We’ve all been there; minding our own business with our nice healthy diet, full of a rich variety of foods, giving us more than enough nutrients, when out of nowhere our thoughts start to wander and present to us a scintillating image of donuts, pizza, burgers, or fries (or all of the above at once) in full, glorious detail.
Once in the mind’s eye, these cravings can be near impossible to escape, but is there something deeper than simple food fantasy at play? What do food cravings mean? How should we interpret them? And what do cravings say about our bodily health or mental state?
Do Cravings Come from Your Body or Brain?
Firstly, we should address a split between the physiological and the psychological. The neurological and the nutritional. There have been countless studies on which of these has a greater influence where cravings are concerned, and though at times one may inform the other, a lot of the time a lack of nutrients isn’t what’s behind your burning desire for ice- cream. But is one more prevalent than the other? The most constructive approach to understanding your cravings will be to look beyond the food and develop an understanding of its roots in your personal history.
Some studies suggest that memories are the key to why we experience cravings. It is understood that whenever we eat a food we like, we create a positive memory of it and we reinforce this memory every time we eat that food. Take a step back to understand your craving, and you may come to the realization that you yourself have created positive food memories; camping trips with your dad as a kid when you always cooked hot dogs over a campfire, or that fast food treat after Saturday hockey practice. Suddenly your craving becomes more transparent and easier to understand.
Wrapped Up in Emotion
Perhaps if you are going through a particularly trying time, be this on an emotional level, or stress-related, you will find yourself more prone to cravings. Your body is essentially reaching for a security blanket, a familiarity, and a more peaceful memory-state through the positive associations made with certain flavours, smells, or food textures. In these cases, particularly if the craved food is unhealthy, a constructive approach to dealing with the craving would be better than giving in to it. A study published in the scientific journal Appetite in 2010, linked practicing mindfulness with reduced cravings. This approach is particularly useful if the food is one that you have since cut out of your diet and do not wish to reintroduce (we’re looking at you refined sugar)! Ultimately a comfort craving might just be a sign that you need to do a little stress-busting, or take some time to look after your mental well-being.
Call for Nutrients
So what about the second approach? Another common understanding of where cravings originate from, is that your body is communicating to you that it needs a specific nutrient which it does by calling for foods it knows hold that nutrient. You should always bear in mind, however, that most foods consist of various components; a lot of the time the food locked in your sights will have some nutrients, such as fat or carbohydrates, that you could do without alongside those which your body is communicating it needs. In these instances, seeking healthier substitutes will help satiate your craving, whilst staying healthy. If you desperately desire carbs, look to wholegrain, whilst whole fruit could satisfy a sweet tooth.
As we’ve already seen, cravings are not always quite as straight forward as one might first think; cravings for sugary foods may well be down to a drop in blood sugar, and calls for red meats might indicate a lack of iron, however hormonal imbalances could be at play when it comes down to craving some foods. For example, when we experience stress, adrenal glands flood the body with cortisol which can cause hunger for high-fat foods. Combating the stress in this situation is more beneficial than giving in to the craving and you’ll still solve the issue.
Ch Ch- Changes
If you’ve recently had a change in lifestyle which your body isn’t quite used to yet, perhaps you’ve gone sugar-free and your body misses the “sugar high” it was used to, this could be the root of your current craving. This is simply a case of your body adapting and is quite normal; any transitional period we go through invites rose-tinted memories of ‘before’ so focus on finding solutions that help you continue your current lifestyle that will also satisfy the flavor-craving.
Drowning Your Sorrows
A final thought to keep in mind is that, as interconnected as our brain and body may be, the mind isn’t always that great at interpreting what the body is trying to say. A surprising amount of the time your craving might simply be a mistranslation of dehydration, and a large glass of water can wash away those pesky pangs.
So whatever it is you desire, a quick and simple analysis of the food you’re craving, your current stress and/or emotional levels, and your nutritional intake of late, can help you properly understand what your craving truly means, and how to crush it in the healthiest way you can.