Has this happened to you? You set off on a diet to improve your health, wellbeing and appearance, and yet somewhere, along the way, that sneaky feeling of “I must have xyz, I NEED to have xyz!” sets in and takes over control? And after a quick, somewhat cloudy episode, you find yourself faced with an empty plate that once contained that xyz. Your body on the other hand is filled with pleasure and guilt, wondering what that thing was that took such control over you, and why you completely gave in to it? Yes, you just gave in to a big craving. Hey, we all have been there at one point or another. And we all very well know that feeling of “I shouldn’t but it’s just too good” or “I’m just going to have a bite” and the entire piece of cake is gone in less than a minute 😊.
Have your cake and eat it too
I am not here to judge or preach. After all, food should be more than just the function of providing us with nourishment. It is that magical substance that brings people and communities together. It is the act of sharing food and stories that bring so much meaning to life, and let’s not forget, it is a reminder to enjoy life.
But when a craving is caused or followed by stress or an imbalance, then this sends us in the opposite direction of enjoying food. Stress has been tied to changes in eating behavior and food choice. When under higher chronic stress, the possibility increases that we might reach for a calorie-laden snack (think of that chocolate cake for comfort). But if the consumption of the cake additionally leads to more stress because of our feeling of inadequacy, or social judgment, or failure, then I have to ask – what was even the point in it?!
In order to avoid confusion, let’s first define a few terms that are often used around food.
Hunger, is our primarily physical drive to eat. Internal organs interact with hormones and hormone-like factors, the nervous system and other aspects of the body physiology to influence eating.
Appetite, is our psychological drive to eat. It is affected by external stimuli, such as seeing a tempting dessert. It can be triggered by cravings, habits and availability of food.
What is a craving?
A craving is an intense desire to consume a specific food. The cause might not be hunger, as the person would not be satisfied with any other food.
Consuming a substance on a daily basis can lead to increased cravings, even addiction. Sugar and caffeine are the two most stimulating habits in our daily diet. And unfortunately, these two can become addictive from a very young age too. Alcohol and nicotine are the next level of problematic substances, with many more symptoms of excessive, habitual use.
Three major causes of cravings
If you’d like to get to the bottom of your cravings and control them, then finding out the cause of your craving could be an advantage. Cravings can sometimes be an indication to a nutritional deficiency, other times they can simply reflect an emotional state. The causes are different, and hence our approach needs to be adapted to the cause.
You can be addicted to certain foods, and that addiction will lead to intense cravings. With addiction you might notice certain symptoms, such as headache, tension, fatigue, skin or digestive issues. Usually after the consumption of the food you’re addicted to those symptoms are relieved. The most common foods that one can be addicted to are sugar and coffee. If you give up coffee your craving for it will increase, as well as the unpleasant symptoms of a headache or mood swings. If you then have a cup of coffee these symptoms will disappear, but the addiction won’t. Willpower is needed to break the addiction, as well as a few other tricks, I will share towards the end of this article.
Allergy is the appositive of addiction in that the consumption of an allergic substance gives the unpleasant symptoms.
Our environment and associated emotions
Our likes and dislikes to certain foods often develop when we are children and they can be difficult to change. What we are served at birthdays, schools or holidays oftentimes influences the association of sweets and rewards which we carry later in life too. There is a reason why many people crave chocolate when they feel lonely or not loved. Also, seeing or thinking of foods that usually cause cravings can trigger a craving. This is why I always recommend to my clients to make an inventory of their kitchen and pantry and to throw away all their “guilty pleasures” if they are serious about making a lifestyle change. The truth is that if you don’t have it, you won’t eat it. And fortunately, many times, a craving subsides after 10 minutes, so there’s that willpower need again, to be able to simply sit with it and wait it out.
Imbalance of systems
Cravings can arise out of an imbalance / deficiency of macro and micro nutrients, nutrient proportions as well as missing food qualities.
Here’s an example: if you consume too much red meat you are consuming plenty of proteins without any carbohydrates. The body will try to balance this out by with the consumption of sugar. The relationship between the consumption of white sugar and meat can be explained with the principle of opposites in foods*.
When sugar intake exceeds the amount necessary to balance the meat, trouble arises. We now know that sugar is addictive, much like a drug. In fact, if you have small children and see how they act after they consume a sugary snack, you can see many of the same symptoms as in drug addicts.
Consuming balanced and satisfying meals, that will meet nutritional needs will give us little incentive for binging or “cheating”. For this to happen we need to focus on ingredients that are whole, natural foods, without chemicals or sugar. Having a diet that is too restrictive or too imbalanced will lead your body to try and balance it out with foods that will bring an opposite effect.
How to successfully deal with a craving
First identify what your cravings are and if there is any food addiction as well. Many times, an addiction to sugar can lead to intense cravings, and here are two scenarios that might present an addiction:
- You take a bite from a cake and it creates the desire for more sugar. You can’t stop eating the cake once you have started.
- If you quit sugar “cold-turkey” and suffer from withdrawal symptoms that can last from 3 days to 3 weeks. These include: strong cravings, fatigue, depression, lassitude, mood swings, maybe headaches.
How to defeat a craving and change our habits
Luckily, we can change our habits and become healthier in the process. We can change and choose what we eat, how we eat and when we eat. Working on reducing cravings is a change, and as such, it requires motivation and time to allow for physiological readjustments and even withdrawal to take place.
As first you should try to eliminate the food that is causing you a craving.
Identify the cause of the craving:
Try to stop for a minute when a craving arises to tune in and identify what the cause of the craving might be.
If you feel better or worse as soon as you consume the given food or any symptoms appear, then it might be a good idea to identify if there is an allergy or addiction. In both cases, you should work to eliminate the craving.
Identify if the craving is based on an emotional or habitual reaction. For example, you are feeling a little down so you reach for the ice-cream (emotional cause); or you’re used to having biscuits every evening while you watch your favorite show (habit). In both cases you can substitute what you are craving for with a healthier version (for example banana nice cream or oat cookies) and work on reducing the quantity and the frequency of consuming these foods and addressing the real triggers (for example resolving emotional issues or boredom).
Lastly, if the craving is due to an imbalance in the body, such as nutritional deficit, or overconsumption of certain foods, then maybe this table can help you decide how to properly tackle this imbalance.
Here is a list of cravings that balance one-sided diets based on the notion that foods have opposite effects in the body (acid-alkaline*; contractive or expansive**):
|High meat||Alcohol, sugar|
|High grain||Salad, coffee|
|High fruit, salad||Salty foods, sweets, protein|
Remember that dealing with cravings requires tuning in with ourselves. This requires patience, willpower as well as objectivity. Some people can stop coffee, chocolate or cigarettes cold-turkey, while others might need a gentler approach. If you are in the latter category, then this table could give you some ideas on how to transition and reduce your cravings. (Note: the table below has been adapted from the book “Food and Healing” by Annemarie Colbin)
|Sugar||Dates, fruit, whole grains|
|Alcohol||Non-alcoholic beer, water infusions|
|Coffee||Grain coffee, matcha|
|Salt||Tamari, sea weeds, herbs and spices|
|Milk products||Nut milk and cheeses; tofu|
|Fats and sweets||Consume more protein (beans, fish, chicken, eggs)|
Some good recipes that you can try when a craving hits are linked here below:
Moving past the craving
Remember, the goal of adopting a healthy lifestyle is not to make you miserable or not to enjoy life (yes, I’ve heard that opinion before!). It is about being the best version of yourself, feeling energetic and vibrant and enjoying food that does your body good. It also means enjoying food that is good for the soul. And granted, soul food might not always be the healthiest. It is about striking that balance. And for that to happen you need to be patient and you need to be consistent. Most times you need to abstain from cravings for a while before you can enjoy some of these foods occasionally again, sometimes it is best you make these foods part of your past. As with everything, cravings are highly individual, and with this post I hope I have managed to highlight just that. And I invite you to stop next time a craving kicks in and tune in to what its cause its. Cravings can be very telling and might give you a better understanding about yourself, and with it – make you more compassionate toward yourself and others.
Notes and references
*The acid-alkaline diet is based on the idea that different foods will leave a different pH residue in the body that can either promote or avert health.
**George Ohsawa, the founder of the macrobiotic diet, thought, that foods can be classified into those that have an “expansive” effect, and those that have a “contractive” effect.
Resources: “Food and healing” by Annemarie Colbin
“Staying healthy with nutrition” by Buck Levin and Elson M. Haas