A top obstacle in the journey that is weight loss are the frequent, almost uncontrollable, cravings we all get for our favorite foods. We’ve all been their completely tapped out after a large meal, quietly minding our own business, and suddenly we feel the urge to head back to the pantry for our favorite chocolate delight. We just ate so we know we don’t need the chocolate, but at the same time we NEED the chocolate.
And this is where cravings distinctly differ from our normal satiated, un-satiated hunger cycle. Cravings tend to be much more psychological in nature as compared to our normal physiologically controlled satiety system and understanding a few of the ways these cravings might get set off is important to know so we can better understand how we can combat them. So instead of trying to fight an uphill battle against the cravings themselves we can instead address the psychology that got us there in the first place.
Now while I did just say cravings tend to be more psychological in nature, we’ll address the one possible exception first, which is the idea that some cravings can result from a need for a specific nutrient. The most common example being a desire to consume salty snacks like potato chips when we are low on sodium.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting research in this area and it’s hard to say how much of a factor this may play in cravings, but it is good to know about, nonetheless. But for the most part we will try and focus in on the other psychological causes.
Probably the first cause most people would think about when it comes to cravings, a high stress-level can promote “comfort eating” as a mechanism to combat negative emotions, and in turn this can lead to weight gain. Not surprisingly those with higher stress levels report more frequent cravings than those with lower stress levels, add on top of this that stress itself could increase weight gain due to an increased release of the stress hormone cortisol and you’ve got a recipe for weight loss disaster.
For numerous health reasons outside of just cravings addressing stress in our lives should be priority number one when it comes to our overall well-being.
Sleep hits the mark on both physiological and psychological when it comes to our cravings. On the physiological side of things, it seems that sleep deprivation can mess with our hormone levels and lead to increased ghrelin levels (the hormone which makes us hungry) which of course in turn would lead to more cravings. And then on the psychological things, sleep deprivation would also lead to a decreased overall mood and increased stress levels leading to the same pitfalls as the above stress category.
Much like stress it is crucial that we are getting both an adequate amount of sleep each night and on top of that quality sleep (i.e. not restless/constantly waking up) and this again will help address not only your cravings but many other areas of your health.
Often times when individuals start new diets for themselves they will set harsh imposing rules such as “I am not going to eat *Insert favorite sinful food here* for the rest of the year” and unfortunately this ends up doing the opposite of the original intention. When we set harsh restrictions on ourselves or declare certain foods as “forbidden” we are increasing the likelihood that we will have cravings for that exact item.
The best diet plans are those which an individual can adhere to for long periods of time, which simply isn’t going to happen if you are restricting some of your favorite foods outright. It is often very possible for our favorite desserts, or meals (as they’ve come to be known today “cheat meals”) into our diet plans intelligently and without going over our intended calorie goals you just have to be able to plan things out ahead of time. You can cut down on the cravings for your favorite foods quite simply by including those favorite foods into your overall diet plan.
An often-forgotten fact is that food can increase opioid levels in the brain lighting up pleasure centers and making us feel good (many only think about this in the context of drugs causing this reaction) but foods can do it all the same. This means that like I stated above food can be an extremely effective coping mechanism for things like stress, anxiety, or any instances of negative emotions in our life (think how often you want to reach for a pint of ice cream after a rough day?).
This pathway is not inherently bad, in fact it’s genius in terms of our survival as there is a high incentive for us to eat which in turn helps keep us alive. We simply need to be cognizant of the fact that this reward mechanism is there and be objective with ourselves when the cravings arrive. Am I eating this chocolate right now because I’m hungry? Or am I simply using this to light up the reward center? Either way is completely acceptable, but if you’ve got weight loss goals running in the background you may have to weigh your options as to which is more important to you.
Here are some quick tips to keep in mind
Now despite understanding a bit more of the psychology behind cravings this doesn’t mean we still aren’t going to experience them so here are some tips you can test out to try and ditch that craving!
- Quit Cold Turkey: Often times just riding out a craving for around 3-5 minutes can be enough for it to pass (I wouldn’t make this you’re go to though it has the chance of back-firing and making you crave something more)
- Drink a Glass of Water: This is twofold 1. Cravings can be you misinterpreting your body being thirsty and 2. The glass of water can help make you feel more full, at the very least this will be helping you stay on top of your hydration needs for the day which is always a plus!
- Up your daily Protein Intake: Protein is the go-to macronutrient in terms of feeling satiated and can help cut down on your overall cravings/how hungry you feel over the course of the day
- Plan out Your Meals: An obvious decision for cutting down on cravings is making sure you are well-fed throughout the day with full nutrient dense meals. Much easier to hold off on snacking when you know you’ve got a nice breakfast, lunch, or dinner coming your way.
- Choose a Close Alternative: So maybe you don’t give in completely to your craving but still allow yourself some satisfaction, some common alternatives to popular cravings would fruit or frozen berries for sweets, unbuttered lightly salted popcorn for salty cravings, and small portions of true rich dark chocolate as opposed to highly processed chocolate candy in the case of a chocolate craving
Cravings will always be rough to deal with simply due to their impulsive nature and the sense that they are uncontrollable in nature, but I’m here to tell you that you do have a choice in the matter. Understanding the psychological nature of cravings is important so you can address the area of your life which could potentially be leading to issues, and then using the above strategies will help you deal with the inevitable instances of cravings that will still pop up from time to time.
Like any other skill you’ll eventually get better at handling your cravings, and understanding where they may be coming from.