We’ve all been there, that irresistible, irrational and inexplicable craving that appears from out of nowhere, that can completely derail even the best-intentioned healthy eating plan. In my experience, cravings usually occur either mid-afternoon (what you ate for lunch is usually a factor) or after dinner or often simply because you’re bored.
But what’s important to understand is that managing these cravings are not just down to willpower. Our hormones can play a major role when it comes to what we crave and how often we experience cravings. Women often experience increased cravings at certain times of the menstrual cycle as their hormones fluctuate, while imbalances in our hunger hormones (leptin and ghrelin) can also increase cravings.
The following are some strategies to help you deal with cravings, and some steps you can take to prevent them taking hold.
5 tips for tackling food cravings
- Stay hydrated – we often mistake thirst for hunger, and being dehydrated (and so many people are) can increase cravings. Plus drinking does fill you up and takes the edge off your hunger.
- Have a change of scenery – when food cravings start to take hold, go for a walk around the block. Sometimes it’s all that is needed to take your mind off your cravings.
- If you really can’t resist, give in, BUT make sure you control what you eat and don’t let your cravings dictate. Consciously choose the healthier option, knowing that eating something containing protein, a little healthy fat and a complex carbohydrate will help you feel satisfied and will squash those cravings. Instead of a bag of crips/chips or a handful of biscuits have a couple of oatcakes or cut up a few veggies with hummus, or an apple with almond or peanut butter (sugar-free of course) or a few pieces of cold meat if you have some in the fridge or a boiled egg or a small handful of nuts or even a square or 2 of dark (70% cocao) chocolate.
- Avoid temptation. May seem obvious, but if you do get cravings it is much easier to manage them if you don’t have tempting treats in the house. Make sure you have healthier choices on hand instead such as nuts and seeds, dark chocolate (70%), fresh fruit, nut butters with oat cakes, hummus with sliced vegetables or a slice or two of cheese.
Steps to avoid cravings taking hold
- Eat balanced meals. By this I mean making sure you are eating meals and not just ‘grazing’ throughout the day. But most importantly is to make sure your meals contain protein and some healthy fats to help balance blood sugar levels after eating. When you eat a meal, particularly one that is high in sugars or refined (simple) carbohydrates, the hormone insulin is released to remove the excess sugar floating around our bodies. Our bodies don’t like to have too much sugar floating around and insulin plays a vital role in keeping this in balance. However once the sugars have been removed, we experience a drop in blood sugar levels, which can result in hunger, low mood, energy slumps etc, so our bodies start to crave foods to help raise blood sugar levels again. This is commonly known as the blood sugar roller coaster. Can you see how a rather vicious cycle can begin?
- Don’t go hungry. Calorie-restricted diets are notorious for provoking food cravings. Simply telling yourself you’re on a diet is enough to send your cravings sky high!
- Acknowledge your stressors and look to minimise them. I’m not going to tell you to avoid stress … that would be too easy! But by understanding the link between stress and cravings you may be better able to prepare for stressful periods and up your meal plan accordingly. When we’re stressed, our bodies produce more cortisol, our ‘stress hormone’. This results in increased blood glucose levels and we find ourselves in the situation described in point 1 above where insulin levels rise which sees blood glucose levels drop again and the cravings can kick in.
- Emotional triggers – boredom is the most common, but also stress, sadness, depression etc. Everyone gets down in the dumps occasionally, but there is a strong link with emotional eating and mood and this can become an issue if the cause is left unaddressed. Bored? Pick up something to do, or go out for a walk, take up a hobby etc, anything to occupy your mind and take you away from the craving. Association is another big one. Do you always have a biscuit with your tea? Or something sweet after dinner? These habits are rarely driven by hunger, but form a kind of punctuation mark that just needs to be tweaked. See below for healthier alternatives to keep cravings at bay.
- Get enough sleep – studies have shown that people who are sleep deprived experience more food cravings and increased hunger.
Remember, don’t beat yourself up if you do succumb … there is generally more going on behind the scenes than just lack of willpower. Try the steps above and you might be surprised how they really can reduce your cravings.