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Do you crave sugar, salt, fast food, carbs or coffee? Discover how to decode your food cravings


Crave sugar, salt, carbs or coffee? De-code your food cravings

Credit: Jennifer Pallian

When you’re hit by a powerful food craving, do you reach for something that’s salty, sweet or high in fat? Your choice may not be as random as you think. In fact, the tastes you prefer and the foods you crave can provide important intel about your emotional and physical health. Here are some common cravings, what they mean and what you can do about them.

Sugar

You reach for: doughnuts, cake, ice-cream, lollies, sweet biscuits

Possible causes:

  • Low serotonin
  • Stress
  • Low chromium
  • Adrenal fatigue (also known as HPA axis dysfunction, where HPA stands for hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands)
  • Skipping meals
  • Low thyroid hormones
  • Unhealthy belly bacteria
  • Too many refined carbs (causing a blood sugar crash)

The backstory

There are two main reasons you reach for something sweet. You’re after:

  1. A quick burst of energy. Unfortunately, using sugary foods as a pick-me-up can soon drop you right back down again as your body releases insulin to lower your high blood sugar levels.
  2. A feel-good boost. Sweet foods activate the reward circuits of your brain to release dopamine, which gives you a sensation of pleasure. These opioid receptors are the same ones that drive people to use drugs or gamble.

Your belly bacteria can also dominate your cravings by demanding what they need in order to thrive. And many kinds of bad bacteria demand sugars via the vagus nerve, which is also called a “cranial nerve” because it extends all the way from your belly to your brain. The University of Mexico and Arizona State University in the US conducted a meta-analysis of 120 different studies about belly bacteria. According to the authors, changing your microbiome may be a very effective way to change your food cravings.

How to cut your cravings

  • Eat more high-chromium foods. Chromium helps to ensure the uptake of glucose into your cells, reducing energy dips. Good sources include broccoli, beef, carrots, green beans, potatoes and turkey.
  • Enjoy a PFF breakfast. Eating a breakfast that contains protein, fibre and healthy fat will keep energy levels stable and prevent blood sugar drops that can cause energy cravings.
  • Vary your intake of fermented foods. This will also ensure you increase your range of good belly bacteria. Bored with sauerkraut? Then try miso, kombucha tea, kimchi or kvass. To reduce populations of bad bacteria, eat less sugar and less refined carbs. If you are struggling with belly issues, also try eating less red meat, dairy and eggs, which can lead to unhealthy bacteria called TMAO, which has also been linked to cancer and heart disease, according to Harvard research.
  • Reach for a savoury snack. Try something like a little seaweed or some tamari almonds to boost energy without raising your insulin or blood glucose.
  • Exercise regularly. This can reduce cravings for sugar and also help stabilise your blood glucose levels.
  • Schedule dessert every week. Then you don’t feel resentful that you are depriving yourself.
  • Challenge non-hungry eating. Michelle May, who runs mindful eating programs, recommends you put a sign on your refrigerator that says, “If I’m not hungry, what I’m looking for is not in here.”

Salt

You reach for: crisps, salted nuts, the salt shaker

Possible causes:

  • Grief or depression
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Addison’s disease (low cortisol)
  • Kidney disorders
  • Over-exercise, which causes a drop in minerals

The backstory

Salt may work a little like a natural antidepressant or calmative. It can reduce stress responses by suppressing the release of some stress hormones, shows research from the University of Cincinnati in the US. Sodium also helps to increase levels of oxytocin, which is the same hormone released when you’re in love.

Many kinds of bad bacteria demand sugars via the vagus nerve, which is also called a “cranial nerve” because it extends all the way from your belly to your brain.

What about the health risks of salt? For years we’ve been told we should all cut our salt levels as low as possible. Now some experts are questioning that one-size-fits-all message. A large study by McMaster University looked at more than 130,000 people from 49 countries. Their surprising finding? A low intake of sodium can be linked to higher rates of heart attack, stroke and death. While the study has been controversial (and there is an ongoing split between scientists on this issue), its results can’t be ignored.

How to cut your cravings

  • Address adrenal fatigue. Salt cravings can be a classic sign of low cortisol levels after chronic stress overtaxes the adrenals. If this applies to you, address chronic stresses in your life and adopt self-help approaches like yoga and meditation.
  • Listen to your body. If you have a salt craving, don’t be afraid to add a little salt to your food. Choose a pink Himalayan or Celtic sea salt; both contain high levels of trace minerals. If you have high blood pressure, experiment to see if higher sodium worsens your BP or makes no difference.
  • Boost your potassium. In our modern world, we often have an imbalance between our potassium and sodium levels that can adversely affect blood pressure and cause other health issues. Taking potassium salts can create balance. Good food sources of potassium also include bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados, kefir and yoghurt (if you tolerate dairy foods).

Fast food

You reach for: burgers, hot chips, pizza, bacon

Possible causes:

  • Sadness
  • Depression
  • Deficiency in omega-3s

The backstory

Did you know that feeling sad, unhappy and down can make you crave more fat? In Germany, this phenomenon is called kummerspeck, or “grief bacon”, and refers to the excess weight gained from emotional eating. Saturated fat also works a little like a nutrient anaesthetic to dampen down sad emotions, according to research from the University of Leuven in Belgium.

How to cut your cravings

  • Avoid a low-fat diet. When you don’t eat enough fat, your body is more likely to crave it. Unfortunately, you may not then reach for the healthiest fat-rich foods to satisfy your craving.

The myth that a low-fat diet will protect people from weight gain, high cholesterol and heart disease is increasingly being questioned.  Low-fat diets are not effective for weight loss and new evidence is suggesting they are not better for the heart.

Salt cravings can be a classic sign of low cortisol levels after chronic stress overtaxes the adrenals.

Fats are, in fact, crucial for a healthy body. They create and protect the white blood cells and millions of other cells that repair the wall linings when damaged. Cholesterol is also used to produce important hormones like cortisol, which are crucial for energy. Make sure you eat good-quality fats such as virgin olive and coconut oil. As for saturated fats, if you’re an omnivore, it’s important to eat good-quality cuts of organic meat, which is particularly important to eat if you have thyroid issues. Eat fish to also provide healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Serve more beans. Fat often gives us a feeling of fullness; eating pulses like chickpeas and red kidney beans can have the same impact and can actually increase fullness by 31 per cent, shows research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
  • Disconnect from your worries. Stress affects the way your body metabolises fats. It leads your body to respond to healthy and unhealthy fats as though they are both bad for you and then ramps up inflammation, according to research from Ohio State University in the US.

One effective technique is to sing your worries to yourself in your head or narrate them like a movie or horse race. This kind of mindfulness technique helps you to disengage from stressed thoughts, reducing the power of those worries.

Caffeine

You reach for: coffee, tea, energy drinks

Possible causes:

  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Thyroid problems

The backstory

Caffeine is a stimulant, so it’s only natural that you crave it when your energy levels are low. The trouble is, over time, consuming caffeine will actually have the opposite affect and it can cause constant rises in cortisol that lead you to feel tired but wired.

How to cut your cravings

  • Address signs of adrenal fatigue. If your adrenals are fried from too much stress, look at what the biggest contributors are. This may mean you have to change your job, downscale to a smaller house or address other issues, like unresolved trauma, through counselling.
  • Serve small starters. Tuck into a bowl of soup or salad at the start of every meal. This will make you full for longer and is also digested slowly, giving you a more sustained source of energy.
  • Drink a coffee substitute. Gradually cut back on your caffeine intake and switch to drinking dandelion and herbal tea.

Chocolate

Your reach for: chocolate bars, chocolate milkshakes, hot chocolate

Possible causes:

  • Magnesium deficiency
  • Low serotonin
  • Adrenal fatigue

The backstory

Chocolate is high in magnesium so, if you are a chocaholic, you may be deficient in this important calming mineral. Magnesium helps to activate enzymes that are involved in more than 300 different important reactions in your body. It’s particularly important for proper methylation, a process that, in turn, helps your body produce calming hormones.

People suffering depression also eat more chocolate, says research from the University of California in the US. So repeated chocolate cravings may be a sign your mood is slipping.

How to cut your cravings

  • Take a magnesium supplement — preferably as magnesium glycinate in powdered form, which is well tolerated and absorbed.
  • Eat magnesium-rich foods. These include grains like quinoa, millet, oats and rye (if you tolerate wheat), leafy greens, seeds and legumes like navy beans.
  • Add Epsom salts to your bath. This is an easy way to ensure you absorb magnesium without any side-effects.
  • Schedule breaks in your day. This helps to reduce stress, which can lead you to dump magnesium from your body.
  • Enjoy food-free highs. When we eat delicious foods, the reward centres of our brains light up, releasing feel-good brain chemicals. Dopamine-containing neurons are sent around the brain and this experience is pleasurable and makes us want to eat again. Instead, kick-start dopamine with non-food activities, including exercise, meditation, singing uplifting songs, sitting in the sun for five minutes or looking at a YouTube clip that makes you laugh.
  • Eat dark cacao chocolate. This is rich in nutrients that are good for your health but is easier to stop eating than less-dark chocolate.

Starchy foods

You reach for: bread, rice, pasta

Possible causes:

  • Low B vitamins
  • Tryptophan deficiency
  • Depression

The backstory

When you crave starchy foods, your body is often trying to ramp up your mood-boosting brain chemicals. Carbs help the amino acid tryptophan to enter your brain. Tryptophan is a precursor hormone for serotonin, the happiness hormone. Serotonin also helps make melatonin, which boosts sleep. When you’re stressed out most of the time, your body can steal tryptophan for other needs, leaving you with a deficit that can trigger cravings for starchy foods.

How to cut your cravings

  • Serve some rice. This is a good way to increase tryptophan, particularly at night to help sleep onset. Basmati is a good low-GI (glycaemic index) variety, leaving you fuller for longer, while brown rice is higher in fibre.
  • Have a hit of protein. Turkey, chicken, red meat, fish, eggs and legumes like black beans are all great sources of tryptophan.
  • Snack on nuts and seeds. Walnuts, cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts and flax/sesame/pumpkin and sunflower seeds can all increase your tryptophan levels.
  • Boost your B vitamins. If you’re getting lots of cravings for grains and breads, you might need to take a good B complex supplement.

Sneaky craving triggers

The following may kick-start a craving without you even knowing:

  • Seeing a sad film can increase snacking: in one study at the University of Cornell in the States, sad films led participants to eat 36 per cent more popcorn than happy films.
  • Food ads. Just seeing or thinking about a chocolate bar or burger can start a salivation process in your mouth, making you feel instantly hungrier.
  • Night-time. Research at Boston University in the US has found that most people feel less hungry at 8am in the morning than they do at 8pm in the evening. This is bad news for your weight because your body burns less fuel at night. Uses strategies like drinking water or cleaning your teeth after dinner to stop you snacking into the evening. Or top and tail your evening meal with soup and salad so you stay full for hours.
  • Influence of friends. If your friends eat more biscuits when you’re together, you will do the same, even when you are at home later; and if they eat less you will do the same as well, according to University of Minnesota research. So, if your pals break out the sweets, check in with yourself and ask, “Do I really want to eat this or do I feel under peer pressure?”
  • Eating in front of screens. Eating lunch when distracted by computer activities leads to more snacking later, shows research by the University of Bristol in the UK. So lose the screen and focus on your meal.


 

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.