Contrary to popular belief, food cravings are not an indication that one's body is deficient in certain nutrients.
So, what are food cravings exactly?
A food craving is a seemingly uncontrollable desire for a specific food. Some experts believe food cravings last about three minutes.
Hormones may influence our food cravings, and if hormones such as leptin or serotonin become unbalanced, we may possibly experience a desire for carb-rich foods.
From an emotional standpoint, we may eat for comfort and specific foods can become associated with calming or soothing feelings of release or comfort over time.
In a series of well-known experiments conducted in the early 1900s, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov taught his dogs to anticipate the arrival of food by associating the action with the sound of a bell.
Food cravings can likewise be explained by this exact conditioning response. If you always have an afternoon candy bar, you have conditioned yourself to expect it and will therefore crave it.
Desire is often triggered by external cues rather than our cells calling out for a particular nutrient.
Notably, only two-thirds of languages have a word for cravings, and in most cases, this word only relates to drugs, and not food.
By naming the feeling, we allow it to become real.
Physically speaking, it is also true that certain foods release endorphins leading to behavior not unlike addiction.
Cravings can be selective, meaning specific, or non-selective, which is the desire to eat pretty much anything. The latter is often the result of being genuinely hungry or possibly thirsty. Drinking water may help with intense non-selective cravings.
Most of us know what it feels like to experience food cravings. The narrative we hold about the origin of our cravings could determine how easily we give into them.
Research tells us that cravings are always psychological, aside from those triggered in our gut.
But, are we being manipulated by our flora?
Studies are demonstrating that the trillions of bacteria in our gut will manipulate us into eating what they need for survival - which isn’t necessarily what is in our best interest!
All species are out to protect themselves, and this includes microbes.
Athena Aktipis, assistant professor at Arizona State University’s department of psychology says:
“Different microbes in our guts prefer different environments. They can manipulate us into eating what they need in a few different ways. They can send signals from the gut to the brain via our vagus nerve and make us feel under the weather if we’re not eating enough of a certain nutrient, or make us feel good when we eat what they want, by releasing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. They can also alter our taste receptors so we consume more of something to get the same taste of sweetness, for example."
But, here’s the catch! These microbes aren’t always necessarily telling us to eat the right things.
After all, some unhealthy bacteria cause disease. “You could be getting hijacked by an impaired microbiome.” Aktipis says.
A healthy microbiome means you crave healthy food.
What can we do to curb cravings?
None too surprisingly, and contrary to what you may want to hear, the best way to curb a craving for good is to cut said craved food from our diet altogether.
Out of sight is truly out of mind, and research backs this up (as do numerous 12 step programs)!
Other ways to reduce undesired food cravings include:
Stress raises cortisol level, which promotes the storage of abdominal fat.
Do whatever you can to lower stress levels, including 3-5 minutes of meditation a day.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to “know” how to meditate! Just try it, your own way!
Hunger and thirst are often and easily confused.
Drink 4 liters of water a day, every day.
Get Enough Sleep
Inadequate sleep throws hormones out of balance, including hunger hormones and cortisol - similar to being under undue stress, this contribute to overeating. Aim for 8 hours of sleep a night.
Eat Enough Protein
Eat plenty of plants and protein!
Replace Bad Habits
With good ones!
Habits are habits, and it is just as “easy” over the long term to have a good habit as it is a “bad one."
Adopt one new good habit a month.
Plan Meals Ahead of Time
I always say to my clients – you can’t eat what isn’t there – good or bad.
People think I mean throw out the junk, but I also mean: go shopping and plan what you’ll eat this week.
You won’t be able to eat well if you don’t have healthy food on hand, and if you haven’t planned ahead.
You can eat three times a day after you get hungry or three times a day before you get hungry.
Drink enough water, and don’t allow yourself to get too hungry!
It’s largely agreed that more work needs to be done to define and understanding cravings.
In the meantime, research strongly suggests the healthier our diet, the healthier our cravings.
- Sophie Anson & the NutriSuits team