Food cravings are extremely common, and very real. Learning to understand
what’s causing the cravings and finding ways of preventing and managing them is
key, especially if you have a specific goal you are working towards such as fat loss.
They are caused by the regions of the brain that are responsible for pleasure, reward
and memory. Therefore, it’s important to realise here that a craving is different to
hunger. It is your brain wanting something that releases dopamine in the reward
system rather than your body needing energy to function.
Restricting foods from your diet and viewing certain foods as ‘bad’ or ‘forbidden’
often increases your desire and cravings for them. Hence why if you’ve ever tried to
cut out a whole food group (yes, you know what I’m referring to… glorious carbs!),
you only crave that food group more.
Your brain is very clever; it can associate specific foods with specific environments.
Ever wondered why you need popcorn as soon as you step foot in the cinema? As
well as the giant bag of pick and mix? And let’s not forget the large soft drink to wash
it down with. If you were at home, you’d likely sit through a movie without the need of
any of these foods. Next time you are in a situation, think, “am I hungry, or is this just
Our emotions may also be a reason behind cravings. We all know about comfort
eating. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that influences your mood as well
as feelings of reward and motivation. When we eat, dopamine is released in the
reward system in our brain. Some foods do actually release more dopamine than
others, hence why when you open a packet of cookies, you struggle to stop at two.
Certain emotional states, for example loneliness or feeling depressed can actually be
a trigger for food cravings – this is known as emotional eating. Again this is not a
state of hunger, this is a need to satisfy the brain’s desire for dopamine.
As I mentioned before cravings are common; however, repeatedly giving into the
cravings is never going to be a good thing. Luckily, a healthy lifestyle including a well
balanced diet can help to increase your body’s natural production of dopamine;
therefore, something to focus on to help prevent cravings in the first place.
Hormones are another common cause of cravings. An imbalance of hormones such
as serotonin and leptin can cause cravings. Getting too little sleep may disrupt
hormone levels and thus lead to cravings. Cravings during pregnancy are also due to
hormonal changes that can disrupt taste and smell receptors.
There is also the possibility that a craving for a specific food may be due to a certain
nutrient deficiency. Thus, your body is trying to correct this deficiency by craving a
food rich in this nutrient.
7 TIPS FOR REDUCING CRAVINGS:
- WATER INTAKE
Your body finds it hard to distinguish between thirst and hunger. Next time you have
a craving for something, first have a large glass of water and see if the craving is still
there. You may think you’re hungry but you actually might just be thirsty. Aim for 2 –
2.5 litres of water per day (keep a water bottle with you) to remain hydrated
throughout the day and reduce the cravings occurring in the first place.
- MEAL STRUCTURE
Eating regular meals is key. Your body likes a routine and structure. We’ve all been
there when you didn’t have lunch before your lunchtime meeting and it’s now
4pm…You pop to the nearest shop and next minute you’re diving into a triple
chocolate cookie and milkshake. Take the time to plan ahead and you won’t get to
this point. Trust us, having a regular meal structure is one of the most important
factors when it comes to changing body composition.
Sleep is something often forgotten when it comes to weight management. Sleep
deprivation can disrupt hormones and may lead to cravings the following day. This
helps to explain why you struggle to regulate your appetite following a poor night's
sleep. Adequate sleep coupled with a good meal structure can help your circadian
rhythm, which can help to reduce those cravings.
- PROTEIN INTAKE
Protein is one of the three macronutrients (along with carbohydrates and fats). Out of
the three, protein is the most satiating. One reason for this is due to its effects on gut
hormone response. This means it will help to make you feel fuller for longer. By
ensuring you space your protein intake out throughout the day and aim to have a
source in each of your meals, this will help reduce cravings between meals and
unnecessary snacking. This is also why I encourage people to base snacks on a
source of protein, such as hummus and veg sticks, boiled eggs or a natural greek
yoghurt with berries.
- VEG INTAKE
As well as protein, focus on your vegetable intake too. Bulking out meals with
vegetables helps to increase satiety without massively increasing calories. Try and
include a variety of colours in each of your meals across the day. Beans, peas and
lentils are all rich in fibre as well as plant protein and are also a great way to increase
satiety and reduce cravings.
- AVOID RESTRICTION
As I said previously, meal structure is key. By under-eating you are making your
cravings worse. Instead of waiting for the extreme feelings of hunger, plan ahead and structure in regular meals and snacks throughout your day. Preparation is key.
Stock your cupboards with healthy snacks and staples so when you are feeling
hungry you can go for the healthy option. Another tip worth noting here is to only buy
the essentials. If your cupboards are stocked with more unhealthy foods then you’re
not helping yourself!
- EAT MORE MINDFULLY
Far too often we don’t actually stop and enjoy the food we are eating. We are sitting
in front of our laptops shovelling down lunch or eating dinner in front of the TV.
Focusing on your food as you eat is so important for digestion and for managing
blood sugar levels. Being mindful about your eating patterns is vital for becoming
more aware of your hunger cues, emotions and cravings. My final tip here is to
simply relax and be present when you eat your food. This will lead to less
“emotional” eating also. This can really help benefit recognising when you are
Words by Beattitude trainer and Nutritionist Becs Sandwith @bitesbybecs