You may have heard that certain nutritional deficiencies can trigger specific cravings, for example, craving chocolate = lack of magnesium. There may be some truth in this however there is little scientific evidence to back it up.
There are many reasons why we might crave, often unhealthy, foods. It might be down to eating inadequate amounts of the essential nutrients our body needs and so it ramps up the hunger signals. Imbalances in our hormones and neurotransmitters can also play their part too, same for the gut bacteria.
Stress is also significant. When we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode, our bodies are hardwired to store reserves for insurance against whatever uncertainties may be ahead. The most efficient way to do that is to eat sugar-rich foods which we store as fat to get us through the lean times.
Our emotions are a big driver for cravings. During childhood, 'treat' foods are often used as a reward or a diversion to soothe or occupy us and as a result we learn to suppress discomfort by eating. These patterns can persist into adulthood but it’s not all down to us. Ultra-processed foods are designed to be hyper-palatable. When we eat these foods they hijack our brain's reward circuit or ‘pleasure pathways’ and keep us coming back for more.
How to curb cravings
There are a few simple and natural ways to help you stop cravings, whether they’re sugar cravings or junk food cravings. Here my five top tips...
- Eat three nutrient-dense meals throughout the day and make sure they all contain vegetables, healthy fat and protein. Protein such as fish, meat, eggs, pulses, or tofu, helps keep you fuller for longer and has been shown to reduce the chance of cravings.
- Change your patterns. If you always find yourself in front of the fridge when you finish work, change your routine. Head straight for the shower or do 10 minutes of yoga instead.
- Prioritise sleep. A lack of energy can lead to sugar cravings which often leads to a short-lived burst of energy followed by a ‘crash’. To avoid this keep your sleep hygiene in check.
- Plan meals in advance and ensure that you have a stash of healthy snacks to hand.
- Eat mindfully and savour every mouthful. Lay the table, turn off your screen and focus on eating.
What to do when cravings strike
- De-stress. Sit quietly and focus on your breath for a few minutes.
- Try to tune in to how you are feeling. Are you TRULY hungry, or is it something else you are feeling? Perhaps you are lonely, bored or sad? Do something to shift your focus. It may help to keep notes in your diary of how you feel when you crave something to establish the emotional patterns you could work on.
Remember life is for living. A treat once in a while can lift the spirits and be something to look forward to. Don’t beat yourself up, it’s all about balance.
Kate Fisk is a qualified Naturopathic Nutritional Therapist after studying for three years at the College of Naturopathic Medicine. She is registered with The British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT), and The Association of Naturopathic Practitioners (ANP), both professional bodies for Nutritional Therapists. If you’d like to work with Kate you can book a session with her here.