A food craving can arise from spending several hours doing a job that requires a lot of concentration, to being on a strict diet, to intermittent fasting, to being subject to an emotional or physical disturbance that leaves you feeling stressed. And it's because satisfying a food craving would give you the feeling of regaining control.
Although there are other potential reasons for sudden cravings, such as nutrient deficiency (from overly strict dieting); sleep deprivation (where the endocannabinoid receptor 2-AG is activated, which triggers the consumption of salty and fatty foods); or low blood sugar. This is why it is good to understand why cravings occur and how they can be stopped or better still, prevented.
When You Crave Starches and Other Carbohydrates
This usually happens when you have been on very strict diets, are dealing with high levels of anxiety and stress, or if your diet consists of too many simple carbohydrates such as those containing refined sugar. Your blood sugar then drops, causing your body to seek out starchy foods that are quick and easy to digest, so that your blood sugar level rises and normalises, but most likely, it will not satiate you.
Eating starchy and sugary foods increases levels of the feel-good hormone (serotonin), which causes us to associate feeling good with carbohydrate intake.
Plus, your brain prefers glucose for fuel, so when your blood sugar levels drop, so does your willpower.
How to Tackle Dense Starchy Cravings
Eat something with protein without a second thought. Also, fibre (check out my recipes for breads and wraps or tortillas whose ingredients contain psyllium husks), green leafy vegetables and some healthy fat too. These foods can satisfy you because they easily stimulate the production of leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full.
When You Crave Something Sweet
Our brain has NST neurons responsible for detecting levels of angiotensin (a polypeptide produced and released into the bloodstream, mainly by the liver) and whether our blood pressure and sodium levels are low. If they are low, it increases angiotensin which induces you to retain water and minerals. But what interests us here is that when angiotensin is elevated it signals the NST neurons that you need salt in your body.
Interestingly, neurons that respond to sugar cravings also respond to salt cravings. The problem is that nowadays, if you have a craving for something salty, you probably end up eating something sweet or sweet and salty. It's not in all cases, but it's very likely that if your brain is asking for something sweet, it's actually needing salt.
Research indicates that when a person gets stressed, they release cortisol, the stress hormone, which is linked to the desire for sweet foods. Of course, the easiest thing to do is to reach for whatever is on sale at the coffee shop or corner bakery, which is not exactly the healthiest thing to eat.
If the craving happens once in a while, there would be no problem, however, this is a trigger because your brain starts to link stress compensation with food which consequently activates the meso-limbic dopamine system.
Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that is released by neurons and can indicate that an event has been positive. When the reward system is activated, behaviours are reinforced, and we are more likely to do them again.
IMPORTANT! to better understand why keeping dopamine at healthy levels is key:
An experiment conducted by the University of Michigan (USA) with fruit flies, which have dopaminergic neurons just like rodents and humans yielded the result that with a diet rich in sugar, fruit flies are less active, because high sugar intake decreases the intensity of the sweetness signal coming from the mouth. The animals use this dopamine feedback to make predictions about how rewarding or satiating a food will be. In flies on a high-sugar diet, this process breaks down: they receive less activation of dopaminergic neurons and therefore end up eating more than they need, which eventually causes them to gain weight. The same is true for humans.
A growing number of studies link sugar to high cholesterol and blood pressure, increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and, of course, excessive weight gain. In addition, a sweet craving can cause your blood sugar to spike and crash, leaving you feeling low and cranky.
How to Subside a Sweet Craving
We have already seen that sometimes it really is a lack of sodium. The options are to drink a consommé or broth, making sure that it does not contain ingredients such as starch, monosodium glutamate and other rare ingredients. You can also drink water with a pinch of salt or add half a small avocado to the broth.
Some experts advise eating some protein, in this case you can have hard-boiled eggs to immediately satisfy hunger, and another way is to prepare a kind of pancake-like eggs in an omelette or crêpe, but sweetened with stevia or another sweetener that does not raise blood sugar.
Use spices such as cinnamon to help level blood sugar, as well as cardamom and fenugreek.
If the sweet craving persists, I suggest something like Greek yoghurt to which you can add enough stevia, allulose or other natural sweetener to satisfy your craving for something sweet.
When You Crave Something Salty
Your adrenal glands are activated in excessively stressful conditions or when you haven't had enough sleep. Whenever you become stressed, your adrenal glands release adrenaline and cortisol, and as a result, glucose (your main source of energy) is released into your bloodstream. All this is done to give you the energy you need to escape from a risky situation (also known as the fight or flight response).
Once the threat is gone, the adrenaline spike disappears and the blood sugar level drops. This is when cortisol kicks in to quickly replenish the energy supply, making you very hungry. Consequently, craving for salty and high-fat foods may be triggered.
We saw earlier that another reason you might experience salt cravings is that your body really needs it. Everyone needs sodium, and research suggests that when the body is deficient in this nutrient, the brain triggers appetite signals to consume sodium, but that sometimes it is also mistaken for sugar or both flavours.
The funny thing is that the Western diet consumes more sodium than necessary, to the point where it can actually be detrimental to your health, increasing the likelihood of stroke, heart disease and hypertension.
How to Combat the Craving for Something Salty
Because modern diets contain significant amounts of sodium, before you jump into a salt craving, think about what you've eaten during the day, whether you've been drinking enough water, or perhaps sweating excessively from exercise or from high temperatures; or if you are experiencing high stress levels or not getting enough rest at night.
Addison's disease is the only medical condition that would trigger an unusual need for salt. In other cases, it may be appropriate to maintain balanced electrolyte levels: you can drink a sugar-free electrolyte drink and within 15 minutes begin to feel more balanced.
In addition, you can flavour some of your food with potassium salts and other preparations that do not contain sodium if you feel that your overall diet already contains enough of this mineral.
When You Crave for Chocolate
Again, stress plays a role in the onset of cravings as it activates the hormone cortisol, which uses up our energy reserves, and that is why we feel we need something sweet to boost and/or replenish energy shortage levels.
Paradoxically, the simple act of eating sweets - such as sugar-sweetened chocolate - can also trigger a blood sugar spike, followed by a crash, possibly triggering a rollercoaster of stress and cravings.
Why is chocolate the only thing that can satisfy us?
According to Dr Nicky Keay, a sports and dance endocrinologist and honorary clinical professor of Medicine at University College London,
"Chocolate has relaxing and feel-good effects on the brain by increasing brain levels of several chemicals, including PRA (phenylethylamine related to amphetamine), which alters mood and produces a slight buzz that inspires confidence.
Chocolate also contains tryptophan, a chemical that is converted into serotonin in the brain to improve mood and increase euphoria; and theobromine, a mood-boosting stimulant.
Chocolate is virtually unique in that it melts in the mouth at body temperature, producing a silky, delicious sensation that enhances its appeal and, according to many psychologists, is one of the main reasons why chocolate is so addictive.” (article)
In addition, research has found that some women of childbearing age experience a significant increase in appetite and cravings for chocolate, sweets, and salty foods during the last phase of their menstrual cycle.
Another reason? Magnesium. Adults often consume less magnesium than recommended in the diet, which may explain why many people turn to chocolate, which is rich in this mineral.
How to Tackle Chocolate Cravings
I'm not going to tell you to stop eating chocolate. First, it's delicious. Second, it has important benefits such as serotonin production, the flavonoles in cocoa which you can see in my video and article on chocolate can exert a rejuvenating effect, increase blood flow to the brain improving cognitive function and more. The only thing is that these properties of chocolate are cancelled out if it contains sugar. So, try to consume dark chocolate, without sugar, or at least sweetened with one of the alternatives we have mentioned, such as stevia, allulose or erythritol, for example.
Chocolate is a naturally high calorie food, so if you need to cut back anyway, other habits and foods that allow you to balance minerals such as magnesium in your body would be,
- Try to eat at the times you are scheduled to eat,
- Have each meal contain enough protein, fibre, and some healthy fats.
- Focus on eating big salads, with lots of green leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, chard, avocado and artichoke, for example.
- Use olive oil, coconut oil, MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil or ghee in your preparations.
Hungry and Don't Know What You Want to Eat?
Hydrate. It is believed that our bodies can occasionally mistake thirst for hunger, which is why it can be so difficult to know exactly which food will satisfy a craving. The same area of the brain that controls hunger also controls thirst, so sometimes the signals get crossed when you haven't drunk enough water during the day and get confused making you feel "hungry".
It turns out that when your body needs water, it doesn't particularly care whether you get it from a glass of plain water or a milkshake. The best thing to do is to drink a glass of water when the craving hits and wait 15 minutes to see if you still feel like eating something. I have found that sometimes, about two hours after lunch, there is a feeling of hunger, and it turns out to be thirst. If this happens to you, you can try it.
Endless Hunger After Breaking an Intermittent Fast or a Very Restrictive Diet
It is normal to feel hungry after fasting or a very restrictive diet. The problem is that once the fast is broken, nothing seems to satisfy the hunger.
Before breaking the fast it is good to consume electrolytes because these preparations usually come with the right proportions of the minerals we need to be in balance. Often, the hunger continues because the food you break the fast with does not contain the balanced minerals and even after you have finished eating, you still feel like you are missing something. Has this happened to you?
Another alternative is to break the fast with a broth containing sufficient sodium and then proceed to eat some protein. After about 15 minutes and after eating your full meal, you should have the normal feeling of satiety.
As a first step, dopamine, the hormone that rises as a result of the feeling of reward, must be modulated. Foods rich in tyrosine (because it increases the availability of dopamine) would be mainly cheese, fish (salmon) and yoghurt.
Likewise, something that tastes sweet does not mean it is full of sugar, it is just the taste, which can be compensated with yoghurt sweetened with stevia, or erythritol, allulose or another natural sweetener that does not raise your blood sugar.
The other thing to watch out for is sodium. Activation of the endocannabinoid 2-AG receptor triggers fat and salt consumption. By consuming some water with sea salt to stabilise this activation, which acts directly on the Nucleus Accumbens (where the neurons with dopamine receptors are located) in the brain.
Finally, controlling the production of leptin, a hormone that is activated when we feel satisfied after eating. It works inversely to the endocannabinoid receptor 2-AG, i.e., if 2-AG is high, leptin is low. To trigger leptin production, make sure each of your meals contains enough complete protein, fibre and some healthy fat.
Above All, Listen to Your Body
While many cravings have emotional or environmental causes, others are a consequence of what's going on in the body.
Sugar cravings, for example, often increase around menopause, or chocolate cravings in women of childbearing age as they approach their period or moon time.
Likewise, iron deficiency has been linked to cravings for iron-rich foods (such as red meat), and even some non-foods (such as dirt or chalk). If you are following an extremely restrictive or vegan diet without adequate amino acid supplementation and start craving protein-rich foods, it could mean that you are lacking complete protein or certain amino acids.
Beyond thinking that cravings are inevitable or that you just don't have the willpower, think of them as your body's way of signaling a deficiency at the organ level in your body. You now have the tools to learn more about what may be going on inside your body and some alternatives to resolve it.