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Exploring Food Cravings Print

Where do food cravings come from?

By Andrea Holwegner, Health Stand Nutrition Consulting Inc.

Food cravings can sometimes be the body’s way of correcting a deficiency. Athletes for example that are depleted of glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrate in the muscle) will often be hungry and crave carbohydrates as the body attempts to restock drained fuel sources. Pica, or the craving for non-foods such as dirt (a source of iron), is common in people who are iron-deficient. However most of the time the body doesn’t provide clear guidelines of its nutrient needs. There is also more to food cravings than just hunger. Cravings magnify when we diet, are under stress, skip meals, feel depressed, or are premenstrual. Many people crave carbohydrates (breads, sweets etc.) because a carbohydrate-rich meal/snack stimulates the release of the hormone insulin which lowers blood levels of all amino acids except tryptophan. Tryptophan levels in the brain rise which is converted to seretonin. Seretonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, reduces pain and appetite, and generally calms you down and improves your mood. Food cravings are also fuelled by an addiction to pleasure much like the high experienced after intense exercise. A calming response is immediately produced by foods such as sweets that release quick acting chemicals in the brain called endorphins. Cravings are also a result of habit. If you condition yourself over time to have a mid-afternoon chocolate bar or can of pop and it makes you feel good, you are likely to have it again. Cravings may also be a result of childhood food associations, memories, cultural beliefs and traditions, and other powerful emotional cues that urge us to eat and crave certain foods. It is also likely that we all inherit a unique balance of appetite control chemicals and unique experiences that shape our food preferences and cravings.

What are the most common foods people crave?

Sweets; carbohydrates such as breads; chocolate; fatty foods; salty foods

How can I cope with food cravings?

Keep in mind that a craving is only a feeling – it is not a command. Even though the initial relief of satisfying a craving might appear to end the urge to eat, in the long run it encourages stronger and more frequent temptations and leaves you more vulnerable to the next snack attack. Read on to learn the 5 basics of craving control.

The 5 Basics of Craving Control:

1) NIBBLE: The most important way to manage food cravings is firstly to nibble instead of gorging. To maintain good energy and blood sugar control eat small meals/snacks every 3-5 hours.

2) MEAL BALANCE: Your breakfast, lunch, and supper should consist of 3 things for balance. Firstly a whole grain/starch such as bread/pasta/rice/potato/cereal; secondly a vegetable/fruit; and thirdly a source of protein such as meat/fish/poultry/legumes/nuts/eggs/soy/dairy. The grain/starch and vegetable/fruit will provide the brain with sugar (carbohydrate) for energy and the protein will slow down how quickly the sugar goes into the blood and contribute to fullness.

3) TAKE A TIME OUT: Before giving into your craving, make yourself wait. Most cravings fade within 10-15 minutes. The temptation to give in to a craving becomes less frequent and progressively weaker when you outlast the urge. On the other hand it is sometimes important to have a bit of whatever it is that you have a strong craving for rather than eating down the house to try and get something that satisfies the craving! It is also important to take a time out and understand why you are eating. Stress, anger, sadness, habit, smell/sight food, and social environment are all triggers to eat.

4) AVOID “ALL OR NONE” THINKING: As soon as you tell yourself you can’t eat certain foods that will be what you crave. Give yourself flexible eating patterns that allow for some of your favourite treats, while not giving into all your cravings. Make the decision not to go on a restrictive diet. Instead go for sensible balanced eating that includes all foods.

5) PHYSICAL ACTIVITY: Believe it or not physical activity is essential for craving control. It helps regulate blood sugar levels and other nerve chemicals along with endorphins. Physical activity can also improve mood, self-esteem, and be a distraction for food cravings.

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