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Understanding Food Cravings
Food is a source of pleasure for many (myself included 🙋🏼), but the human relationship with food is a complicated one. Other factors – besides true hunger – can cause food cravings, including:
We sometimes reach for comfort foods that are high in salt sugar and fat to suppress these psychological feelings and satisfy emotional needs.
These ultra-processed foods have been manufactured to make them taste irresistible, and dietary restrictions and skipping meals only make cravings worse. To cap it off, the super-sweet, super-salty nature of many processed foods can dull your tastebuds into thinking that whole foods taste like cardboard.
Some studies have shown that highly processed foods have a similar effect on the body as addictive drugs; when we eat the foods we’re craving, our brains are rewarded with a hit of feel-good chemicals – like dopamine and serotonin – that bring us feelings of pleasure and satisfaction.
And the more frequently we eat these highly processed foods, the more desensitised we become to the effects of dopamine, so it becomes a vicious circle – we need to eat more of these foods to get the same level of satisfaction.
It’s no wonder so many people are hooked on junk.
Do my food cravings mean I have a nutritional deficiency?
There is not enough evidence to support the hypothesis that specific* food cravings signal nutrient deficiencies.
*specific cravings for your favourite chocolate bar or ice cream are normal, and different from intense, insatiable cravings for ice or salty food, or extreme thirst, which should be investigated by your doctor.
However, there is now some evidence to suggest that our gut microbiome may be capable of manipulating our taste buds.
Here are my top tips for dealing with food cravings:
🍎 Eat more fibre – it’s highly satiating so you’ll feel full for longer, and it’s what your gut microbiome *really* wants you to chow down on.
✍🏼 Plan to eat the foods you crave – allowing yourself to eat small quantities of what your heart (or gut!) desires makes you less likely to overindulge on it spontaneously.
🤯 Try to keep on top of stress – it’s the number one trigger for emotional eating.
🥒 Ditch the diet – eat balanced, regular meals and don’t let yourself get too hungry. Schedule snacks into your day if you need them. There is nothing wrong with some (planned) snacking.
😴 Make sure you’re getting enough sleep – deprivation can interfere with the hormones that regulate appetite.
💦 Stay hydrated – sometimes thirst can be mistaken as hunger.
🤗 Cut yourself some slack – cravings are perfectly normal. Honour your hunger, respect your fullness, and work on finding other ways to reward yourself that don’t involve food if your cravings are coming from a place of emotion.
Overcoming a junk food addiction
The key to a balanced diet is variety, and the occasional treat can absolutely be a part of that. What you eat on a daily basis is far more important for your overall health and wellbeing than what you eat at times of celebration, which is why I don’t believe in restriction or the complete removal of any foods from a healthy diet. Except for dairy, but that’s a whole different blog post.
If you’re used to eating a lot of processed food then it may take some time and a little experimentation to adapt your palate to enjoy whole foods, but it can be done in a matter of weeks.
We’re not born with likes and dislikes where food is concerned; we develop them. So, just as you developed a fondness for the food you currently eat, you’ll be able to acquire a taste for more unprocessed, whole foods.
Healthy eating tastes better the longer you stick it out. Not only that, but you will actually start to crave things like a fresh fruit salad!