What makes food cravings different from general hunger is just how specific they are. It is not a case of being so hungry we would take anything that was given to us, a food craving is a desire for a very particular food which is unfortunately often something high in fat or sugar.
The majority of us will experience an intense craving for chocolate, pizza, sweets, crisps etc from time to time but these desires can be particularly difficult to overcome for certain individuals such as people on a calorie controlled diet or those struggling with a weight problem.
What causes food cravings?
Though the exact cause of food cravings is difficult to pinpoint, many doctors and nutritionists alike believe that they develop as a result of a complex medley of biochemical processes and a variety of hormonal and emotional factors.
Before food cravings were subject to scientific research and studies, many individuals were of the belief that they originated as a reaction to our body's telling us we needed a specific food in order to correct a nutritional deficiency. However, in light of evidence suggesting alternative reasoning and because cravings are usually for unhealthy foods, the prevalence of this outlook has reduced significantly.
In recent years some studies have suggested mental imagery has a part to play in food cravings, finding that when some people crave a particular food they are actually picturing it at the same time.
There are many additional theories as to the causes of food cravings, some of which can be found below:
Blood sugar imbalance
Blood sugar imbalance, a condition in which the body is unable to effectively manage glucose, is also thought to play a major role in the development of many cravings. Throughout the day blood glucose levels can fluctuate too much meaning they lie outside of acceptable levels and can cause cravings, thirst and mood swings.
When we are feeling down, stressed or bored we often turn to food for comfort. Though this is natural, if psychological problems trigger food cravings frequently things can quickly spiral out of control. In some severe cases food cravings could evolve into episodes of binge eating, drastic weight gain, eating disorders and emotional issues.
Visit our page on binge eating disorder to find out how emotional factors have an impact on the amount of food we eat.
Women will know all too well that some of the most intense cravings tend to happen close to menstruation or throughout pregnancy. These factors alone are a strong indicator that hormones can influence our food choices.
Hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose)
Hypoglycaemia, or low blood glucose as it is otherwise known, is a condition in which sugar levels in the blood drop to below a certain point. This tends to be caused by a lack of food and triggers symptoms such as food cravings, headaches, tiredness, trembling and a number of other symptoms. Symptoms usually subside when something is eaten to replenish the blood sugar levels.
Stop food cravings
If you do frequently experience intense food cravings which are a hinderance for whatever reason then there are ways of reducing them. If you don't feel that you have the confidence and motivation needed to succeed on your own then a qualified nutritionist is someone who will be able to help you achieve your goals of adopting healthier and craving free eating patterns.
Before you meet with a nutritionist they may ask you to keep a diary of your cravings, what they are, when you crave them, how long before you give in to them and how you are feeling at the time. This background information will help your nutritionist to build a picture of your eating habits and will help them to develop a nutrition programme which is tailored to your unique needs.
Listed below are some basic tips which may help you to curb food cravings:
Remember everybody is unique and the following is general advice only. You are advised to consult your GP before making any significant changes to your diet.
There is a common misconception that skipping meals or going a long time without food helps people to lose weight, when in actual fact if we go too long without eating and blood sugar falls it can have the opposite effect resulting in food cravings and overeating. Various health associations have recommended that a sensible period for leaving between both snacking and mealtimes is 3-4 hours for a women and 4-5 hours for a man. This doesn't mean you have to eat a three course meal every three hours and much of the time a piece of fruit or a few nuts will be enough to tide you over until your next proper mealtime. Eating regularly could also help to increase the efficiency of your metabolism.
Opt for low-GI foods
Glycemic Index or GI is the term used to describe the different effects carbohydrates have on the body by ranking them according to the effect they have on blood glucose levels. High GI foods are absorbed quickly into the blood stream and raise blood sugar levels so high that the body over reacts and depresses the levels below normal. The fluctuations can cause cravings, a loss of appetite and mood swings. In order to avoid these side effects it is best to consume as few high GI products as possible as this will ensure there are only minimal fluctuations in blood glucose levels.
Restrict sugar and salt intake
The occasional teaspoon of sugar or sprinkle of salt is fine in moderation but using either too frequently in your diet may mean you become used to the taste and start considering food without it as bland. In addition to this, getting used to the taste may also mean that when you do eat unsalted or unsugared food you crave something sweet or something salty. For this reason try to restrict your intake, don't get into the habit of adding salt to every meal or sugar to every drink and don't exceed the daily guidelines for either.
Don't be fooled by sweeteners
If something says it doesn't contain sugar that doesn't mean it doesn't contain sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substitutes for sugar and can actually be many times sweeter than sugar itself and though they may be less calorie laden they could end up triggering sugar cravings.
Say no to processed foods
Processed foods such as ready meals can be extremely tasty, convenient and for those who are pushed for time may be essential now and again. However, the taste from the meals is achieved by pumping these foods full of extra salt, fat, sugar and chemicals which do not naturally occur. It is not healthy to rely too heavily on these foods as your key dietary source and the hidden sugar and salt etc can trigger cravings.
The act of exercise reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and increases mood boosting ones such as endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals in the body which help us to feel good, and are released into the bloodstream along with other happy hormones serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline when we exercise.
As discussed in the above, our mood often influences what we eat and how much of it, so frequent exercise will help to control food cravings. Government recommendations state that we should be aiming for 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity five days a week, plus a minimum of two sessions of muscle strengthening activities per week (not on consecutive days).
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