Controlling food cravings
Food cravings are experienced by everyone from time to time but some people find it more difficult than others to control them without a daily hit of chocolate or chips just to get through the day. Food cravings arise from numerous causes and in severe cases can lead to more serious health conditions such as obesity, diabetes and bulimia. Distinguishing the underlying cause of your food cravings is often challenging, since they can stem from a complex combination of emotional, hormonal and biochemical factors.
Physical and biochemical factors
A major trigger for food cravings is low or fluctuating blood sugar levels. This is typically caused by a lack of food as a result of going too long between meals or following very low-calorie diets. Your mid-afternoon cravings may be your body’s way of telling you it has been too long since lunch and you actually need to eat. A piece of fruit, some yogurt or a handful of nuts can get the blood sugar levels back up and prevent you from reaching for that chocolate bar you’ve been craving.
Food cravings can sometimes be due to a nutrient deficiency. You may find yourself craving a particular food because your body is looking for the specific nutrients contained in it. Craving red meat can be a sign of iron deficiency, for instance, while craving dairy products may indicate a calcium deficiency and a craving for dark chocolate may be a sign of magnesium deficiency.
Some of the strongest food cravings for women often occur in the week before menstruation or while pregnant, suggesting that hormonal swings have an influence on this type of urge to eat. A craving for chocolate was surveyed in a sample of 568 individuals and it was shown that about half of the female cravers experienced a well-defined craving peak for chocolate premenstrually.
Cravings can also result from exhaustion and, in more chronic cases, adrenal fatigue. The body sends a signal to the brain for a quick pick-me-up and this results in craving sugar, carbohydrate snacks or coffee. Salt cravings can also be related to adrenal fatigue.
Occasionally, cravings can be the result of a food allergy where you crave the very food you are allergic to. Food allergies can produce the same symptoms as an addiction, whereby eating certain foods you are allergic to becomes a chemically induced dependency.
The foods you are allergic to are often likely to be your favourites, the ones you eat frequently or crave because you think they make you feel good. Allergenic foods are thought to trigger in the brain an addictive substance called opioid enkephalin. With time, you become accustomed to consuming the allergenic food only to experience withdrawal symptoms such as nervousness or discomfort once it is removed from the diet.
Emotional and psychological factors
Emotions such as anxiety, frustration and loneliness play a big part in food cravings, too. The most common emotional or psychological triggers for food cravings include stress, depression, boredom and a general need for comfort. Reaching for a bag of biscuits, chocolate or a bowl of icecream in order to comfort yourself can become a regular habit. A study published in 2001 in the journal Appetite involving 241 individuals showed that carbohydrate cravers reported feeling distressed before their cravings while protein cravers reported feeling anxious or hungry before their cravings.
Another recent study showed that people who regularly experience food cravings have higher ratings of boredom and anxiety during the day compared with those who do not usually experience cravings, and that a depressed mood was often prominent before the cravings themselves.
The brain contains a neurotransmitter called serotonin that is involved in the regulation of mood and generally induces happy, feel-good emotions. Studies have shown that consuming high-carbohydrate meals raise serotonin, while fatty or protein-rich meals tend to lower serotonin levels.
Consequently, craving and eating carbohydrates may sometimes be due to an attempt to reduce symptoms of depression. The higher-glycaemic-index carbohydrates such as sugar have a greater effect on serotonin than starchy, lower-glycaemic-index foods such as potatoes.
If you think that eating a whole block of chocolate in one sitting is purely due to your weak-willed nature, then think again. Chocolate may be craved for a number of reasons and not just for its fat and sugar content. Chocolate has many properties that leave you wanting more and more. Because of cocoa’s high magnesium content, chocolate may be craved if you are magnesium-deficient.
Chocolate cravings may also occur because of its effect on serotonin. Certain alkaloids that have been isolated in chocolate raise brain serotonin levels and chocolate craving may be due in part to a serotonin deficiency. These active “drug-like” constituents comprise methylxanthines (including caffeine), amines and cannabinoid-like fatty acids, all of which can potentially cause psychological sensations that parallel those of other addictive substances.
Chocolate cravings often fluctuate with hormonal changes just before and during the menstrual period, suggesting a hormonal link. It is therefore a combination of chocolate’s sensory characteristics, nutrient composition and psychoactive ingredients, compounded with monthly hormonal fluctuations and mood swings among women, that all influence the incidence of chocolate cravings.
Certain foods, such as dairy and wheat products, contain particular food proteins that are broken down into what are known as exorphins, small protein fragments (or peptides) that have an opioid-like action within the body. It has been shown in animal studies that when these compounds are absorbed they can induce a mild euphoria, may dull pain sensation slightly and have a low-grade tendency to cause addiction. Exorphins have numerous effects on the body including cravings and increased appetite.
In severe cases, cravings can lead to binge eating, bulimia and other types of eating disorders. If your craving for certain foods is causing episodes of uncontrolled bingeing, seek help from your health professional.
A craving cycle
Foods that are high in sugar or have a high glycaemic index are quickly absorbed and cause blood sugar levels to climb, which then causes the pancreas to release insulin, leading to a “sugar crash” and resulting in a vicious cycle where you are always looking for the next “high” from the sugar hit.
The same cycle occurs with serotonin. Eating sugary foods or carbohydrates releases a short burst of serotonin, which makes you feel temporarily better. Unfortunately, this temporary “high” is then followed by a bigger crash, making you feel worse than you did before reaching for a treat and causes the craving to return.
A well-balanced, nutritionally adequate diet helps to stabilise blood sugar levels and decreases cravings. Eliminating simple sugars, increasing complex carbohydrates, consuming adequate protein, avoiding caffeine, increasing essential fatty acids and decreasing saturated fats and fried foods can all help to keep your blood sugar levels stable.
The key to stabilising blood sugar levels is eating regular meals (including breakfast) based on slow energy-releasing foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrains (rather than refined white rice and breads), beans, meat and fish. Have regular protein snacks, and meals in the diet that are low on the glycaemic scale, such as eggs and nuts as protein, are some of the best foods you can eat to get rid of cravings for sugar. Adding spices such as cloves and cinnamon has also been shown to help reduce sugar cravings.
Serotonin is manufactured in the brain from an amino acid called tryptophan, which can be found in foods such as meat, tofu, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and tahini (sesame seed paste). These foods are much better choices than the refined carbohydrates that are often craved when serotonin levels need a boost.
The Ayurvedic herb Gymnema sylvestre is a great herb to help with sugar cravings when used in low doses. Its Sanskrit name is gurmar, which means sugar-destroyer. Adding a few drops of the liquid herb to your tongue will anaesthetise the sweet tastebuds and destroy the taste for sweet foods for several hours afterwards, rendering sweet foods tasteless.
Herbs that are classed as adaptogens enable the body to adapt to stress with fewer fluctuations in appetite, mood and sleep patterns. Because of this, they are ideal for people who overeat because of emotional stress. Herbs with these effects include withania, rhodiola, panax ginseng, Siberian ginseng (eleuthero) and licorice root.
Licorice root is not only a great adrenal restorative but also an extremely sweet-tasting herb. Drinking licorice tea is therefore a great way to satisfy sugar cravings instead of reaching for a chocolate or biscuit.
The liver has hundreds of jobs to do, including the metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Enhancing the function of this vital organ with the use of liver herbs such as St Mary’s thistle and dandelion root will help to ensure the nutrients from your food are correctly absorbed and utilised and reduce the risk of developing cravings arising from the malabsorption of nutrients.
Stevia is a natural sweetener that contains no calories but imparts a taste that is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Unlike most other sweeteners, Stevia actually lowers blood-glucose levels. Use stevia in place of sugar or artificial sweeteners in your recipes and beverages.
Key nutrients that help improve blood sugar control include chromium, B vitamins, particularly vitamins B3 and B6, magnesium and zinc. Chromium is a mineral that helps regulate blood glucose levels and is often used to reduce glucose levels in type 2 diabetics, however it can also be used to minimise short-term cravings.
Zinc has numerous roles within the body, one of which is its ability to enhance the taste sensation. If you are not able to taste foods properly and are craving strong-tasting foods or salty foods you could be zinc-deficient.
Vitamin B6 supplementation is effective in reducing symptoms of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) including PMS-related depression. Vitamin B6 is required for the synthesis of many neurotransmitters including serotonin. Therefore a deficiency of vitamin B6 can lead to mood alterations and other psychological disturbances that, in turn, can exacerbate cravings.
Psychological and emotional support
Research shows it may be possible to use cognitive tasks to reduce food cravings. The results of one experiment revealed that volunteers who had been craving a food reported reduced food cravings after they formed mental images of common sights such as the appearance of a rainbow, or smells such as that of eucalyptus. In another experiment, volunteers who were craving a food watched a flickering pattern of black and white dots on a monitor. After viewing the pattern, they reported a decrease in the vividness of their craved-food images as well as a reduction in their cravings.
St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) is an effective herb to help alleviate depression and anxiety. If you are experiencing psychologically based cravings due to feelings of depression, supplementing with St John’s wort may be beneficial. By addressing the underlying cause of your cravings and enhancing your emotional state, you will reduce the need to reach for unhealthy comfort foods. Several studies have also indicated that taking St John’s wort can help reduce alcohol intake and abuse.
SAMe is synthesised in every cell and is involved in many biochemical processes and metabolic pathways. Supplementation with SAMe has demonstrated significant anti-depressant activity in many research trials. Numerous studies have been undertaken on the treatment of depression with SAMe. A meta-analysis conducted in 1994 concluded that SAMe is as effective as standard tricyclic antidepressants while a more recent study showed it may have a faster onset of action than conventional antidepressants.
Consult with your naturopath for specific herbs and nutritional supplements most suited for you and for further information on any cautions, contraindications and drug interactions.
For emotionally based cravings, taking flower essences and homœopathic remedies can help resolve any underlying emotional issues and may help prevent you from indulging your cravings when times are tough.
Elm: For feeling overwhelmed by your workload, feeling depressed, debilitated and exhausted from taking on too much work.
Gentian: For doubt and despondency, feeling easily discouraged and depressed when things go wrong or when faced with difficulties.
Gorse: For hopelessness and despair, for feeling there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Honeysuckle: For over-attachment to past memories, living in the past, inability to get over unhappy past experiences.
Hornbeam: For “Monday morning” feelings, mental weariness, difficulty facing problems, doubting abilities to face the day’s work.
Mustard: For deep gloom with no origin, sudden depression for no apparent reason.
Oak: When you are exhausted but struggle on, driven by a sense of duty; fatigue may lead to depression, frustration and stress.
Olive: For those who are exhausted in body and mind after a long period of strain.
Pine: For feelings of guilt and self-reproach.
Wild Rose: For feelings of resignation and apathy.
Centaury: For people who find it hard to say no; weak-willed and easily led.
Willow: For resentment, self-pity and bitterness.
Pulsatilla: Pre-eminently a female remedy, especially for those with a mild, gentle, yielding disposition. For feelings of sadness and when crying readily.
Calc carb: For people who feel the cold easily, with increased mucous secretions, and who are overweight, with pale skin. A jaded mental or physical state due to overwork. Children who crave eggs as well as dirt and other indigestible things.
Nux vomica: For overwork, mental strain and prolonged office work. Due to this indoor life and mental strain, cravings for stimulants such as coffee, alcohol and nicotine occur, while rich and stimulating food is preferred.
Hypericum: For feelings of anxiety and depression.
Aconite: For a state of fear, anxiety; anguish of mind and body. Physical and mental restlessness, fright. Sudden and great sinking of strength.
Quick tips to curb cravings
- Eat at regular intervals during the day.
- Choose low-GI carbohydrates for optimum blood sugar control.
- Avoid too much added sugar or salt, which can make cravings worse.
- Reduce your intake of caffeinated drinks.
- Distract yourself: take yourself out of the situation for an hour.
- Relax with deep breathing exercises or meditation.
- Choose a healthy substitute.
- If you know what situations trigger your cravings, avoid them if possible.
- Remain hydrated. Sometimes hunger can actually be a signal that you’re thirsty.
- Think of your favourite foods as a reward, a small treat after you’ve finished your exercise for the day.
Identify your cravings
Signs & symptoms: Constantly fatigued and stressed Craves: Constant quick pick-me-ups in the form of caffeinated drinks or sweet foods; salt
Fluctuating blood sugars or hypoglycaemia
Signs & symptoms: Fluctuating energy levels, fatigue Craves: Any sweet foods, sugar, chocolate, cakes, confectionery
Signs & symptoms: Apathy, weepiness, depressed feelings, mood swings, inability to cope, loss of interest in life Craves: Comfort foods, sweet foods, refined carbohydrates
Signs & symptoms: Muscular tension and/or cramps, eye twitches, stress Craves: Chocolate
Signs & symptoms: Lack of taste sensation, white spots on fingernails, predisposition to colds and flu, slow healing ability, hormonal imbalance Craves: Salt, strong-tasting foods, oysters
Signs & symptoms: Fatigued, poor immunity, pale skin Craves: Red meat
Signs & symptoms: Vertical ridges on fingernails, muscle spasms, leg cramps, and in severe cases low bone density and osteoporosis Craves: Dairy products such as icecream, yoghurt, cheese, milk
Saskia Brown is a naturopath and nutritionist located in Sydney. She specialises in allergies and asthma. E: email@example.com, W: www.saskiabrown.com
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