What should you do when food cravings strike?
Nutritionist Dr. Vishakha Shivdasani
They can catch you off guard. You could be curled up reading a book, chatting with a friend or at work when suddenly you have this irrepressible desire to have a chocolate, mithai, samosas or pack of chips. It’s funny that we almost always crave fatty, sugary and high carb snacks. Have you ever heard of someone craving vegetable juice or sticks of carrot? So what do you do when a craving calls your name? Do you give in once in a while? Do you stand firm or give in almost always? Sadly cravings usually win sending you into a spiral of over eating, self-disgust and guilt.
It’s important to get an insight into why we suffer cravings. The fact is that we are surrounded by sensory cues that tempt us to overeat. You walk past a McDonald and the sight of fries and burgers draws you in. You walk past a cupcake shop and the sweet aroma tempts you to walk in and devour a few standing right then and there. Visual cues and smells are potent triggers for cravings.
Distinguishing cravings from hunger
It’s easy to blame your cravings on some nutritional deficiency. “I must be low on sodium and fats, that’s why I crave farsaan and other fried treats.” But feeling virtuous about your cravings and believing that you’re fulfilling some deficiency in your body is a mug’s game. None of us have such great wisdom about our bodies. When we give into our cravings we are relying more on instinct and the taste of foods than the body’s needs or real hunger. So what’s the difference between hunger and cravings? Hunger is a physiological need that’s regulated by the body and serves to well, nourish the body. The hunger hormone ghrelin communicates with your brain to stimulate your appetite when you’re hungry. Once full, fat tissues secrete leptin, another hormone that lets the brain know you’re full so you know it’s time to stop eating.
Meanwhile cravings are all in the mind and driven by emotions such as happiness, sadness, stress, boredom and anger. A bad mood can become a conditioned cue for eating like a sort of conditioned response. So each time you’re hurt or irritated you reach for a tub of ice cream. Happy moods also cause cravings and one study of 1,000 Americans by Cornell professor Dr. Brian Wansink reported that 86% participants craved comfort foods when they were happy, and 74% had cravings when they wanted to celebrate or reward themselves. In contrast, 52% had cravings when they were bored and only 39% when they were sad or lonely.
The addictive power of sugar
It’s a scary thing to know. It’s been proven that foods with high levels of sugar trigger an addictive response in the brain, much like nicotine. So the more sugar you consume the more you crave. Sure, sugary snacks might cause an immediate surge in blood sugars and boost feel-good serotonin hormone levels, but before you know it your body will crave another hit, and so on because your brain becomes accustomed and conditioned to releasing “happy hormones” every time you consume sugar. Other food cravings may be associated with pleasant memories. You and your boyfriend ate buttery cheese sandwiches when you were dating so whenever you are stressed or wound up, that’s your snack of choice. The result: weight gain and a poor body image.
So what can you do to overcome cravings?
Going cold turkey can rebound with you binging even harder when your resolve weakens. A more sensible approach would be to indulge less often and in smaller quantities. And remember you CAN rewire your brain and recondition your responses to trigger emotions and events. Portion control can be a powerful coping mechanism provided you can stop yourself. If you can’t, then keep the forbidden food on an unreachable shelf or out of plain sight. By resisting the craving you weaken the link between cues and mindless eating.
Don’t let yourself get too hungry because the hungrier you are the more likely you are to turn to your craving food. In fact, there are enough studies to suggest that there’s a very fine line between eating a healthy food and an unhealthy treat in terms of how each satisfies cravings. You may be craving a chocolate bar but if you were to eat a whole wheat vegetable sandwich instead you’ll be surprised how the craving will almost always completely disappear in a few minutes. Maintaining a food journal to track the emotions you feel and the food you crave, what you ate and how you felt after eating can also help you find a pattern to your cravings. Instead of giving in right away you could try biding your time by calling a friend, listening to music or going for a walk.
Check out some common food cravings signify and how you can tackle them
Craving sweet treats?
This almost always signifies low blood sugar. It could be caused by a slump after a sugary treat or long gaps between meals. In both cases the best way to satisfy the urge is by eating a fruit that’s naturally sweet and full of fiber like mango and banana, rather than a doughnut or piece of mithai.
Craving something hot and spicy?
This often occurs when the body can’t regulate its temperature, especially when the weather is rainy or chilly. This is more common in women and could be caused by a zinc deficiency. Instead of a having a samosa with imli chutney, try having a steaming bowl of seafood and leafy green soup. It might be a good idea to also check with your doctor about taking a zinc supplement.
Craving salty snacks?
If you can’t get through the day without munching on a packet of chips, you’re probably low on chloride. Satisfy the craving with a far less calorific treat like a celery and cucumber salad or steamed fish with spinach.
Craving milky shakes and buttery sandwiches?
It’s most likely that dairy, bread, biscuits and grain cravings are caused by opioid peptides, amino acid sequences that affect the brain the way opiates do. All these foods contain opioid peptides that release endorphins, the feel-good hormone, and each time levels fall in your blood the craving returns. The way to stop this craving is to break the cycle. Try eliminating one food from your diet at a time like dairy or wheat products and gauge whether cravings ebb.
Craving those gulab jamuns?
Dreaming of fast food, heavy desserts and cheese is common on people on very low calorie diets because the body feels deprived of energy. The easy way to remedy this is eating three healthy calorie controlled meals through the day along with two small snacks.
Craving comfort foods?
Emotional eating is psychological. It’s more common in women who use food to calm down after a fight, as a relaxant or mood-lifter. You know you’re really not hungry, just bored. Quick remedy: distract yourself as you would a child. Read a book or pick up the phone or figure out what’s bothering you.
Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.