Dealing with Food Cravings
By: Jirina Sandall, RHNC™, B.Kin
Jirina is a Registered Health and Nutrition Counselor™ with bumpvitamins.com. She also works as a naturopathic doctor’s assistant & sees clients one-on-one for nutritional counseling. Her specialty is plant-based nutrition but she works with many clients dealing with chronic diseases such as diabetes & cancer as well.
Jirina has completed diplomas in both Human Kinetics/Exercise Science and Holistic Nutrition & Health Coaching, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. She is also currently studying to become a Registered Holistic Nutritionist.
Introduction to Food Cravings
At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced food cravings. Sweets, chocolate, salty or fatty foods, and carbohydrate-dense foods, like bread, tend to be among the most common. But why do these cravings happen? And how do we deal with them? To answer these questions, let’s start by exploring what happens to our bodies when we eat these foods.
Research has shown that palatable foods release chemicals are known as opioids into our bodies (1). These chemicals bind to the reward centers in our brains and provide us with a feeling of pleasure. In some cases, we also see an increase in dopamine production (1). Dopamine is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter that also plays a role in how we experience pleasure. This explains why food cravings tend to have an impact on our mood. When we’re feeling low, we naturally seek out feelings of happiness, and what’s the fastest way to achieve this? By eating some delicious foods! Unfortunately, after the initial reward has passed, we end up feeling low again. You’re probably starting to see the pattern here!
It’s no secret that the more sugar you eat, the more you crave it. This is one of the reasons why starting a new diet can be particularly challenging. Cutting out sweets entirely can actually cause withdrawal symptoms (1) and should be taken very seriously. With any food, the initial stages of removing it are the most difficult, but with some time and perseverance, the cravings will naturally subside.
More Causes for Food Cravings
So far we can see that cravings are related to our mood, dietary habits, and desire for pleasure, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture. They can also come about during certain stages of life if we are low in a particular nutrient, or from a number of other lifestyle factors. For example, during pregnancy, the cravings women get for olives, pickles, or sauerkraut may be related to a need for more sodium (2). It is important to note that there are limits here though and very salty foods like potato chips should be avoided (2). Another example we can look at is in women who experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Cravings for sweets and chocolate are typically elevated during this time but this could also be due to a number of other conditions that also tend to exist in those with PMS such as low blood sugar, candida overgrowth, stress, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies (3). In terms of lifestyle factors, sleep deprivation plays a big role as well: when we are running on a lack of sleep, we are much more likely to experience cravings.
Strategies for Prevention
Now that we know about some of the reasons why cravings happen, let’s look at some strategies for preventing them. One of the best measures to do this is to ensure you get enough quality sleep. The key here is to practice proper sleep hygiene. If you haven’t heard this term before, it looks something like this:
- No electronics at least 30 minutes before bed, ideally even 2 hours; try reading a book instead
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends
- Dim or turn off most lights when approaching bedtime
- Avoid eating big meals close to bedtime
- Sleep in a cool, dark room with minimal disturbances
- Have a bedtime routine, this helps your body know it’s time for sleep
Aromatherapy is also a great tool for improving sleep. There are plenty of different essential oils that work well at bedtime but lavender is one of the best. Research has shown that it improves sleep quality and even reduces anxiety (4). Just put a few drops into your diffuser and let the relaxation begin!
Another key strategy that can be used to avoid cravings is to eat a diverse, nutrient-rich diet. This focuses on whole foods like fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, wild-caught seafood, and organic meats and poultry, rather than highly processed and refined foods. The problem with processing is that it often involves stripping away the food’s nutrients and replacing them with additives like sugars, preservatives, artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and a long list of other chemicals that our bodies were not designed to process! Whole foods have not been altered in any way, they are literally “whole”, think: apples, chickpeas, brown rice, almonds, etc., so they contain all their nutrients still intact. By eating more whole foods and less processed foods we are much more likely to meet our daily nutritional requirements and therefore experience fewer cravings overall.
Given what we know about sugar consumption, especially when it comes to cravings, many people turn to zero-calorie artificial sweeteners to satisfy their sweet tooth instead. Unfortunately, these sweeteners often end up doing the opposite of what they’re supposed to by actually encouraging more sugar cravings and dependence (5). The reason for this is simply because they are still sweet! Some argue that it even makes things worse by tricking your taste buds into thinking you are ingesting sugar. Your body will quickly realize that no sugar molecules accompanied that sweet flavor and you’ll end up craving it even more! The best solution here is to avoid artificial sweeteners altogether and gradually work on reducing your sugar intake.
How to Prepare for Cravings
Now that we’ve explored the causes of cravings and some strategies for prevention, let’s talk about what to do when cravings present themselves anyway. The key here is preparation! Storing healthy, ready-to-go meals is a great way to avoid succumbing to cravings. You are much less likely to order a pizza if there is a delicious meal waiting for you in your fridge! Another good idea is to keep some fresh fruit in the house. You’d be surprised at how satisfying fruit is when you’re craving something sweet. To help keep your blood sugar stabilized you can pair fruits with a handful of nuts or stick to lower glycemic options like pears, apples, oranges, and berries. Another good staple to keep around the house is a bar of dark chocolate with a cacao content of 70% or higher. When you feel a chocolate craving coming on, having one or two squares should do the trick. Research has shown that eating dark chocolate is much more satiating and actually reduces the desire to eat something sweet when compared to milk chocolate (6). Dark chocolate is also a much better alternative because of its lower sugar and higher antioxidant content.
Putting it All Together
As you can see, food cravings can present themselves for a number of reasons. These range from our dietary habits all the way to our mood and what stage of life we are in. We can work hard to prevent them by getting enough quality sleep, eating a nutrient-rich diet, and gradually reducing our sugar intake but sometimes they will just be unavoidable. This is why it’s important to be prepared and keep some staples in your house like healthy cooked meals, fresh fruit, and a bit of dark chocolate just in case you need it!
- Colantuoni, C. et al. (2002), Evidence That Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake Causes Endogenous Opioid Dependence. Obesity Research, 10: 478-488. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2002.66
- Haas, Elson M. (2006); Staying Healthy with Nutrition; pg (571)
- Haas, Elson M. (2006); Staying Healthy with Nutrition; pg (720)
- Karadag, E. et al. (2015), Effects of Aromatherapy on Sleep Quality and Anxiety of Patients. Nursing in Critical Care, 22 (2): 105-112. https://doi.org/10.1111/nicc.12198
- Yang Q. (2010). Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings: Neuroscience 2010. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 83(2), 101–108.
- Sørensen, L., Astrup, A. Eating dark and milk chocolate: a randomized crossover study of effects on appetite and energy intake. Nutr & Diabetes 1, e21 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nutd.2011.17