We have seen several studies showing how sugar can affect regions of the brain in the same way that drugs and alcohol does. Sugar can cause momentary mood improvements although it is often followed by a serious drop in mood soon after, you know the type of addictive cycle that I’m talking about and it is the reason that you go to reach for that sugary snack or drink again.
Why do we have cravings and what do food cravings mean?
Cravings go beyond just needing a pick me up at certain times of the day, they can be psychological, indicate that your body is low in certain vitamins or minerals, that your body is imbalanced, or it could mean that you are simply dehydrated. Cravings are complex and may be caused by a combination of social, emotional, cultural, and environmental cues. The issue these days is that we are bombarded with so many processed, refined foods that we become confused about what our body really needs.
That’s because food often becomes associated with emotions, habits, or with our own internal reward system. How many movies have you seen in which a woman has been left heartbroken and sitting on a lounge eating straight out of the tub of ice cream. Your brain can associate eating a specific food to a specific context — for instance, popcorn and a movie. This may cause you to crave that particular food the next time the same context comes around.
Although cravings are common, they are difficult to ignore and typically many feel an intense desire for a specific type of food. Becoming aware of your cravings and your internal dialogue may help you become aware of certain factors that may trigger your cravings. At the end of the day our brains are wired to enjoy things that make us feel happy and sugar in particular releases ‘happy’ brain chemicals, like serotonin, our feel-good hormone, which makes you want to get this feeling back over and over again. For example, sweet and salty foods and drinks can be incredibly addictive, food scientists know this and that is why many processed foods are loaded with them. They trigger the release of the hormone dopamine which motivates us to engage in rewarding behaviours. This in turn can cause people to overeat particularly if they are experiencing stress, loneliness, low blood sugar, boredom or low serotonin or dopamine levels. Stress on the other hand can increase your levels of the hormone cortisol. High cortisol levels may be linked to hunger, cravings, and a higher likelihood of stress- or binge-eating behaviours. Some evidence also suggests that people who are more impulsive or have higher scores on measures of addictive personality may also have a higher likelihood of experiencing food cravings
Before we delve into what it means to crave certain foods let’s take a look at some Physical causes
- Hormones Leptin and ghrelin imbalance. An imbalance in these hunger and fullness hormones may cause certain people to experience more food cravings than others.
- Pregnancy. Hormonal changes in pregnancy may influence your smell and taste receptors, in turn, causing you to experience additional cravings.
- Lack of sleep. Too little or poor-quality sleep can disturb your levels of the hormones responsible for regulating hunger, fullness, and sleep-wake cycles, possibly intensifying food cravings.
- A nutrient-poor diet. Nutrients like protein and fibre can help you feel full. A diet that’s low in these nutrients may cause you to feel hungry or experience cravings, even if you have otherwise consumed enough calories.
What does it mean if you are craving something sweet?
Cravings for foods like chocolate, ice-cream or other sugary treats may indicate a few different things including underlying stress or emotional upheaval. Additionally research out of Yale University found that women are more susceptible to cravings (for complex reasons, however it may be likened to hormones). Craving sugar may also indicate blood sugar imbalances and deficiencies in minerals such as chromium and magnesium. As mentioned, chocolate falls under the sweet category and once again may indicate that your magnesium levels may be low along with B vitamins, chromium, and essential fatty acids. Women especially may notice this around the time of menstruation as your body utilizes more magnesium. The changes in the hormones oestrogen and progesterone that occur just prior to getting your period may also intensify cravings, especially for carbohydrate rich foods.
What does it mean when you are craving Cheese?
Cheese and crackers anyone? Pretty much a staple in many lunch boxes around the world, not to mention being a great accompaniment alongside a glass of wine. Cheese may be classed as being a comfort food. We generally look for comfort foods when there are some emotions that we are finding difficult to process. The amino acid L-tryptophan, which is found in dairy as well as chicken, eggs, fish to name a few foods also influences serotonin production by increasing niacin in the body. The associated benefits include a reduction in depression and anxiety as well as better quality sleep.
What does it mean when you are craving carbohydrates?
Cravings for pasta, bread, and other carbohydrates can manifest from several physiological or emotional reasons, including high insulin levels or low blood sugar. Cravings for processed flours like those mentioned above may indicate insulin resistance, hypoglycaemia (blood sugar fluctuations), chromium deficiency or fatigue. Often it can go unnoticed, however, people may often crave crackers, savoury biscuits, noodles, white breads, chips rather than sweet, sugary foods.
Why you may be craving salt.
Now this is an interesting craving as for many years we were told that too much salt is bad for you, however, craving salt may indicate that you are dehydrated or have an electrolyte imbalance. There are differing occasions in which our bodies require more salt than others including after excessive exercise, or when you are sweating intensely. It may also be an indication that your adrenal glands are being stretched to their limits.
Why you may be craving Red Meat
Craving red meat may well be a sign that you are iron, zinc or Vitamin B12 deficient, iron deficiency seems to be quite common particularly in women. Some signs of iron deficiency include unusual tiredness, pale colouring of the skin (including gums inside of your lips or lower eyelids and eyes). Shortness of breath, headaches, dry and damaged hair and skin among other symptoms. If you have concerns that you may be iron deficient, please consult your health care professional as you may require tests to confirm your ferritin/iron levels.
What to do when Cravings hit?
One of the first suggestions I would have, is to first stop and consider why you have the craving? Is it because you are genuinely hungry? or could it be that you haven’t drunk enough water? Is stress the cause? Quite often going outside for a quick walk around the block, or just being outside and getting some sunshine may be enough to relieve stress. Breathing exercises are also highly beneficial in reducing stress and calming the nervous system. After completing these suggested activities and the cravings are still hanging around try reaching for carrot or celery sticks with hummus or avocado dip. Additionally, eating a craved food less frequently may be more effective at reducing your craving for that particular food than eating a small portion of that food whenever you crave it.
If you are considering following the hCG diet you will find that cravings disappear quite quickly, this is due to the meals being spread out over the day, therefore, you will be eating quite regularly which prevents dips in blood sugar. The maintenance patch is also really beneficial in stabilising blood sugar levels and reducing cravings. I hope this helps give you some insight into why you may be craving certain foods and some helpful tips on how to keep them at bay.
Adv Dip Health Science Naturopathy, Nutrition