The enemy of so many fitness drives and diet plans are cravings. Those desperate gremlins urging you to tuck in to all you know not on plan and derail your good efforts. So often this is the reason people give up all on their lifestyle change altogether – they feel they have blown the whole thing and will never be able to control their cravings. But there are ways to take back power and outwit your cravings.
Cravings are a very specific urge. They are different from hunger, which is also need to eat, because they centre on certain foods. “Cravings are characterised by an intense desire to eat a specific food or type of food,” explains Nutracheck nutritionist Emma Brown. “They’re not an urge to eat in general, but a distinct desire for a certain kind of food.’ Interestingly cravings can hit even when you are not hungry and tend to be for foods which aren’t nutritious.
“There was a belief that cravings were a way for our body to let us know that it was lacking a certain nutrient,” Emma continues. “As cool as this sounds this is no longer thought to be the case. The exact reason is unknown, but it’s believed there are many factors that play a part in causing cravings – ranging from emotional and psychological to situational.”
Put simply, your body does not desperately need that bar of chocolate in order to balance itself and survive!
Now we have put the idea that we need pizza and crisps to one side, why is it that we sometimes get that all-encompassing and overwhelming desire to eat certain foods? Understanding what drives a craving is a helpful starting point to preventing them. In some cases they can start with hunger. When your blood sugar levels drop your body wants to correct them and so you may crave sugary foods for a sugar hit to increase energy levels. This then becomes a cyclical craving as high sugar foods do indeed give you a boost – only to be followed by a crash which again leaves you craving sugary food.
Boredom can also leave us craving foods. Sometimes simply for sensory excitement, like when we are sitting at a desk doing something which is not particularly engaging. The idea of adding some highly flavoured and interestingly textured food – like crisps or chocolate – into the mix is exciting for our brains and body. “Likewise, getting bored with the range of foods we’re eating, for example when on a restrictive weight loss diet, can increase the chances of desiring something more exciting – like donuts!” Emma says.
Make meal times and snacks interesting and varied to ensure you don’t crave the bad stuff.
Sometimes our cravings can actually be habits. We associate certain places, situations and times of the day with certain foods. For example, you might always have a couple of biscuits with your tea and a sit down at10am. Take away the biscuits and keep the tea and sit down and you will feel there is a gap which needs to be filled and crave the biscuit. When you are at the cinema if you always have a bucket of popcorn and large soda it’s going to feel odd not having them suddenly. The best way to deal with these cravings is either to substitute the ‘missing’ item or to change your habit. So don’t have your tea and sit at 10am, instead drink a coffee while reading in another room perhaps. Or take some fizzy water and homemade plain popcorn to the cinema so you feel everything is pretty much as it should be.
The biggest driver of cravings for most of us are our emotions. “Certain emotions such as feeling down can make us crave comfort food,” says Emma. “We’ve all been there – you’ve had a rough day and the only thing that’s going to fix it is a tub of ice cream.”
Similarly you may feel that you can’t celebrate the end of the week without a glass of fizz. Again, changing your habits or subbing in a healthier option can help. But also look at changing the root of the emotion. If you reach for the junk when you’re feeling tired and down, try taking more exercise in order to better balance your energy levels and emotions. If your blood sugar levels are all over the place because you are stressed, address ways of coping with the stress through mindfulness, exercise or planning your meals better so your body is better sorted to cope with the stress that it’s under.
As we have seen there are ways of controlling cravings but firstly you need to identify the triggers for them. Try keeping a diary of your meals, emotions and cravings for a week. This will help you identify why you have the overwhelming urge to eat certain foods at certain times. Be conscious of the situation when a craving strikes. Take yourself out of the moment and ask, ‘why do I feel the need to eat that right now?’.
“Eating a balanced diet which is high in complex carbs and lean protein will really help,” says Emma. “Complex carbs are high in fibre, and lean protein takes the body a while to breakdown, so both help to keep us feeling fuller for longer and our blood sugars more stable. This can help reduce the chance of cravings striking as we should feel more satisfied nutritionally.”
If you have tried to change your habits so you eliminate some cravings and substitute others, but still you find yourself in a battle of wills, there are things you can do to stay strong. “Sometimes a craving can be held at bay by dealing with the immediate need to consume something,” explains Emma. “Drinking a pint of water will not only hydrate you and quench your thirst, which may be the problem anyway, but it also fills your stomach which may delay the need to eat for a while.”
If you are consumed with the desire to reach for a bag of crisps try the 10 minute rule. “This is a really handy test to see how long you can hold off or if you can overcome it completely,” says Emma. ‘When a craving strikes, wait 10 minutes. If the desire reduces, wait another 10 minutes and see how you feel. Keep repeating it until the craving has completely passed. Alternatively, wait 10 minutes and if it’s still as strong, allow yourself a little of what you want, but then wait another 10 minutes before having more. Try to see if you can satisfy your craving on a small bite.” You can also try distracting yourself in that time. If you are craving because you are bored sometimes getting consumed in another activity is what you need. If you can’t move to another environment try listening to some music you love or even playing a game on your phone for a few minutes. After all, when we are busy with something which interests and stimulates us we can ‘forget’ to eat!
“If you get an intense craving to eat, going for a walk or doing some squats and press-ups for example, can really help to diminish the desire for food,” says Emma. Not only will you get those feel-good chemicals also found as a result of eating that food pumping, you will also be changing your routine and distracting yourself. “You often find when you’re exercising that your appetite reduces and you may actually lose your desire for fatty foods,” says Emma. So moving is well worth a try.