Updated: Sep 13, 2022
What do you crave?
What kind of foods do you crave? Is it sugar, coffee, chocolate, ice-cream, potato chips, or alcohol? When and where do you usually have cravings? It may be middle of the afternoon, that you want a coffee and a snack of something crunchy, sugary or salty. Or at the end of a long working day, you may crave a glass of wine (but in my personal opinion a little bit of wine isn’t a craving but a nice way to unwind and socialise with friends). Or a late-night tub of ice-cream to go with your favourite show on Netflix.
When you are stressed, tired, or sleep deprived, having something to munch on helps you get through the day or rush through a deadline. Cravings may even be related to your emotional state. We are more likely to cave in when we are feeling sad, lonely, angry, anxious, or worried about work, relationships or money.
How do you usually feel when you crave something? Do you abstain from 'off-limit' foods, have a little bit of it, or just really let it go? How do you feel afterwards? Are you usually happy once you satisfied your cravings or not quite so pleased with yourself for giving in?
Cravings can be a good thing
No matter what your cravings are, there is no need to feel bad or guilty. Cravings mean that your body is sending a signal, that you are hungry, not eating or drinking enough, or something is out of balance. In fact, craving can be a good thing which prompts you to take action. For example, craving a hot drink when you have a cold means that your body is seeking health and recovery. Craving food from your childhood may bring back some fond memories. Having a craving is a great opportunity to learn about your body and tune in to your own needs, both physically and emotionally.
How to approach cravings
We live in a world of free will, we can make different choices and actions to deal with cravings in ways that are convenient for our lifestyles and to fit in with our social circles. You may decide that having the occasional treats is pretty harmless. Cravings are not such a big deal when you have much bigger problems to fix than worrying about that little tub of ice cream. It is not worth the trouble of going on a sugar detox programme when you don't even have enough time to file your taxes. However, if you have the desire to tackle an unwanted behaviour, and you care about your long term health and well-being, it is never too late to pay attention and figure it out.
Acknowledge your cravings
First of all, acknowledge your cravings from a place of strength and understanding. Spend the time to investigate what might contribute to your cravings. Below are a few suggestions on how to deconstruct some common cravings. Your individual situation may be very different so you will have to become the expert in yourself. Deep inside you know why you have these cravings. You know how your body feels when you are giving into cravings and when you are feeding it right. Once you understand what your body or mind is seeking, you can make informed decisions. You can treat the cause and address the symptoms in a way that is most supportive to your wellbeing.
When a craving arise, listen to your body and observe with curiosity. Could this be physical or emotional?
Your craving may simply be because of hunger and you just need to eat more food. You may be exercising too much, eating too little, or eating the wrong kind of food. Maybe you need more carbohydrates, more fat, or more protein. You may need to switch out your exercise routine. You may need to eat more of what you enjoy to keep you satiated (and hopefully healthy too). Being on a restricted diet or following a meal plan can be the driver for more intense cravings. A diet plan can tell you how many calories or grams of carbs to consume, but your body is way smarter and knows better than any diet plan. It is fine to experiment with different eating styles, but when you realise certain ways of eating doesn't suit you, try something else and figure out what works for you.
Have you ever craved something salty like potato chips after a big workout? Or maybe a can of coke or a cold beer on a hot summer day? When we don’t drink enough water, or when we lose too much water and salt through sweating, we tend to crave salty food as our body seeks electrolytes like sodium and potassium. Yes, beer has a small amount of electrolytes but there is probably not enough as a post workout replenishment. Staying hydrated helps to keep our health in balance and may help reduce cravings. Even drinking a glass of water before eating can reduce the amount of food we consume.
Remember the last time you stayed up late for work or to study for a big exam? What did you eat or snack on? When we are sleep deprived, we are more likely to choose "weight-gain promoting high-calorie foods" and we are more prone to choose larger portions of snacks. So next time, before you head off to the vending machine or pantry for a late night snack, stop for a second and think whether you can make a cup of herbal tea and grab a piece of fruit or some pickles instead.
When we are faced with acute stress, our appetite may reduce as the body prepares us for a flight or fight mode. However, long periods of stress can affect our appetite and energy regulation, which in turn changes the neurological wiring in our brains and encourages us to reach for highly palatable foods. For example, many processed foods (such as Pringles, Doritos) are designed to make us crave them because they hit the perfect notes in our 'pleasure centres'. These highly palatable foods are usually high in sugar/carbs, salt and fat and low in nutrients. The more sugar we consume, the more we will seek out even higher amount and concentration of sweetness to achieve the same sense of pleasure and reward in our brains. If you want to dig a little more into this, I highly recommend the video lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth by Robert H. Lustig, M.D., M.S.L.
Other than stressful hormones, food cravings also happen during menstruation, pregnancy or menopause. Work with your cycle and nourish your body as best as you can. Think about adding more variety of fresh foods rather than limiting food intake. Focus on the quality rather than the quantity of the foods you eat.
Most of us live in a world of abundance or even excess. It is hard to imagine that our cravings can be due to nutrient deficiency. But it does happen. Remember the most recent dinner parties or holidays or festivals where you have indulged for days on end? As you got home or returned to your normal routine, you wanted nothing more than a big bowl of salad or some fresh vegetables. This is an example of your body trying to get back into balance.
Sometimes cravings may arise simply out of habit. You may have a habit of drinking a can of diet coke after lunch or reach for some snacks after a workout. Having a regular routine or eating habit can be a good thing but you may start craving certain drinks or foods out of habit, rather than a genuine need. Are you able to listen to your body and determine whether your craving comes from a routine, or real hunger, or something else?
Sometimes cravings have nothing to do with food or a physical state. Being bored, stressed at work, unhappy with work, having bad relationships with your spouse, family, friends and colleagues, or lacking a spiritual practice could lead us to cravings or emotional eating. Sometimes we just feel a bit lonely and find comfort in food. Perhaps a late night binge session can be avoided with some physical contact such a hug, gathering with friends, or taking a hot bath as an act of self-care.
Food is so widely available, accessible and tangible. At some point in our lives, we have all tried to use food to cope with stressful situations and to soothe our negative emotions. When you know your cravings are NOT rooted in any physical hunger, be prepared to tune in and find out what you are hungry for emotionally.
Emotional eating is a complex subject that takes time and effort to work through. Please be patient and start from a place of strength and understanding. Also be ready to seek help as necessary.
Craving is such a big topic that we are barely scratching the surface. Cravings can be good as long as you are honest with yourself and respond with the right attitude. There are no off-limit foods, think carefully how consuming a certain food will make you feel physically (bloating, pain, allergies, rashes) and emotionally (happy, satisfied, sad, guilty). Acknowledge your cravings but don't be judgemental. Take cues from your body, make it a fun and interesting project to explore both your physical and emotional needs. Don't let the scale or the calorie count dictate your life. Listen to your body and decipher the message your body is sending. Empower yourself to take responsible decisions and actions that are best for your body. Be patient by making small healthy changes to your behaviours. Be confident that your body and mind will come back into balance.
1. Immediate pre-meal water ingestion decreases voluntary food intake in lean young males.
2. The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain
3. Acute sleep deprivation increases portion size and affects food choice in young men
4. Stress as a common risk factor for obesity and addiction.
5. Reduced dietary intake of simple sugars alters perceived sweet taste intensity but not perceived pleasantness.