The holidays are a tough time of year to ignore your cravings and stick to a healthy eating plan. You feel constantly surrounded by chocolate, cookies, party food, and cocktails as the season is abundant with events and offerings from coworkers, friends, and family.
While there is no single explanation for a food craving it is important to understand each individual body requires certain nutrients to function optimally. From low serotonin levels to a chronic state of inflammation, each body has various needs and is uniquely designed to utilize essential nutrients in food to achieve a state of balance and health.
When depleted of an essential nutrient, a specific food craving may appear. Instead of resorting to willpower or deprivation, it’s important to remember that cravings are a normal part of biological function. This will cause far less frustration in making food choices. So, the next time you are having cravings, don’t suppress them, address them.
Tame your craving
Once a specific food craving is recognized, it is better to address it than to suppress it. Otherwise, the craving will become more aggressive, possibly leading to an unconscious habit that may be difficult to unwind.
While cravings come in various forms, sugar is one of the most powerful food cravings, and in addition to the season’s chocolate Santas and Hunakkah pastries, it is also hidden in most packaged foods. Disguised under the names of corn syrup, molasses, sorbitol, maltodextrin or evaporated cane juice, sugar is infamous of sneaking into our lives and wreaking havoc on our health and mood. New research is now suggesting high levels of sugar even affect our memory.
For most of us, the holidays are the time of year we consume the most sugar, and they are usually the most memorable time of the year. That makes it even more pertinent to understand and manage your cravings, especially if they relate to sugar, so your celebrations can, in fact be memorable. Instead of resorting to willpower or withdrawal when cravings become unmanageable, a more sustainable response is to investigate the root of the cravings so the holiday can be enjoyed instead of survived.
In sorting through the numerous reasons someone can experience a craving, three of the most prominent reasons are …
Many times a craving can merely stem from an alteration in hydration status. When the body senses low levels of fluid intake, it will trigger the thirst response, which can often be mistaken for hunger. Next time you feel an intense craving, try drinking a glass of water before you grab the nearest food items. Often this simple act will resolve the craving altogether. If plain water is not appealing to you at the time of the craving, try combining water with some lime, lemon, or a few slices of cucumber. Pouring in some spritzer water might even make it the perfect bubbly treat you were craving.
Cravings for specific foods can indicate a micronutrient deficiency. The following chart describes some of the specific foods we tent to crave, how micronutrients may play a role in cravings and the optimal function of your body.
Essential nutrient you might be missing
|Chocolate||Magnesium. It is estimated that more than 80% of the population is lacking in this mineral. If you reach for chocolate, be sure to find some that has at least 75% cacao content or higher. You can also find magnesium in foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes and dark leafy greens|
|Sweets||Chromium. This trace mineral is important for blood sugar balance, as it plays a role in insulin sensitivity in muscle tissue. Chromium can be found in broccoli, grapes, cheese and chicken. Besides including more chromium in the diet, it is important to reach for more nutrient dense sources of sweet foods, including fresh fruit or sweet vegetables such as carrots, yams or beets.|
|Salty foods||Zinc, manganese, selenium, molybdenum, copper and iodine. Cravings for salty foods like chips and popcorn may result from chronic stress, which takes a toll on the adrenal glands. Besides managing stress, it is also important to consider including some unprocessed sea salt in your diet, because the minerals found in unprocessed sea salt are vital for optimal adrenal function and may be helpful in cases of chronic adrenal fatigue. Besides utilizing sea salt in your food, consuming foods naturally rich in these trace minerals, such as sea vegetables or young plants, may provide your adrenal glands the support they crave.|
|Fried Foods||Calcium or essential fatty acids. Calcium plays a vital role in bone development and is found primarily in dairy products and dark leafy greens. Including calcium rich food sources of food into your everyday diet such as mustard greens, turnip greens, broccoli, kale and cheese may not only provide support for bones but also keep you from that extra order of fries. If the craving for greasy foods does not stem from a calcium deficiency but is instead linked to a fatty acid deficiency then it is important to eat foods high in essential fatty acids such as walnuts, wild caught salmon and raw flaxseeds.|
|Red Meat||Iron. While red meat is not the only source of iron, an intense craving for animal protein may be indicative of an iron deficiency. Women are especially prone t this deficiency and should consider including a variety of iron-rich foods in the diet, such as fish, poultry, beans, legumes and dark leafy greens.|
Blood Sugar Imbalance
A primary cause of food cravings stems from unstable blood sugar levels, which is usually showcased in the form of a sugar craving. Once sugar is eaten, a hormone called insulin is released into the bloodstream. Insulin determines how sugar is going to be used in the body. Ideally, the sugar eaten is used immediately for energy. The only problem is when too much sugar is eaten. When that happens, sugar floods the bloodstream, signaling the pancreas to pump out more and more insulin. Once insulin arrives to clear out excess blood sugar, it is stored in either the liver, in the form of glycogen; or in the tissues, as fat.
When too much insulin is pumped out, too much sugar is taken out of the bloodstream. This is the point at which one may experience an energy crash and a more intense sugar craving. To regulate the insulin-versus-blood-sugar circus, sugar should be eaten in moderation and paired with either protein or fat, which will slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.
An even better way to manage the release of sugar into the bloodstream is by eating it in the form of whole food such as fruit. Whole food forms of sugar are called complex sugars, which are slowly released into the bloodstream due to their complexity.
Besides pairing a sugar with a protein or a fat, one f the most important things you can do to prevent the onset of a sugar craving in the first place is to maintain a regular meal pattern with enough calories in each meal to satisfy your hunger. If you are hungry and only snack on veggie sticks, then of course you’ll be hungry (or grumpy) again in an hour. Eat when you are hungry and stop when you are no longer hungry.
There are other ways to combat a persistent sugar craving …
- Go Spicy. Spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and cardamom will all naturally sweeten your foods and reduce cravings.
- Add a sweet vegetable to your meal. Sugar in its natural complex form, like that found in sweet vegetables (beets, carrots and yams) stabilized energy and satisfies the urgency of a sweet tooth. Eat these foods in moderation though as they still promote a dramatic insulin response.
- Grab a square of 75% or darker chocolate. Dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidant support and essential nutrients that make it a great treat.
Altogether, food cravings, especially around the holidays, can play a prominent role in food decisions. Instead of feeling defeated or anxious about them, simply tune in to what role they play in your body’s capacity to achieve balance.
There are many ways to address a food craving. Keep healthy snack options on hand, drink hydrating fluids throughout the day, and keep tabs on your patterns to help learn from them.
Consider each craving a normal function of your body that is a protective mechanism designed to promote optimal health and balance.
-Ellie Freeman, R.D. www.simolynourishednutrition.com