What They Do and Don’t Mean and How You Can Take Control
When you were a kid and had a bad day, did your mom or dad take you for ice cream? Do you do that with your own kids? Do you still do that with yourself? There’s no doubt, the intent is good and let’s face it, it works. But what are we telling ourselves and our bodies? That sugar and other exciting flavors can cure whatever ails us emotionally. Before we know it, we’re medicating ourselves with unhealthy food and craving them whenever the going gets tough.
Many people say cravings are just a natural part of life. While that may or may not be true, we definitely condition ourselves for them, and what we do with them is up to us. Wanting an unhealthy treat every now and then is one thing, and there’s nothing wrong with splurging occasionally. It’s when we constantly give in or relate certain unhealthy foods or tastes with specific emotions that we run into trouble. Many people feel defenseless against food cravings, but that doesn’t have to be the case. You can overcome them, learn what they do and don’t mean and most importantly, empower yourself to take control of your health.
What are cravings?
Dr. Nicole Avena is a Professor of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, a Visiting Professor of Health Psychology at Princeton University and a consultant on nutrition, diet and food addiction. She defines food cravings as “physical and/or psychological responses that make us want to eat. They are a normal part of the appetitive process. However, when we have them too often, and for unhealthy foods, they can contribute to overeating.”
Most of us have heard or even said at one time or another that “If I’m craving it, I must need it.” While that’s a hard case to make for ice cream, potato chips or brownies, there is some support for that argument in certain situations. Dr. Avena says that a deficiency in a nutrient can cause us to desire a certain food. For example, if we’re craving a hamburger and that’s not something we eat on a regular basis, we may be low in iron.
Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Karima Shariff says that there are several physiological reasons you might be craving sugar. These include not getting enough calories, so your body wants that quick energy sugar gives you; craving sugar after you eat because your meals are too heavy in refined carbohydrates and not enough protein and good fats; and eating processed foods with too much added salt.
Holistic Health and Wellness Coach and Food Addiction Counselor Erin Wathen believes that cravings are primarily an emotional experience with food. She says they are usually associated with extreme emotions that can be either good or bad. In her case, being annoyed with her mother used to make her want to eat Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream. She needed something that would make her mother less annoying right then, and Phish Food did the trick – temporarily.
Dr. Avena adds that bad habits, advertising cues or social cues are other behavioral causes of cravings. “You may crave a food if you smell it or see an ad for it, or you may crave a food if you regularly eat it at a certain time, such as ice cream after dinner.” These types of triggers can cause an emotional response that leads to food because we want to feel the way the ad shows us we can feel, we might associate a smell with grandma’s house or popcorn with the movies, or food is part of a comfortable routine that assures us that everything is the way it should be.
The types of foods we crave and why
Erin Wathen says that “The foods that have very intense dopamine hits are the ones we crave.” She gives chocolate cake as an example. “If you take how condensed the sugar is, how dense it is in the flour, the fat in the frosting – that’s a lot of stuff happening in one bite. It’s a very intense, powerful amount of chemicals hitting your brain at one time.” According to her, most things we crave have very intense flavor patterns. “They’re gooey, they’re crunchy, they’re interesting on our mouth. They’re interesting for our brain – meaning dopamine, serotonin, all of those responses in our brain are very intense and very powerful.” Like Erin’s ice cream, they offer emotional relief immediately, as opposed to waiting for the slow and steady chicken and broccoli to do their job. The problem is, the relief offered by the flashy foods we crave doesn’t address whatever caused us to have those intense emotions in the first place and simply conditions us to want those foods every time we feel those emotions.
While cravings are a very personal thing and are different for everyone, there’s usually an emotional association involved that often has to do with childhood. Erin says that depending on where you grew up, you might have warm fuzzies for beignets because you associate them with celebrations and love. That might be what you crave if you’re having a really bad day or a really good day. For people who were never exposed to them as a kid, it would probably never occur to them to want beignets, but they may crave something else that they associate with their childhood.
Overcoming food cravings
What can we do to overcome food cravings? Karima Shariff offers the following suggestions.
- Ask yourself what you really need emotionally.
- Remember your why. Think about whether giving in to your craving will prevent or sidetrack you from achieving a goal.
- In the case of sugar cravings, use cinnamon or vanilla to sweeten oatmeal, yogurt, coffee or tea.
- Have a healthy snack.
- Drink water.
- Focus on all the good, nutritious foods you can have.
- Eat fruit or sweet vegetables.
- Call a friend.
- Go for a walk.
- Take a hot shower.
- Brush your teeth.
- Listen to music.
- In the case of sugar cravings, drink naturally sweet tea such as Hibiscus, Raspberry Leaf, Chai, Fennel, Dandelion, Cacao, Licorice or Chamomile.
Erin adds that if you find yourself saying “I have to have….,” then that’s an emotional food for you. Think about what just happened that made you get to that place, write about it and sit with it for 24 hours. If, after that point, you still feel like you really need it, then allow yourself to have a small portion. More than likely though, you will have figured out what you need emotionally instead, and you won’t be craving that food.
Preventing food cravings
Of course, the best way to overcome food cravings is to prevent them from happening in the first place. Here are some ways our experts suggest doing that.
- Take ownership of your actions. Erin says recognizing that no one can make you eat anything is very empowering. You are in charge of what you do and don’t eat, so make choices that will make you feel as good after you eat as you do while you are eating.
- Set yourself up for success. If you know that calling your mom always upsets you, Erin recommends checking your frame of mind before you get into that situation. If you’ve just had a tough day, the kids are sick, or the dog just pooped on the rug, it’s probably not going to be in your best interest to pick up the phone right then. When you do, you should certainly make sure you’re not standing next to the cupcakes.
- Don’t have unhealthy snacks in the house. Avena says that she doesn’t buy ice cream when she’s at the grocery store, but she does have it occasionally out as a special treat.
- Fight stress. Karima recommends yoga, meditation, exercise or coloring as possible options.
- Get enough sleep. According to Karima, not getting enough sleep increases the hormone ghrelin and decreases the hormone leptin, leading to increased hunger.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Be kind to yourself. Karima says this means having a balance of work, rest and play.
- Avoid letting yourself get very hungry.
- Plan your meals and practice mindful eating.
- Have a list of non-food strategies to perk up your mood when you’re feeling down.
- EFT or tapping.
Cravings are no small matter. If we’re not careful, we can easily let them sabotage our health and in turn, take over our lives. Erin says that if you can look at a food and either take it or leave it, it’s fine to take it because you’re in a good place emotionally. If you “have to have it,” then it’s time to start examining what else is going on. What you’ll probably find is that the less you give into your cravings, the more likely they are to go away.
The bottom line – chocolate cake is fine, but don’t let consuming it consume you.
Lean on your community
Which foods do you crave and at what points are those cravings the worst? Do you have strategies for dealing with them? If so, please share in the comments section below or over on the Peppermint Tea & Me Facebook page so that we can all gain some extra tools in our healthy lifestyle toolbox. We look forward to hearing from you and supporting you!