Written by Sharon Charles BSc Nutrition
Reviewed by Andrea Miller MHSc, RD, FDC
We have all been in a situation where we start craving a certain food item and the feeling overwhelms you. Although food cravings are not inherently bad, feelings of guilt or shame may creep in later as we feel defeated and less in control of our bodies. But what causes these food cravings? Learning what causes our cravings can provide insight on how to manage them better.
Here are some reasons why you may be experiencing food cravings:
- Extended Periods of Time without Eating
The human brain relies on glucose as its primary source of fuel. When deprived of glucose from missing meals, not eating enough, or going long periods of time without eating, the brain becomes starved of its energy source and launches you into a frenzy to find fuel. This is when your cravings will hit. When these cravings hit, people tend to reach for refined food sources and starchy foods such as breads, french fries, instead of proteins and vegetables that would keep you satiated for longer, thereby resulting in excess calorie intake and consumption of foods that are not very nutrient-dense.
- Lack of Sleep
One of the most overlooked causes of food cravings is lack of sleep. Not getting sufficient sleep each night may lead to food cravings and an inability to control your appetite. The reason why you may experience more food cravings when you get insufficient sleep is due to fluctuations in the hormones ghrelin and leptin. Leptin is a hormone that helps you feel full, while ghrelin stimulates hunger. Lack of sleep can increase levels of ghrelin and decrease levels of leptin, thereby resulting in increased hunger. Lack of sleep may indirectly affect your ability to make good choices, since exhaustion can persuade you to give in to foods that temporarily make you feel better.
- Restriction of Foods
When we restrict and deprive ourselves of certain foods, it is human tendency to naturally crave those foods even more. Restriction of certain foods also promotes an unhealthy relationship with food where certain foods are labeled as evil. It is important to remember that all foods in moderation can be a part of a healthy lifestyle.
When dehydrated, your body will find it difficult to distinguish between feelings of hunger versus thirst since it is desperate to increase fluid intake.
Now that we know what the causes of food cravings may be, we can better manage these cravings by tackling the root of the problem. Here are five tips on how to better manage food cravings:
- Make sure to incorporate protein-rich foods, healthy fats, and fiber at each meal: Ensuring that you get enough protein, healthy fats, and fiber at each meal will help you keep cravings at bay since you will feel satiated.
2. Snack smart!
If you are craving something despite feeling full, then try to stick to foods that are nutrient dense. Examples of snacks that are protein-packed include: hardboiled eggs, cheese, hummus, Greek yogurt, nuts and seeds, tuna. If you are looking for something to munch on, then try: celery sticks, carrot sticks, broccoli, bell peppers paired with dips like hummus, or Greek yogurt.
3. Engage in activities that keep you distracted from your cravings: Find activities that you enjoy that may keep your mind off of food as a means of curing boredom. Go on a walk around the neighborhood, get up and stretch or engage in exercise, call or video chat a friend or family member, or do some brief household chores.
4. Drink a glass of water: As mentioned earlier, sometimes in a state of thirst our bodies will be unable to distinguish between hunger and feeling thirsty. Try keeping a water bottle at your workstation, in different areas of your home, and make an effort to reach for a sip of water at regular intervals. Add lemons, limes, herbs, cucumbers, or berries to give the water a refreshing taste, which may also help cravings subside.
5. Eat regularly scheduled meals throughout the day: Skipping meals, or having insufficient portions, not enough protein, fibre, or healthy fats can leave you feeling unsatisfied and craving for other foods to fulfill your hunger. Eating at regular times throughout the day will keep you full and satisfied.
Remember that cravings are not to be vilified. Giving in to cravings is a normal part of being human. In fact, having the exact food item you are craving in addition to a well-balanced healthy diet overall, is key to enjoying a variety of foods. And don’t forget – go easy on yourself! The coronavirus pandemic we are all going through presents unique challenges and difficulties. In the time leading up to Christmas, don’t feel undue pressure to suppress your cravings and instead, enjoy the food as a means of connecting with family and friends. Happy Holidays!