings. WebMD.com
Laura Leicht, 2014. 7 Ways to Stop Unhealthy Food Cravings. CNNHealth.com
Michelle Cook, 2014. What Your Cravings Mean. Care-2.com.
Brandy Williams, 2013. What does Craving Salty Foods Mean? Livestrong.com.
Harvard Mental Health Newsletter, Feb 2012. Why stress causes people to overeat. Harvard University.
Mark Cheren et al, 2009. Physical Cravings and Addiction: a Scientific Review.
Nicole Avena et al, 2008. Evidence of Sugar Addiction. National Center for Biotech Information, National Institutes of Health.