We all know the feeling of a food craving. That urge to devour a certain food regardless of its nutritional value. If you’re like me, you’ll stop at nothing to fulfill that craving, whether its for something healthy like fresh, vibrant, sweet strawberries or something quite the opposite - like crispy, crunchy, oh-so-bad-for-you potato chips that taste so delicious in that moment that you could sit and eat the entire bag! Why do we crave certain types of foods over others?
Nutrition experts blame our cravings on a variety of factors - from evolution to stress to lack of certain nutrients in the diet. If you’re trying to clean up your diet by eating fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains, nothing is worse than an intense yearning for a package of Oreos!
Cravings can be far more intense than hunger pangs, and actually involve very different chemical reactions in the body than hanger does. When we’re hungry, our brain tells us to eat for the sake of providing energy to our bodies and minds. Think about when you’re starving - you’ll eat just about anything whether the food is tasty or not, and its because that nourishment, any type of nourishment, is necessary to survival.
When we crave, the brain releases dopamine and other brain chemicals which are associated with feelings of pleasure and delight. In more primitive times, high-fat, high-calorie foods were necessary to survival and consumed without negative effects because the bodies used up these calories and fat through hunting and labor. Now, as we’ve evolved into working desk jobs and no longer hunting and gathering for our next meal, our bodies have lost the ability to efficiently work through the fat, carbs and calories in many high-calorie foods, but we still crave them!
Mood can determine food cravings as well. When we’re feeling happy, stressed, tired, angry, sad or when there are different hormones coursing through our systems, we can often reach for less-than-healthy snacks. Again, this relates to chemicals in the brain. The sugars and carbohydrates in stereotypical “snack-foods” reacts with these chemicals to enhance moods, which makes us feel good!
When our diets are lacking in nutrients, sugars, fats or carbohydrates we’ll often crave those foods intensely and it may be because our brains and bodies are in need of fuel. Low fat, low carb diets cause the body to use up all stored carbohydrates and fats, and as a diet progresses and less and less healthy carbs and fats are consumed, the body’s reserve begins to run low, which is why you can feel sluggish both physically and mentally during a diet, and can often crave less-than-healthy foods. As a result of the body’s intense need for fuel, it will force you to eat just about anything so long as it gets the fuel it needs - diet or not. Don’t be so limiting with foods - allow yourself healthy fats like almonds, coconut, and avocado to both feed your brain and keep you from a craving.
How does one go about curbing cravings for less-than-healthy-snacks? To start - allow yourself to indulge from time to time. Don’t go overboard and binge on cookies and crackers for a day, but allow yourself a cookie if you’re craving something baked and sweet. If you allow just a little of the tasty treats into your diet, you won’t be missing them the way you would if you eliminated them entirely. Everything in moderation. If you’re someone who eats to relieve stress, then choose snacks that can fulfill that urge for sweets, but at the same time not wreak havoc on your healthy eating plan. Nibble on dark chocolate or eat a cup of Greek yogurt with dried fruit or granola if you’re craving sweets. If you want salt, reach for something like naturally-made buffalo jerky, which is low in carbs and fats, and doesn’t contain nitrates. Try Tanka-jerky from Pomegranate Market - a locally-produced product that can certainly curb a salt-craving!
Another tool and eating habit to combat cravings, is to develop an eating plan which consists of many small, healthy snacks/meals throughout the day. If you're taking 10 minutes for a mid-morning snack of an apple with almond butter, or an early afternoon break to eat a medley of fresh veggies, you're not going to allow yourself to feel famished during the day and will be less likely to crave.
If you don’t trust yourself to make healthy snack choices, then don’t buy foods that will tempt you. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store to find minimally processed options to feed your happy and keep you from reaching for super-processed, sodium-rich, high-sugar snacks when all you really need is an apple or handful of almonds.