There are many causes of strong cravings for particular foods or flavors that can make navigating them seem tricky. However, gaining a deeper understanding of how cravings work allows you to mindfully respond to your bio-individual cravings and navigate them without deprivation.
Weather you're craving chocolate, ice cream, or fries is not a bad or a good thing. There are physiological and psychological cravings for certain foods, understanding what is driving the food craving can help you navigate through them.
Navigating cravings with mindfulness:
acknowledge the cravings
explore the origin with nonjudgmental curiously
proceed from a place of empowerment
Whether you choose to move forward with fulfilling a particular food craving or explore another option to nourish yourself, the point is to make educated, empowered decisions that work for you.
Having cravings isn't a bad thing. In fact, they are sometimes a good indicator that you're not getting the nourishment you're seeking, which may not have anything to do with food.
A craving may be a message from your body that it's seeking a particular food to promote health and wellbeing. For example, think about a time when you were sick and craved a nourishing homemade soup.
The food- hormone connection is critical to navigating food cravings, because what you eat provides the foundation your body needs to keep your hormones balanced. Eating certain foods, or eliminating entire categories of micronutrients from your diet can rob your system of the raw materials it needs to produce healthy hormones, which play a critical role in your physical health, cognitive function, mood and longevity.
In addition to hormonal fluctuation, cravings can also be provoked by your emotional state, physiological state, diet, routine, or even your surroundings. When cravings arise, they can be a symptom indicating an imbalance occurring elsewhere - investigating cravings with a curious mindset is a great opportunity to treat the cause, not the symptom.
Being aware of the different factors that may contribute to cravings can help you explore the choices that are best for you - if that's eating ice cream, that's great; if that's opting for carrot sticks, that's also great. More it's even setting aside time to breathe, rest and unwind, which after some investigation, you might learn is what your body ultimately is seeking.
Read on to learn how to navigate food cravings.
Acknowledge the cravings - if cravings arise, acknowledge them and give them space. Ignoring cravings often makes them seem stronger and more powerful. When you make foods you want off-limits, label them as bad foods, it usually has the opposite effect. Rather than leading you to forget the 'off-limit' foods, you end up preoccupied and less equipped to control yourself when you're around them.
This study included 129 women (median age 41) who were split into three groups; a group of women who were dieting to lose weight, a group who were watching their weight and a group of non-dieters. Women recorded their food cravings for 7 days. Those women who were dieting experienced stronger food craving than non - dieters, which supports the associating between dieting mentality and stronger food cravings. Just like anything, the body and mind don't like to be deprived. Try acknowledging the craving, which may be enough to help reduce it's power and allow you to disassociate from it.
2. Explore the origin with nonjudgmental curiosity.
In exploring the origin of your cravings, you may want to ask yourself the following questions:
Is this craving occurring alongside a particular emotion or physical feeling?
Is this craving for a highly palpable food (cookies, ice cream, fries, chips, candy, etc.)?
Is this craving tied to a habit?
Is this craving guiding me toward a food that would support my health or wellbeing?
Let's review these questions one by one and explore their role in the origin of cravings, that may help you navigate through your own food cravings.
Is this craving occurring alongside a particular emotion or physical feeling?
Stress, fatigue, loneliness, hormonal fluctuations (that time of the month, for us ladies!), or even boredom can lead to particular food cravings. In these cases, food won't solve the problem - it would be treating a symptom, which works in the short-term but probably isn't in your best interest in the long-term. Making this distinction can be an empowering step forward in your health journey. It allows you to pinpoint and treat the actual cause, which is likely to promote the balance you're seeking.
Although there are many physical and emotional feelings that may lead you to crave particular food, fatigue and stress are most common causes of food cravings.
When people are tired, they not only eat more but are also more likely to make poor dietary choices. When you're sleep-deprived you're more likely to crave snacks and consume more calories over the course of the day. Lack of sleep has been shown to increase the cravings for calorie dense foods, in particular. Frequent cravings for these sorts of foods may be a symptom of lack of sleep.
This study looked at the impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in human brain, specifically assessing the link between sleep and obesity. The impact of sleep deprivation, on part of the brain that regulates appetite for food and cravings, is real. Lack of zzz's significantly decreases your ability to regulate appetite, as it affects the frontal cortex (which is part of the brain that helps us make rational vs emotional decisions) and insular cortex which enhances food desirability. In simple terms, lack of sleep impacts food choices, it's not that you have no control when it comes to food, but rather physiologically your brain is altered due to lack of sleep. Prioritize those zzz's by discovering how to get better sleep.
Another physiological reason for food cravings is hormonal fluctuations. Specifically women who experience premenstrual symptoms (PMS) during the late luteal phase, is due to falling estrogen levels which cause a drop in serotonin levels. Science shows that consuming certain foods can exacerbate PMS symptoms. For example, fries or salty pretzels to satisfy PMS cravings makes the body retain water leading up to that feeling of bloated. Giving in to cravings for cookies, pastries or candy can feel like a quick fix for mood boost because the body uses carbs to produce serotonin, but the quick fix is followed by a sharp decline in glucose, your blood sugar levels, and drop in energy. This may explain why you feel like you're on an emotional roller-coaster ride which further leads to increase in other PMS symptoms such as moodiness, irritability, and anxiety which only crank up those cravings. To navigate through these monthly hormonal fluctuations, a study showed that women whose diets included foods with higher amounts of calcium and vitamin D had less of a risk of PMS than those who got less of these micronutrients from their foods.
And we have to mention feeling stressed, because we know that it leads to food cravings too. During stressful times, cravings for energy dense, less nutritious foods are common. The more stressed people are, the more they tend to look for comfort in food and this is just one of the ways that stress leads to weight gain.
Is this craving for a highly palatable food (cookies, ice cream, chips, candy, etc.)?
When it comes to exploring the origins of your cravings, there is another important aspect to consider in terms of which foods you're craving, In this sense, not all foods are created equal. In order to make an empowered choice about these foods, it's important to know that certain foods, called highly palatable foods, are designed to be craved. Of course, it's fine to enjoy these foods, but part of being empowered in navigating your cravings is being aware of the power that some foods may hold.
If it feels like you're craving sugar, you may be seeking a quick source of energy, but by now you likely know that research has shown over and over again, the more sugar people consume, the more they prefer it. In a way you build up tolerance for sugar, you crave more of it and in larger, more concentrated amounts, to create the same hit that it originally produced. A piece of fruit may no longer taste sweet, if you're used to consuming candy or soda on a daily basis. To tame your sugar cravings and to help you get started, grab my FREE Sugar Cleanse guide.
Processed foods are designed to make consumers crave them. In fact, the food industry created what has been described as the 'bliss point' - the perfect combination of sugar, salt, and fat that makes processed food difficult to resist. Often, this combination is created mathematically to appeal to the most people.
These products may take years to be fully developed, and a team of researchers, flavor specialists, engineers, and even statisticians may be involved in creating a food with optimal flavor, texture, smell and feel. Frequent exposure to these types of foods is likely to increase your desire for them.
A study looked at characteristics of the most craved foods in relation to energy levels. Women aged 20-42 years were included in this study, and they self-reported food intake and cravings, along with their body weight. The study concluded that foods high in calories and fat, with low protein and fiber content were craved the most.
It's no wonder when the craving strikes, we opt for ice cream or fried foods; yet we know these foods have minimal nutritional value. One way to navigate through highly palatable food cravings, is to keep these items out of your home to minimize temptation or with health and nutrition coaching begin to shift your mindset to craving more nutrition dense foods.
Is this craving tied to a habit?
Sometimes people simply desire a food or snack they're used to having it at a certain time or place. Imagine 3pm afternoon at your desk - sound familiar? This is quite common, because energy drops in the late afternoon, tempting you to reach for sugary snacks or drinks. Awareness of the craving being tied to a habit or a routine, can empower and motivate you to start to change the habit. Rather than going on autopilot, take a moment to tune in to your body. A brief moment of mindfulness may be enough to help distinguish between cravings for something out of a habit vs craving due to actual hunger or a desire to mindfully and intentionally nourish your body with a particular food.
Is this craving guiding me toward a food that would support my health or well-being?
Have you ever taken a trip to an all-inclusive resort or a trip where you enjoyed frequently dining out and eating rich foods and then come home and craved something highly nourishing, like a big salad with tons of fresh, tasty, and colorful vegetables? This is your body's attempt to return to balance.
Fulfilling a craving may also contribute to your well-being beyond a nutritional standpoint. For example, craving pop-corn while enjoying it among loved ones during a movie night, might provide a strong feeling of connecting and love. This may be a powerful form of primary food nourishment for some.
3. Explore the origin with nonjudgmental curiosity.
Once you acknowledge your cravings and determine its origin, you give yourself the power to dis-identify with it and determine how to proceed in a way that's best for you. Listen to what your body is trying to communicate and enjoy exploring the deeper message that may exist in some of your cravings. Rather than feeling controlled by cravings, the empowered approach allows you to be a curious investigator seeking out the best choice for you at the time - and remember, you're always changing and evolving.
Consider cravings as a yardstick to determine if things are out of balance for you. Whether food will ease that craving or if there's another form of nourishment your body is seeking, respect and acknowledge your bio-individual cravings as they come up.
Cravings are something we all experience from time to time. These tips are intended to help you better navigate food cravings when they arise. Pay attention and explore what your body may be telling you. Acknowledge them, nonjudgmentally and with curiously mindset explore their origin and proceed from a place of empowerment.
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I received my training from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition where I learned about more than one hundred dietary theories and studied a variety of practical lifestyle coaching methods. Drawing on this knowledge, I will help you create a completely personalized “roadmap to health” that suits your unique body and lifestyle that's supportive of your health and happiness.
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