• Jaclyn Casiero

Food Cravings. What do they mean and how could they be affecting your health?

Have you ever wanted something so bad, that you’ve literally torn the kitchen pantry apart? Or maybe you had a craving for something like a hamburger that you were willing to drive 20 minutes for to fill that craving? What you might not know, is your food cravings could be telling you something more important about your health.

Something that many don't even realize is that cravings are different than hunger. Hunger is controlled by the stomach, while cravings are controlled by the brain.

Beyond the physiological reasons for food cravings, they often have something to do with emotions and desires. Everyone experiences food cravings differently. There are certain regions in our brains that are responsible for food cravings - hippocampus, insula and caudate. Neurologically these parts of the brain appear to be activated during a food craving episode.

There are two different types of food cravings - emotional and physical.

When you experience a physical craving, it’s quite possible your not getting enough of one macronutrient, usually not enough fat or protein. Maybe you are entering into your menstrual cycle, and your in need of some iron. Or perhaps your low on energy and need a jolt to keep you going.

On the other hand, when you experience an emotional craving, it’s usually an indication you are stressed, bored, or you are experiencing unpleasant mood emotion. The problem is when your experiencing either of these emotions, people tend to crave the wrong foods, specifically high sugary foods, which then can lead to other health conditions.

It’s very common that most people experience emotional cravings multiple times in a their life, even daily. Stress unfortunately has a strong link to food cravings. Let’s read more about how cravings are related to stress and what we can do to prevent food cravings.

Reducing food cravings means reducing stress

There is so much truth behind the phrase "stress eating." Stress unleashes hormones, which triggers our brain and pushes people to crave foods that are high-fat, sugary "comfort foods", which then results in overeating.

There are a number of studies that show when people are stressed they crave the wrong foods. One study [1] shows that most people tend to crave sweets when faced with a stressful situation, and natural homeostasis is unbalanced. Stress on its own can contribute to weight gain, and that’s excluding food cravings. However, the combination of high cortisol and spiking insulin levels is a bad combination. Add in sleep deprivation, disrupted liver detoxification, and imbalance hormones, well, it’s a revolving cycle that just continues to go in circles.

So, how can we prevent the mind from playing tricks on us? The human brain is a fascinating thing. Once we re-train our minds, and detach ourselves from what once was “the norm”, we start to become aware of what the body needs, not the mind. Here are some other ways to prevent food cravings.

Ways you can prevent food cravings

Drink more water

Thirst is often confused with hunger, or food cravings. If you feel a sudden urge for a specific food, try drinking a large glass of water and wait a few minutes. You may find that the craving fades away, because your body was actually just thirsty. [Try: Drinking water before meals may reduce cravings and appetite, as well as help with weight loss.]

Change your habits

Changing your existing habits can be difficult at first. For example, if you’re a late night eater, and you find yourself going to reach for chips at 8 o'clock at night, try taking a shower to get yourself ready for bed. Or you can try something new like meditation. Meditation has some powerful effects on the human body and the brain. Ultimately, you want to change your daily habit and stimulate the brain do something that you typically don't do.

Increase protein

A healthy diet involves eating an adequate amount of protein. Eating more protein may reduce your appetite and keep you from overeating. One study shows, eating enough protein reduces cravings, and helps you feel full and satisfied for longer [2].

Practice mindful eating

Mindful eating is about practicing mindfulness, a type of meditation, in relation to foods, and eating. Mindful eating teaches you to distinguish between cravings, and actual physical hunger. It helps you choose your response, instead of acting thoughtlessly or impulsively. Eating mindfully involves being present while you eat, slowing down, and chewing thoroughly. It is also important to avoid distractions, like the TV or your smartphone.

Getting enough sleep

A study [3] found that not getting enough sleep could alter the body's hormonal balance. This imbalance contributes to overeating and weight gain. The researchers noted that when the sleep-deprived participants switched to an adequate sleep schedule, they lost weight, which indicates that their hormones were brought back into balance.

Craving replacements

Salty chips - Craving salty potato chips, this also means your likely suffering from stress, try replacing those salty potato chips with roasted nuts or popcorn.

Chocolate - One of the biggest cravings, aside from chips. When you crave chocolate you could be low in magnesium. Try substituting chocolate for magnesium rich almonds.

Pop/Soda - Besides the fact that pop is high in sugar and calories, drinking pop leaches calcium out of your bones. Try infusing sparkling water with fruit, citrus or herbal tea.

Take the test.

Next time you're craving something - take the test to find out if your experiencing hunger emotionally or physically.

Emotional vs. Physical Hunger

Am I eating in response to physical hunger? (rumbling stomach, low energy, etc.) or am I feeling scared, frustrated, overwhelmed or happy?

Test: Ask yourself, "How physically hungry am I on a scale from 1-10 (1=starving, 5=satiated 10=stuffed)?" If you are a 1-5, it's likely that you do need something to eat. If so, that is okay. If you answer 6-10, it's likely that food isn't going to help a bit.

Fix: Try eating an orange. They are a great food to help curb emotional eating, and to de-stress. It is easy to peel, and the segments are perfectly portioned to mindfully eat one at a time. The sweet flavor is satisfying and research has shown that citrus aromas can be calming. Also, an orange gives a little boost of vitamin C, just what you need when stressed or emotional.

Take home message

Cravings are very common. In fact, more than 50% of people experience cravings on a regular basis. But, no matter how powerless you feel over food and your feelings, it is possible to make a positive change. You can find healthier ways to deal with your emotions. Learn to eat mindfully instead of mindlessly and gain control back without the guilt.

In health and happiness,

Jaclyn Xo