Updated: May 17, 2022
When the afternoon rolls around in the office, many individuals find themselves craving a bag of chips or some candy. When grocery shopping on an empty stomach, many make the mistake of walking down the chip and chocolate aisles when they are at their weakest to resist temptation. The desire for certain foods is all too common, everyone has them occasionally, though some do get them more than others.
Most of us have experienced an intense urge to eat a certain food—ideally right away. More often than not, that food is likely to be sugary, salty, or fatty, or all three. You may feel increasingly excited as you imagine how it will taste and how you’ll feel eating it. These urges can pop up at any moment, and aren’t always fueled by hunger pangs.
It's All In Your Head
Some say such cravings are "all in your head," and new research suggests they are right. Different areas of the brain make up the reward system, but the key part of the brain related to cravings and regulating appetite is called the hypothalamus. It regulates the secretion of chemicals and hormones related to stress, pleasure, pain, and hunger. A neurotransmitter in the hypothalamus called dopamine, the “feel good” chemical, sends messages to other nerves to signal positive emotions that are associated with rewarding experiences. Eating certain foods repeatedly that stimulate the reward region is believed to lead to cravings or emotional overeating.
Food cravings can be caused by several factors, which can usually be split into two main categories: physical and mental. Being aware of them may help you identify which factors specifically trigger your cravings.
Lack of sleep. Too little or poor quality sleep can disturb your levels of the hormones responsible for regulating hunger, fullness, and sleep-wake cycles, possibly intensifying food cravings, especially in the evenings.
A nutrient-poor diet. Nutrients like protein and fiber can help you feel full. A diet that’s low in these nutrients may cause you to feel hungry or experience cravings, even if you have otherwise eaten enough calories.
Poor hydration. Ingesting too little fluids can intensify feelings of hunger or cravings in some people .
Physical activity. An increase in your level of physical activity, even if just by walking more, may help reduce food cravings. Similarly, moving less than you usually do may cause you to experience more food cravings.
Highly processed foods. There is some evidence that highly processed foods rich in added fat and sugar may cause addiction-like symptoms, in turn, possibly increasing cravings.
Frequency at which you eat the craved foods. Eating a craved food less frequently may be more effective at reducing your craving for that particular food than eating a small portion of that food whenever you crave it .
Stress. Stress can increase your levels of the hormone cortisol. High cortisol levels may be linked to hunger, cravings, and a higher likelihood of stress- or binge-eating behaviors
Eating context. Your brain can associate eating a specific food to a specific context — for instance, popcorn and a movie. This may cause you to crave that particular food the next time the same context comes around.
Your mood. Certain moods may trigger cravings for specific foods. For example, negative moods appear to often spark cravings for comfort foods
What are they telling you?
Cravings are sometimes an indicator that your body is deprived of an essential nutrient. For instance, if you are constantly yearning for chocolate, it might indicate that your body is not getting enough magnesium. The natural response would be to get that chocolate bar when you could substitute it with foods such as leafy green vegetables, nuts, or fruits.
What It Might Mean
Chloride deficiency, Stress
Low blood sugar, Sulphur/Chromuim/Phosphorus deficiency
Essential fatty acids deficiency
Chewing on ice
Pasta or baked foogs
Snacks (junk foods)
Tips to reduce food cravings
Out of sight is usually out of mind. Your best bet may be to have only portion-controlled amounts of your desired food on hand.
Aim to eat nutritionally balanced meals. Foods with protein and fiber provide longer-lasting satisfaction.
Avoid long stretches of not eating. Waiting too long to eat because you are busy or distracted may only lead to stronger hunger when you do eat and the risk of overeating.
Avoid choosing hyper-palatable or ultra-processed snacks that are high in sodium, fat, sugar, and calories but low in nutrition. These are the types of foods that trigger the brain reward pathways and cause cravings to eat more. Choose satisfying, less-processed snacks like fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, or a cup of low-sugar yogurt.
Limit environmental cues to eat, such as scrolling through social media posts about food. In an office setting, detour away from the candy bowls and platters of bagels and treats that may be sitting in the break room.
Food cravings are sometimes learned behaviors that are associated with an event or environment, such as craving potato chips while watching late-night television. You can try changing the association by changing your evening routine with a different activity like listening to an audiobook or podcast.
Practice mindfulness when sensing a growing craving. Ask yourself if you are stressed, bored, angry? If so, try instead doing breathing exercises, talking a brisk 5-10 minute walk, listening to a meditation app or podcast, or playing a few favorite songs. If you can distract yourself from eating for about 5-7 minutes, the craving may subside. Learn more about mindful eating.
Try other dopamine-inducing activities such as taking a walk in nature on a sunny day, dancing, or watching a funny video and laughing aloud!
Related : Should I Care About Glycemic Index?
Enjoy your favorite foods
When we make a mental rule about one type of food and completely restrict it, it usually backfires. Some people going a month without a food that they absolutely love. What happens is they start to think about it a lot and it becomes a mental craving. So it's ok to have a little and really savor the experience. Life is all about balance.
About the authors:
Madur & Anitha Jagannath are certified Nutrition Consultants, in addition to their professions in technology and human resources. When Madur started feeling lethargic and slowing down, he started exercising regularly, became conscious of healthy eating habits and nutrition. He is an avid runner and does half-marathons often. At Voyage to Wellness, they attribute our reputation to the lasting customer relationships they have developed throughout the years. They believe in health & wellness and being fit, at all stages of people's lives.
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