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  • Writer's pictureCarina Hopen

What to Do When You REALLY Want Those Chocolates!


Food cravings.

 

We all get them. They’re the intense urge to find and eat chocolate (or chips, cookies, ice cream) even though we aren’t hungry. When we get a craving, no other food will suffice.

 

Food cravings can rise up when we least expect it. And, they often make themselves known at the wrong times, like when we *actually need a glass of water, an apple, sleep, or even a little less stress.

 

This week’sblog post is all about food cravings: what causes them and how to curb them. Not that you always have to curb them.

 

Before we dive in, I want to be clear that food cravings are not your fault. They are very common and are not a sign of bad choices. Most of all, having (or giving into) food cravings does not reflect your value as a person. Food cravings are a normal part of human physiology, hard-wired in neuroscience and hormones (and a few other biological aspects).

 

Plus, food cravings are not insurmountable. There are some smart and not-so-obvious things you can do to reduce their impact on you [if you want to]. In this post I’m sharing a few strategies you can use that don’t require willpower of steel.

 

We’ve all felt what it’s like to be hungry, have an appetite, an experience an intense food craving. Hunger is the feeling we get when our stomachs are empty (1). Appetite is the desire to eat food. Cravings are different. 

 

Harvard Health (2) defines cravings as, “an intense urge to eat a certain food—ideally right away.” While hunger can be alleviated by eating any food, cravings are very specific for a single type of food, like chocolate (the most commonly craved food) (1). Plus, cravings can pop up at any moment—we can crave a certain food even if we just finished filling up on dinner and we’re not hungry at all (1).


What causes food cravings?

Food cravings can be specific and are usually directed toward sweet, salty, or fatty foods. And they’re not only the result of having a “sweet tooth,” easy access to craveable foods, or lack of control of our behavior (2). There are also several complex—and common—physiological causes of cravings. Many of these are hard-wired into our brains and are naturally regulated by hormones and other [biochemicals/biomolecules].

 

[Fun fact: Research shows that nutrient or energy deficiencies are not powerful or common causes of food cravings (1).]

 

We’ll start with the top four causes, according to the Cleveland Clinic: food euphoria, feeling stressed, lack of sleep, and day-to-day habits (3).

 

Food euphoria is when the food we eat taps into the “feel good” centers that are hard-wired in the neurons of the brain (2,3). In addition to the “feel good” [biochemical/biomolecule/neurotransmitter] called dopamine, craveable foods also stimulate the release of hormones that impact metabolism, stress levels, and appetite (2). This euphoria feels like a pleasurable reward and can naturally make us want to continue to eat that particular food, generating even more cravings for it (2).

 

Feeling stressed can make our food cravings even more poweful, especially when that stress is over the long term (2,3). Increased levels of stress hormones like cortisol start up our “fight or flight” instincts that get us to look for food so we can get the energy we need to fight or flee (4). Eating the craved food provides us with some relief from that stress and helps us to cope with, or even distract from, stressful feelings—even if the coping and distraction are temporary (4).

 

Lack of sleep can strengthen cravings due to its impact on our hormones (3). For example, not getting enough sleep places additional stress on our bodies and that further increases our desires for certain foods. Lack of sleep can also induce hunger by increasing the hunger hormone ghrelin and decreasing the fullness hormone leptin (5).

 

Day-to-day habits may also play a part in cravings (3). Sometimes, if we’re used to enjoying snacks when we feel a certain way (e.g., stressed or tired) or are doing certain activities (e.g., driving, scrolling social media, or watching TV), then this habit can perpetuate our cravings and have us almost automatically reaching for craved foods before we can think about it.

 

In addition to these four causes of food cravings, other factors can contribute. For example, seeing or smelling a craveable food can spark cravings[I], as can hormonal fluctuations that occur during the menstrual cycle (2). Some medications are known to increase appetite (2). And new research is looking into possible connections between food cravings and our genes and gut microbiota.


How to curb cravings

We don’t want to prevent ourselves from eating if we’re truly hungry. However, there may be times when we’re craving something that we know we don’t have room for and is not going to serve our health. In these cases, there are a few strategies you can try to help curb those cravings.

 

Try drinking water

 

It’s possible that sometimes what feels like hunger (or even a craving) is simply thirst (3,6,7). By staying hydrated throughout the day we can reduce the number of times we think we need to eat something.

 

Be more mindful

 

If we can stop for a second to catch ourselves craving foods or eating when we’re not hungry, mindfulness may help (3). Consider asking yourself if your food craving could be due to stress, boredom, anger, fatigue, or if you are in fact hungry (2,4,6). Maybe try breathing deeply for a few minutes, putting on a short meditation podcast, or going for a quick walk to reconnect with your inner self before taking another bite. 

 

As you eat, continue your mindfulness practice by enjoying your food mindfully and without judgment. Harvard Health (9) defines mindful eating as, “using all of your physical and emotional senses to experience and enjoy the food choices you make.” By mindfully paying attention to the thoughts and emotions that may fuel a craving, we can slow down and truly appreciate food. We can take smaller amounts, smell and appreciate the flavors, chew the food thoroughly, and relax between bites. 

 

Balance meals

 

By eating meals that are highly nutritious and contain protein and fiber, you can feel fuller quicker and stay full longer (2,6). Also consider eating regularly throughout the day, as longer stretches between meals can intensify feelings of hunger and lead to eating too much, too fast, or eating foods that are too convenient, e.g., craveable (and not as nutritious) (2,6,7).


Make nutritious snacks more convenient

 

Many of us end up craving and snacking on convenience foods because . . . they’re convenient. It’s quick and easy to open a package of potato chips, cookies, chocolate and start enjoying. But we can make more nutritious foods just as convenient by washing, chopping, and packaging fruits and vegetables, and having some grab-and-go dips and spreads available like nut butter, hummus, plain yogurt, salsa, or guacamole. You can even make your own trail mix with dried fruits and nuts (7).

 

Another option is to simply have smaller servings, or more nutritious versions, of your favorite cravable foods. How about trying craveable foods with less added sugar or more protein and fiber? 

 

Limit environmental cues

 

Sometimes cravings are brought on by the sight of a tasty snack on social media or the candy bowl in the break room (2,9). By knowing where these environmental cues are, you can try to avoid them whenever possible.

 

Try non-food-related rewards

 

Sometimes we eat to escape a negative feeling or to celebrate an accomplishment, and there are non-food related ways to enjoy ourselves (3). Instead of cake, consider doing something you love, like dance around or take a bath. Maybe you would want to treat yourself to a nap, hobby or craft, or even enjoy a favorite book.

  

Manage stress

 

Life is stressful and we can’t entirely escape stress. What we can try to do is improve the way we handle and manage stress. This can help to lower our stress hormones and reduce the power of food cravings (3).

 

Get enough quality sleep

 

Inadequate sleep causes us to feel hungrier and have more cravings. Some studies show that this may be because it can push our appetite hormones out of balance (2,5). Plus, lack of sleep can increase stress which further amplifies those feelings. This is why getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night can help to ease those cravings (3,5,7).

  

If none of these truly satisfy or eliminate your cravings, simply enjoy your crave-able food—but consider having slightly less of it.


Final thoughts

When our stomachs are empty, we all feel hunger and our appetite hormones have use looking for something to eat. This is different from food cravings, when we feel an intense urge to eat something specific—even if our stomachs are full.

 

All of these feelings and urges are normal and common. And it’s also common to eat to try to satisfy them.

 

Physiologically, our cravings are impacted by stress and sleep. They are also regulated by hormones, [biochemical/biomolecules/neurotransmitters], and research is looking into a whole host of other causes (e.g., the effects of advertising, our genes, and even our gut microbiota). Hunger, appetite, and food cravings are a complex phenomena and they are not simply due to lack of control.

 

The good news is that as we understand more about their causes, we can begin to implement smart strategies to help guide them toward our health goals[, so we don’t feel like we’re at their mercy].

 

Do you feel stuck in a cycle of hunger, appetite, and cravings? Wondering how to get support implementing any of these strategies to better manage cravings? Want quick and easy recipes and meal plans filled with nutritious high-fiber and high-protein foods and snacks? Need professional nutrition counseling to help you understand and take control of your eating pattern? As a certified/credentialed nutrition professional, I’d love to help. Book an appointment with me today to see if my product service can help you.

 



References

  1. Meule A. (2020). The Psychology of Food Cravings: the Role of Food Deprivation. Current nutrition reports, 9(3), 251–257. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13668-020-00326-0

  2. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2021, April). Cravings. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cravings/

  3. Cleveland Clinic. (2020, December 14). Here’s the deal with your junk food cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/heres-the-deal-with-your-junk-food-cravings/

  4. Cleveland Clinic. (2023, January 26). Why you stress eat and how to stop. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-stop-stress-eating/

  5. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). Sleep. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/sleep/

  6. Cleveland Clinic. (2021, March 25). Three reasons you crave sweet or salty food. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/3-reasons-you-crave-sweet-or-salty-foods/

  7. Cleveland Clinic. (2022, August 12). Quick snacks to help kick your sugar cravings. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/kick-your-sugar-addiction-with-these-5-snacks/

  8. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. (2020, November). Mindful eating. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/mindful-eating/

  9. Harris, N. M., Lindeman, R. W., Bah, C. S. F., Gerhard, D., & Hoermann, S. (2023). Eliciting real cravings with virtual food: Using immersive technologies to explore the effects of food stimuli in virtual reality. Frontiers in psychology, 14, 956585. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2023.956585

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