Our experts reveal how to take control of your cravings and give your body what it really needs
Food cravings are extremely common among adults, and for many people they are one of the biggest challenges when it comes to their diet. “These strong urges for particular foods are more than mere hunger, and can be difficult to resist,” explains nutritional therapist Hannah Braye (lepicol.com). “A commonly held view is that food cravings are expressions of bodily wisdom, whereby we crave foods containing certain nutrients in which we are lacking. Others, however, maintain that food cravings are more about what the brain wants, rather than what the body actually needs.” While a healthy, balanced diet should lessen the likelihood of food cravings, there may be other factors at play – and restriction or deprivation is unlikely to help in the longterm. We’ve enlisted a selection of nutritional experts to help you understand your food cravings and find healthy ways to curb them through diet and lifestyle.
The craving: “Sodium is a necessary part of our diet and helps to keep the body’s fluids balanced,” says Hannah. “Deficiencies are pretty rare (in the western world, overconsumption is a lot more common), however certain medications, as well as dehydration from diarrhoea, vomiting or sweating, can lower sodium levels, and people with low levels often report cravings for salty foods.
“These cravings can also be an indication that our adrenal glands, which sit on top of our kidneys and control our stress response, might be flagging. When we are chronically stressed, our adrenals continually pump out high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to a condition known as ‘adrenal fatigue’. This can cause our blood pressure to get too low, and it is thought that people suffering with adrenal fatigue may therefore crave salty foods to help bring it back up.”
The cure: “Research suggests that taking a break to meditate or take some deep breaths before reaching for salty snacks could help to reduce stress hormones and curb bingeing,” advises Hannah. “Try practising meditation, breathing exercises or other stress-management techniques that work for you. In addition, aim to drink 2.5 litres of water a day to stay hydrated. You can add some flavour with slices of cucumber or lemon, or fresh mint.” Naturopath Louise Westra (louisewestra.co.uk) adds: “Consider supplementing with adrenal restoratives such as rhodiola, ashwagandha, licorice and rehmannia.”
The craving: “Studies have shown significant similarities between the consumption of added sugars and drug-like effects, including craving, bingeing, dependence, reward and the release of opioids in the body, leading some to believe that sugar has addictive properties,” says Hannah. “Those with a particularly strong sweet tooth could be lacking in chromium, an essential mineral shown to support healthy blood-sugar balance and reduce cravings.” “People often crave sugar when they’re tired,” adds Louise. “Fatigue can be a result of a variety of factors, including a lack of sleep, poor digestion and absorption of nutrients, and depletion of the adrenal glands and thyroid. You may also be generally over-consuming simple sugars, as the more we eat, the more we tend to want.”
The cure: “If you’re craving sugar, up your protein intake, especially with your first meal of the day,” recommends Louise. “Instead of a cereal-based breakfast, consider chicken, fish (such as smoked salmon), eggs or tofu, and make your breakfast more like a typical meal. As a direct replacement for a sugary treat, try a square or two of the darkest chocolate to your taste – 70 percent would be fine – and a Medjool date.” Chromium, meanwhile, can be found in vegetables, including broccoli, potatoes and green beans, wholegrains, apples, bananas and grape juice.
The craving: “Cravings for carbs, such as pasta and bread, can be the body’s way of trying to cheer itself up,” says Louise. “These foods increase our brain levels of the amino acid tryptophan, which is required for us to produce the feel-good chemical serotonin.”
As with sugar, we often crave carbohydrates when we’re tired. “Glucose, which we derive from carbs, is favoured by the body and brain as we are able to turn it into energy quickly, which could be why people tend to reach for carb-heavy foods when feeling sleepy and sluggish,” explains Hannah. “However, eating a lot of refined and simple carbohydrates can actually lead to blood-sugar crashes, making tiredness worse.”
The cure: “The key to keeping carb cravings at bay is eating meals and snacks that contain protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, as together these balance your blood-sugar and give you a consistent level of energy,” says nutritionist Fiona Lawson (goshfood.com). Opt for wholegrain, complex carbohydrates rather than white refined versions, and try root vegetables, such as sweet potato, swede, celeriac and carrots. Proteinrich foods, such as eggs, nuts and seeds, oats, salmon and lean meat, are good sources of tryptophan.
The craving: “Fatty-food cravings can be triggered by fatigue, or just before your period, when hormones increase body temperature and we need more energy,” says registered dietitian Rachel Clarkson (thednadietitian.co.uk). A lack of sleep leaves us with a lack of energy, and as food provides us with energy, it can be easy to confuse fatigue for hunger. “There is research that indicates a link between emotional triggers and craving fatty foods, which set off the reward centre in our brain and leave us feeling full and satisfied,” adds nutritional consultant Sana Khan (avicennawellbeing.com).
The cure: “Healthy fats help to support cognitive health, the nervous system and circulation,” says Sana. Good sources include avocados, oily fish, such as salmon and tuna, nuts and seeds, eggs, dark chocolate and olive oil.
The craving: “Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies worldwide, and there are many anecdotal reports of increased cravings for red meat in those suffering with it,” explains Hannah. Red meat cravings can also be a sign of low levels of B12 and amino acids.
The cure: “To rectify an iron deficiency, try to eat organic, grass-fed meat where possible, as it has been shown to contain high levels of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids and isn’t exposed to routine antibiotics,” advises Hannah. “Vegetarian sources of iron include dried fruit, such as prunes, figs and apricots, beans, legumes and green veg. Vitamin C aids the absorption of iron, so I recommend squeezing lemon juice over ironrich foods or eating them alongside vitamin C-rich fruit and veg (tomatoes, potatoes, leafy greens, citrus fruits, winter squash). You can also take iron and B12 in supplement form.”
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