There’s nothing simple about cravings. They come in many forms, including chocolate, pizza, salty and crunchy. The biggest commonality between them is they usually come without warning and won’t quit until they’re satisfied.
How to know when you're having a craving
It seems like it should be obvious, but a lot of times we don't actually realize we're having a craving. That's because we often confuse cravings with hunger. We have a tendency to assume that if we want food, we're hungry.
It’s understandable. Most of us have never been taught to question why we’re headed to the kitchen. And thanks to the hunter-gatherer stage of human history, your body believes that your next bite of food won’t be coming for a long time so it would never encourage you to stop and think before chowing down.
So how do you tell the difference between cravings and hunger?
Hunger is a cue from your body that you’re starting to run low on fuel and it might be time to replenish. Typically, hunger comes about 4-6 hours after eating and gives you an hour or two of leeway before you’re ready to eat everything in sight.
Another clue that you’re experiencing hunger is your desire to eat anything. Sure, you have your preferences. But if you had to eat something you only considered mediocre, you’d do it.
Cravings are different. When you’re craving something it’s going to be for one particular food or flavor profile. And you want it now.
Unlike hunger, there isn’t just one reason a craving might hit you. The best way to know what to do is to understand the cause and how it relates to your body.
Your body needs something
When your body’s lacking something, it’s going to ask for it the best way it knows how. Sometimes that comes in the form of a craving.
1. Searching for the perfect nutrient
Nutrients have specific flavors that help our bodies know what foods to look for when that nutrient is lacking. When you start to get a strong craving for a very particular food, that’s a good sign that your body is looking for a particular nutrient.
Sometimes that food isn’t good for you though, and that’s when confusion sets in. A processed food might be full of junk, but it might still contain that flavor your body’s looking for. Whether that flavor is real or artificial, or whether the food you’re eating contains less desirable ingredients doesn’t matter much to your body. It knows what it’s looking for and won’t stop until it gets it.
Chocolate is the classic example. You lack magnesium. That flavor can be found in chocolate. You crave your favorite chocolate bar because you’ve come to associate it as the best way to find that flavor. Nutrient found.
Things go a little haywire though when it comes to artificial flavorings. If you’re lacking phenylethanol, your body’s going to start sending out a signal for tomatoes to find that phenylethanol flavor. But if your strongest association of that flavor is from your tomato-flavored crackers, that’s what you’re going to start craving. Even though there’s no phenylethanol there.
If you’re craving something specific, try thinking about what it is about that food that your body might be looking for (magnesium, tomato, etc) and see if eating a healthier solution will calm your cravings.
2. Ignored physical needs
Your cells and organs are constantly performing tasks to keep you alive, and to do this they need proper support from the food you eat. Nutrients play a huge part in keeping everything running, but your body needs other things from food besides just nutrients.
Calories, for instance. You need to eat a certain number of calories every day to function. They serve as energy to keep you moving. If you don’t have enough, after awhile your exhaustion will only be matched by your craving for calorie dense foods like carbohydrates.
Blood sugar management is also important. If your blood sugar is running low because you skipped too many meals or you’re in the middle of a sugar crash, your body’s going to turn up the cravings for sugar until your blood sugar is back a desirable range.
In these cases, it’s okay give into your cravings in the short term to restabilize yourself. They’re happening because you’re running low on something essential, so it’s best to get back into the green zone sooner rather than later. But once you’re feeling better, evaluate your diet to make sure you’re supporting all your physical needs.
3. Emotional and psychological needs
Food is comforting. Especially sugary, fatty foods.
When you’re feeling stressed, sad, bored, hormonal, etc, your body wants to bring you back into a state of feeling good and one of the best ways it knows how to do that is through food.
Fatty, salty and sweet foods are the trifecta of perfection according to our genetic coding. These are the foods that gave our ancestors energy and enough of a fat layer to survive during times with little food.
To encourage our ancestors to eat as much of this food as possible, the reward center of our brain started releasing dopamine whenever they found this food to store up as much energy as possible for the future. Just in case.
We still get that same good feeling today when we eat these flavors. So by sending a craving, our bodies are trying to do us a favor.
If something’s going on that makes you crave fatty, salty or sweet foods, now’s the perfect time to find something else that brings you pleasure. Exercise, a hobby, a vacation, talking with a friend. Do something that keeps you stimulated and you’ll probably find the craving will go away without eating a single bite.
You've got a food addiction
Food addiction is a craving that keeps you coming back to the same food without any explanation, and it keeps getting stronger even after you’ve given in. It’s usually for something fatty, sweet or salty (oftentimes all three at once) because those are the foods that release dopamine without fail.
Processed food is designed to take advantage of this. Think about the foods you can’t stop eating. Pizza, ice cream, potato chips. They all contain sugar (or processed grains), fat and salt to create the perfect snack you’ll never want to stop eating.
Just like any addiction, the best way to get over it is to stop exposing yourself. Here are 3 ways to push forward, even if you’re in the midst of withdrawal symptoms:
1. Eat whole foods (and eliminate processed ones)
When you eat whole foods, you’re providing your body with support as you detox old cravings and preventing yourself from introducing new cravings.
Have you ever gorged yourself on broccoli? I’m guessing no. That’s because foods that contain fiber and are packed with nutrients are difficult to overeat. Your body recognizes that you’ve had enough at some point and stops you.
Read ingredient labels to make sure you’re only eating foods that come from nature and are as unprocessed and whole as possible. Better yet, eat foods that don’t have labels at all.
2. Don’t deprive yourself
This seems like a contradiction to the last one, but it doesn’t have to be. When you’re in the middle of a craving, it can help to satisfy that craving quickly rather than try to push it to the side. Every time you say no to a craving, you use up some willpower and it becomes harder to say no the next time. Which can lead you to cheat and start back at square one.
But you can satisfy your cravings with whole foods, where you’ll have more control over how much you’re eating and you’ll be receiving all the benefits of those foods.
Try something like a baked sweet potato with a tablespoon of coconut oil, some cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Or carrots, bell peppers and cucumber with guacamole. Or an apple with fresh-ground almond butter.
3. Eat a wide variety of foods
The most popular way to eat vegetables in America is through potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes and corn. Is it any wonder we’re turning to processed foods for flavor?
Eating a variety of foods (especially produce) on a regular basis keeps you interested in the food you’re eating and makes you feel less deprived. If you’re enjoying what you’re eating and feeling satiated at the end of each meal, you’ll be less likely to reach for something you don’t actually want to be eating.
Plus, enjoying a wide spectrum of foods helps keep other cravings at bay. More variety helps ensure you get all the nutrients you need in your diet and gives you options to keep your blood sugar up and get enough calories.
What all this boils down to is that to successfully manage your cravings, you need to get to know yourself. Your needs are constantly changing and they don't always match up with someone else’s rule book. You are your own best judge when it comes to what’s going on in your own body and mind and what you need to feel your best.
If you need some help getting started though, Methodology is here for you. We offer meals that are made with whole foods but designed to taste like comfort food to help curb your cravings. Many of our clients have reported a decrease in cravings after eating Methodology meals a couple times a week for 4 weeks.