Why Do I Get Food Cravings?
I constantly get asked about how to handle food cravings- how to combat them- how to work through them, and what even causes them to begin with.
Cravings are a major barrier to losing weight, living whole and eating healthfully. Some people downplay cravings, but I believe that if cravings weren’t a big deal, then I wouldn’t have clients who down a bottle of wine at the end of a long week; or "have” to eat all things chocolate during their time of the month, or dive face first into a bag of salty tortilla chips or swing by the Dairy Queen drive thru after a hard day at work.
Apart from the obvious, what I always hate the most, as a coach, is the fact that cravings create feelings of defeat in my clients. They make you feel helpless, overwhelmed, frustrated, and out of control- and none of these feelings or emotions can or should be tied to your relationship with food.
Unfortunately, rather then work to pinpoint the root of their cravings, people either cave and give in (not optimal, obviously) or just attempt to struggle through them (which can be exhausting).
The truth is, cravings aren't random and they occur for a reason. And if you take the time to understand what a craving really is and why you have it, then you can adjust your diet, supplementation, or lifestyle so that you satisfy it properly.
This is what I strive to do with all of my clients- help them balance their diet so they aren't constantly feeling controlled by food or food cravings.
So first off, what IS a craving? A craving is an overwhelming desire or uncontrollable urge for either a certain taste (salty,sweet,spicy) or a certain food (ice cream, chips, etc).
It’s basically your body’s way of telling you it needs something…a vitamin, mineral, protein, or nutrient to function properly or to fulfill a deficiency.
A craving can also have a chemical component to it, which is why cravings are more common when someone is depressed or emotionally upset.
Despite your best efforts, the majority of Americans, even if they eat healthfully, don't eat enough variety or volume to get all of the nutrients their body requires through nutrition alone. And if your diet isn’t full of a wide variety of foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, quality protein, and flavors (beyond salty and sweet), your body will alert you the only way it knows how, by initiating a craving.
The problem with cravings is that because the foods you THINK you're craving only contain a trace amount of what your body really needs, you’ll have to eat a whole lot more of it to fulfill the deficiency. For example, if you are craving chocolate, one potential cause could be a magnesium deficiency. You may think your body wants chocolate, but really it wants magnesium. This deficiency could be fixed healthfully with a magnesium supplement, or with, say, one serving of butternut squash. However if you instead opt to eat a chocolate brownie, you'll find you don't feel satisfied and have to eat several before your craving diminishes. This is why I staunchly encourage clients to satisfy their cravings through healthy means, through supplementation or nutrient dense foods which actually supply the body with the source of what it's craving.
Learning to handle and cope with your cravings also helps promote a sense of empowerment and self control which is essential for psychological wellbeing and the development of a healthy relationship with food.
Some common cravings and their potential causes:
Chocolate cravings are associated with deficiencies in magnesium and copper. Around “that time of the month,” the body uses up more magnesium which is why many women find they crave chocolate during PMS. To curb the craving, try adding or upping your magnesium supplement or try to eat more magnesium rich foods like butternut squash, apples, apricots, bananas, and nuts. You can also substitute with small amounts of raw cacao or unsweetened cocoa powder added to coffee, smoothies, or oatmeal.
If you're specifically craving bread, what you REALLY need is more protein. Bread cravings are usually due to nitrogen deficiencies so adding in more fish, lean meat, nuts or beans will help.
3- Tortilla Chips, Popcorn, or Potato Chips (crunchy/snack).
One of two things is often the root of this craving: a magnesium deficiency or an over-consumption of sugar. Typically, when you eat too much sugar your body begins to crave salt. If you don't consume too much sugar then you likely are deficient in magnesium which is very very common. This is easily solved through supplementation. It could also be due to fluctuations in your stress hormones. Stress reduction techniques like meditation, deep breathing, prayer or exercise can help, as can increasing your intake of vitamins B and C, and your consumption of leafy greens.
Cravings for nuts or nut butters are usually a sign your body needs EFAs (essential fatty acids) or possibly protein. Usually an EFA supplement like Udos oil can help or try upping your protein intake.
A salt craving, or a craving for salty foods could be caused by several things: a diet too high in sugar, a deficiency in sodium, or possibly too much potassium in the body. I usually suggest removing sugar, avoiding table salt, and opting for sea salt to help remineralize the body.
6-Sweet and Sour Cravings.
If you are craving things like pickles, lemons, limes, or a combo of the above, this usually means congestion of the liver. Add lemon to your water on a regular basis or add in a liver cleanse supplement temporarily until the cravings begin to diminish. You could also supplement with some milk thistle which aids the liver.
7- Sugar and Starches.
I think sugar has to be the single most common craving people tell me they struggle with. Cravings for starches (carbs) and sweets can be caused by numerous things but some of the most common reasons are serotonin imbalance, a lack of glucose (which is the brains optimal fuel source), or a tryptophan deficiency. Sometimes it's due to more uncommon causes like a candida overgrowth.
If you’re craving sugar while doing something that requires a lot of mental focus it’s probably because your brain burns glucose for energy and these cravings usually go away once you eat.
If your sugar cravings seem to correlate with a sense of depression or feelings of lethargy and hopelessness, look into serotonin imbalance and healthy ways to boost it through exercise or even a supplement like 5-HTP which is precursor to serotonin.
Good sources of tryptophan would be spirulina, pumpkin/sesame/sunflower seeds, raw cacao, oatmeal, sweet potatos, spinach, and raisins.
If you DO find you crave sugar constantly then likely there could be a bigger issue at play, like candida overgrowth or an imbalance of gut bacteria. Typically fiber, probiotics or even a candida cleanse can help.
8- Carbs at night (after a long day at work).
People who crave carbs at night or at the end of a busy day are usually dealing with overactive nerves due to stress. Again, magnesium helps. Take magnesium right before you leave for work so you won’t attack the chips when you walk through the door after a long day.
9- Spicy foods.
A spicy food craving is associated with a thyroid imbalance or sulfur deficiency. Try adding in things like garlic, horse-radish, curry, or cayenne to your diet.
10- Fried foods.
If you find you crave fried foods your diet is likely too low in healthy sources of fat. Adding in a supplement like a fish oil supplement helps. Or up your intake of healthy omega 3 fats like olives or olive oil, avocados, walnuts, or wild caught fish like salmon.
11-Caffeine or coffee.
If you constantly crave coffee, a few things could be at play. One, is that you are deficient in salt, and if so, add some sea salt to your food and/or take some apple cider vinegar or kombucha. Another is that your adrenals are overworked. I always advise clients to look at their sleep quality and stress management if they constantly want to drink coffee. Sometimes scaling back on training intensity can help as well.
Supplements like licorice root, a b complex, relora, or a proprietary supplement for adrenal health can also really help offer support for over working adrenals.
If you have cravings for wine, beer or hard liquor some potential causes could be a glutamine, protein, calcium, or potassium deficiency. Increase your protein slightly, and supplement with L glutamine. If you don't want to take supplemental L glutamine, some good dietary sources would be cabbage, beetroot, beans, spinach, parsley, vegetable juice or vegetable broth, or bone broth.
This is almost always (in my experience) an iron deficiency. You can solve this with a supplement, OR you can increase consumption of beans, legumes, unsulphured prunes, raisins or other dried fruit, seaweed, or spinach. I advise taking with some Vitamin C to help enhance absorption.