Take Control of Your Food Cravings
Understand your cravings and choose the best strategy to curb them
By Joanna Hochhold
Why do we have cravings?
Our preference for sweets, fat and salt is innate, going back to early man. Sweet plants instructed our ancestors that certain foods were safe to eat, fatty foods like meat provided calories, and salt helped us conserve fluids. We relied on this instinct since nutrient-dense food was abundant and calorie-dense food was scarce. Finding and consuming those foods developed a positive feedback loop in the brain that remains today. Now, we live in an environment where the opposite is the case. The limbic part of our brain, responsible for our survival, does not understand this sudden change and still instinctively looks for high-calorie foods. These sugary, fatty and salty foods quickly comfort us and stimulate the release of dopamine ─ a neurotransmitter responsible for a sensation of being satisfied and rewarded. Again, our programming is a relic from the past. If we want to regain control over our eating habits, we need a mindful approach and a deeper understanding of our instincts.
Understand your cravings
When it comes to conquering cravings, many of us expect a magic bullet solution. People advise us to ‘drink more water,’ ‘eat fruits instead,’ ‘grab some chewing gum.’ These are all helpful hints but unlikely to help in the long run if we do not dig deeper into the varying reasons underlying our cravings.
To do so, let’s use the analogy of our bodies as a house: We start noticing that our kitchen floor is constantly wet, the whole house is damp and some parts start to rot. What do we do? We rush to wipe the floor and ask for advice on how to keep it dry. At first, this works, but despite cleaning all day, the floor keeps getting wet. After a while, we are worn down and give up. The wet floor is a metaphor for our cravings, and cleaning is a metaphor for advice. The problem with such advice is that it only addresses the symptom, not the root cause of the problem. In the case of our house, we could have a damaged roof or foundation. It is only by fixing one or both that you can stop the floor from being constantly wet.
What causes cravings? Based on my experience it comes down to hunger and emotion. To identify and better understand our cravings, I recommend journaling everything you eat for several days. When you look into your journal afterwards there may be some “aha” moments. These findings will be the basis for curbing your cravings for good. Take a look at your journal and underline all your snacks. Ask yourself ‘when I ate that, was I hungry or not?’ If you can start asking yourself this question in the moment of a craving, it will help you identify your triggers, and determine your next steps.
Yes, I feel hungry…
If you answered ‘yes’ to the previous question, whether you were hungry or not, the first thing to do is take a deeper look into your meal planning. A healthy adult should be able to go three to four hours (or more) between meals without snacking. If your stomach is rumbling an hour or two after eating, you probably need to revise your meal composition to make it more satiating.
Rule number one: Ditch the refined carbs; (white flour, white bread, white rice, white potatoes, pre-packaged pastries, snacks, cereals) Eating these foods skyrocket your blood sugar levels. After a sudden spike, your blood sugar level plummets, and your body wants to get your glucose back to normal at any cost ─ which makes you reach for … a sugar-packed food (a cookie, a biscuit, pastry, chips, a chocolate bar ─ you name it)! As a result, you get stuck on the blood sugar roller coaster. How do you get out of this vicious circle?
Rule number two: Start proper meal planning. Review your journal and look at what you have been eating for each meal. What was the last thing you ate before a craving kicked in? When was this meal? Did you leave too long a break in between meals?
Let’s have a closer look at breakfast
If you start your day right with your first meal, your chances of reducing cravings during the day are already much higher. Eating sugar-packed breakfast cereals, croissants with marmalade, pancakes with maple syrup, borek (yes, even borek with spinach) is a recipe for disaster. Not only will these meals spike your blood glucose, but they also don’t include any fibre nor any healthy fats to counteract the effects of the sugar. Lastly, they lack any protein to satiate you. Welcome to the roller coaster ride, which will exhaust you long before the day ends.
What should you eat instead? Put your bets on one of the following:
Oatmeal (best made overnight, using unsweetened plant milk, a dash of cinnamon (lowers blood sugar levels), nuts, and berries,
Eggs in any form (omelette, soft-boiled, scrambled, menemen ─ it’s up to you) with some veggies as a side,
Toasted whole-grain sourdough rye bread with guacamole and eggs. Yummy!
These options should keep you full for three to four hours until lunch.
How to compose a filling meal? Make friends with fibre and protein!
When composing a meal, make sure you get plenty of fibre (from veggies) to fill up your stomach. As a rule of thumb, vegetables should make half of your daily plate. The next 1/4 should include unrefined carbs. My advice is to avoid wheat products. Even in their whole-grain form, they tend to make blood sugar levels rise substantially. Instead, go for high-protein grains such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff or even rye. The remaining 1/4 of your plate should include protein, which satiates you. Remember, protein doesn’t have to be a meat source! A healthier option would be beans, legumes or omega-3 rich fish like sardines.
Snacking is OK, but do it mindfully!
I usually recommend that people eat four meals a day, which includes a snack. A perfect afternoon snack would be fruit and a handful of nuts. Feel like indulging? You can healthily satisfy your sweet tooth by eating the following; chia pudding with nuts and fruits; fruit smoothies using unsweetened plant milk and flaxseeds; a nut-avocado-banana-cocoa mix topped with berries.
Maybe you have a taste for something else like biscuits, chips or chocolate. If you crave it, go for it! Don’t treat these as forbidden fruit, otherwise, you may eventually succumb to binge eating. However, when you do indulge, limit it. Savour it. Enjoy. Eat mindfully, concentrating on the flavour, and the experience. Do not do anything else when eating; do not answer emails, watch tv, drive a car, or do anything else that would distract you from that moment. Soon, you will realise smaller amounts of food can satisfy your craving.
If you are experiencing emotion-based cravings, you don't have to change the whole habit
Do you remember our vital question, ‘do you feel hungry when a craving strikes?’
If the answer is ‘no,’ take a mindful step back to identify your emotional state. Are you bored? Are you stressed, sad, lonely? Do you need consolation or simply a reward as you move throughout your day ─ like a “me-moment”? Take a deep breath and identify what emotional need stands behind your craving.
Then, identify as many details as possible behind the emotion such as the setting, the time of day, who is next to you. Is it after lunch and maybe you “deserved” something sweet (as you remember from your childhood)? Maybe it is after dinner and you are watching TV, and chips or popcorn seem like a totally “natural” go-to choice? Identify the triggers of your habit. As Charles Duhigg advises in his book “The Power of Habit,” a key to success is to be mindful of your need (e.g. need to relax, need to get rewarded), keep (yes! keep) the trigger (e.g. starting your evening in front of the TV after putting kids to bed), keep the result (e.g. feeling of relaxation, relief) but … change the behaviour. Instead of binge eating chips or ice cream, make a list of alternatives (not linked to eating), which will make you relaxed and pampered. Make yourself a delicious herbal tea (without sugar), do an essential oils ritual, take a relaxing hot bath, make a short yoga session or take a walk. There are plenty of ideas, brainstorm and pick the one which works best for you. It can be difficult in the beginning, so give yourself some time to form a new habit.
Some more helpful tips
Once you understand your cravings, motivation and sustainability are the keys to change. Here are more tactical tips, to make your strategy even more successful:
Get enough sleep: This is a really big one: the absolute minimum is seven hours, and many of us need eight to nine hours a day. Studies show that even one night of sleep deprivation leads to an increase in the hunger hormone ghrelin. When tired, your body is asking for more calories to make it through the day. And you have less control over your cravings.
Stop buying readymade snacks: Instead have some hummus (or any other veggie spread) with vegetable sticks prepared on hand. Trail mix (nuts, dried fruit) or flaxseed crackers will do the job. If you crave cookies, make them yourself using whole grain flour (e.g. oat or buckwheat), and healthier sugar substitutes like molasses, dates or xylitol.
If you crave chocolate or salty snacks, you might have mineral deficiencies, like magnesium or chromium. Include more nuts and seeds in your diet, which are natural nutrient powerhouses.
Drink a lot of water. Thirst can be sometimes confused with hunger.
Get support. Talk to a friend in a similar situation, be motivated for change. or work with a registered dietitian.
Joanna is a Registered Dietitian, trained in holistic and functional nutrition, specialising in insulin resistance, hypercholesterolaemia, women’s hormones imbalances and autoimmune conditions (especially Hashimoto’s thyroiditis). In her practice she keeps on asking herself “why?” and digging deep into the root causes of her client’s health issues. Recently fascinated by the massive influence of the microbiome (gut bacteria) on various aspects of our well-being (including brain or skin health). Privately, an Istanbul ex-pat and a mom of two. She can be reached via email or on Instagram