Cravings. We all have them at one time or another, and while a lot of it can largely be mitigated by building your diet around a foundation of good quality protein, fat and fibre, with the addition of some unrefined carbohydrates, for whatever reason sometimes even this is not enough to withstand the temptation to snack on something you wouldn’t otherwise grab. Not only is it distracting to be thinking about food, cravings do in fact reduce cognitive ability– affecting our ability to recall information.
Why is it that sometimes your energy and appetite is well supported by your diet, and other times they are not? Well, first – it’s not all about the food (obviously!) Here are other reasons for an increase in cravings that are often overlooked.
- Lack of sleep: this is one that we can all attest to: a bad night’s sleep makes it more difficult to resist the call of that raw vegan cake in the local café. That’s because even one night of sleep restriction (less than 6 hours of sleep) will affect the feedback-reward loop in your brain that makes you crave sweet (or salty, fatty) processed food. Lack of sleep will enhance the reward factor, leading to a more intense craving AND you’ll gain even more pleasure from eating it. Like anything that feeds into this pathway, though, the amount needed to satisfy the craving will increase the more you have it. One night’s rubbish sleep will also increase the body’s cortisol response – sending signals to your liver to dump glucose into the blood stream – this shift in blood sugar levels causes other hormones to kick into gear (such as insulin) and in no time at all, blood sugar levels drop -causing you to crave foods that are high in carbohydrate to bring them back up to within normal range. This fluctuation in blood sugar creates highs and lows in your energy levels, but ultimately leaves you feeling far worse than you would have otherwise.
- Stress – see above for why a situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed causes you to crave sweet or fatty, salty food and the effects of this. The situation itself, though, can also drive you to the vending machine outside of any blood sugar changes. Eating in response to stress is a distraction technique that will take your mind off what is going on around you, and many find themselves eating food they don’t want to eat, in amounts they don’t want to be consuming, as a way to avoid the stressor.
- Coffee – as a stimulant, coffee may affect the food choices of people who are sensitive to its effect. If you are sensitive to its stimulant effects, then the changes in stress hormones may cause the same blood sugar management issues that I’ve discussed earlier. However, it coffee can affect food choices in another way too – recent researchhas found that caffeine can dull our perception of a sweet taste by blocking the adenosine receptors in our brain. The same mechanism that increases our alertness may drive a preference for sugary foods as we don’t get the expected level of sweetness.
- Alcohol – another blood sugar disruptor, alcohol also causes a disinhibition of behaviour. While people can easily forgo a platter of food with no alcohol onboard, 1-2 drinks later and suddenly we don’t really care if we eat 1 cracker or 10. Alcohol increases the release of dopamine in the brain, much like eating sugar does. Over time we become less sensitive to the effects of dopamine and require more of a substance to help us get the same effect. This is another reason why we may have sugar cravings after drinking alcohol. Finally, to point out the obvious, alcohol disrupts sleep patterns and there is a disinhibition of the different sleep phases. We don’t get the type of sleep that is most restorative and therefore wake up feeling unrefreshed and lacking in sleep. I’ve explained above the effects that this has on our food cravings, and alcohol will further compound the issue.
- Hormones. When oestrogen levels drop, serotonin levels also drop (as serotonin requires oestrogen for its production). For some women, then, shifts in hormones across the month, and heading into menopause can trigger cravings where they would otherwise not have any. So that sugar/chocolate thing? It’s a physiological drive that can be super hard to ignore.
What to do about your cravings?
Obviously, the first thing I’m going to mention address the situations or triggers above. The more you prioritise good sleep hygiene and stress management, the better you are able to manage your diet, it is that simple. I’ve talked about both of these in more detail here and here, with tips to help you nail both. Further, consider your eating habits around the consumption of coffee and alcohol. If your intake is increasing, or at a level that you think might be too high for you, cutting down on both of these could help. If you’re unsure then ask a good friend their opinion, as it can help to have objective advice from someone you trust.
The second thing? Read this article I wrote last year, detailing some helpful food strategies and supplements which may support blood sugar and cravings, including chromium, 5Htp, magnesium and cinnamon.
The third thing? Use a distraction technique. Sometimes cravings are associated with a time of day, with boredom or (as mentioned) stress. Put some strategies in place to help offset the craving. Too often, the psychology around eating foods we crave is about ‘giving in’ – this brings about a sense of failure and people berate themselves for a lack of willpower. The food that we’re eating in this scenario is often eaten standing up, in front of the fridge or the pantry, is eaten quickly (for fear of being caught) and then brings about a sense of shame that we couldn’t ‘control ourselves’. Often, too, the mindset of ‘I’ve blown it’ leads to further unhelpful thought patterns – such as ‘I’ve had one biscuit, I might as well consume the entire packet as it’s the last time I’ll ever eat biscuits.’ Let’s be real: this won’t be the last time you’ll eat biscuits. And you haven’t ruined anything.
A distraction strategy might include (as it does for some clients of mine): having two glasses of water, brushing your teeth and getting outside for a brisk walk (of even 2 minutes). Then, if you are still craving something (or feeling like eating something), make the decision to have it. BUT you must eat it in a way that allows you to engage fully in the process. Get a plate or bowl, serve yourself some of whatever it is, then sit down and (where possible) using cutlery to eat it slowly, savouring the flavours. And really enjoy it. Then move on.
If you need a good food strategy to help mitigate your cravings, check out my real food meal plans – providing a 28 day meal plan each month along with personalised nutrition coaching to help meet your goals.