Food Cravings: Why Do We Have Them?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

If one of your goals is to eat healthier or to lose weight, then you’ve probably had a run-in or two with some food cravings by now.

These overpowering impulses can derail even the most disciplined dieters. They also can be incredibly discouraging. After all, if you can’t say no to your desire for something salty, crunchy, or sweet, what hope is there that you’ll reach your goal?

Don’t think this way!

Food cravings are a challenge, but they can be managed. An important step toward doing that is understanding why we have them in the first place.

Why We Have Food Cravings

We tend think of food cravings as wild and inexplicable urges, but the truth is that a lot of them are simply your body’s way of telling you that it needs something you’re not giving it. Chocolate cravings, for example, can be a sign that you’re low on magnesium.

Dark Chocolate Benefits: Go Ahead and Indulge

So before you start beating yourself up for giving in to a food craving, make sure you’re giving your body all the nourishment it needs. Often, an adjustment here or there in how you’re taking care of yourself will put you back in the driver’s seat where food is concerned.

There are a lot of different imbalances that can show up as a food craving, but here are six of the most common:

1. Vitamin deficiency

Did you know that your body needs more than 30 distinct vitamins and minerals on a daily (or nearly daily) basis in order to be healthy? Despite the fact that we have more food available to us than ever before, many of us fail to consume diets rich in the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to function properly. This can cause vitamin deficiency.

Vitamin deficiency — particularly chronic deficiency — can make our body crave the specific nutrients it’s running low on.

For example, both men and women should consume at least 30 mcg of a B-vitamin called biotin each day. While you can get most (if not all) of your biotin from foods like egg yolks, fish, and many whole grains, if you’re not eating enough of those foods, it’s easy to become deficient.

Since biotin helps your body produce the energy it needs to function properly and plays a pivotal role in the synthesis of glucose, if you are deficient in biotin, you might crave unhealthy, carb-heavy foods.

How to fight cravings due to vitamin deficiency: While eating a well-balanced diet of whole foods is ideal, it’s not always plausible…Life happens. So, even alongside a balanced diet, make sure you take a well-balanced multivitamin supplement that contains all of the nutrients your body needs on a daily basis. Your body will use what it needs and discard what it doesn’t, so it’s good to have a little bit of backup in case you accidentally eat a cookie instead of a carrot. (Hey, it happens to the best of us.)

2. Low blood sugar

This one’s a biggie because it’s all about carbs—especially high-glycemic carbs like bread, chips, sweets, and sugary drinks.

We often crave these things when our blood sugar begins to fall. Carbohydrates are the quickest and easiest way for the body to correct that drop because they hit the bloodstream almost instantly and you feel better right away.  The downside, though, is that when glucose spikes really high, it also tends to fall really low—which sets up a cycle where you keep having the same craving throughout the day.

How to fix blood sugar-related cravings: Keep your blood sugar on an even keel by avoiding high-glycemic carbs and eating more fats and protein.

A good guide is to follow my Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet plan. PAMM recommends no more than 45 percent of your diet should be low-glycemic carbs (carbs with a glycemic index of 50 or lower). The rest should be fats and protein. Both fats and protein burn more slowly so you’ll feel a more sustained energy level. Plus they don’t raise your blood sugar as much as carbs, which means cravings won’t be as strong.

When my blood sugar is low, and I need a quick fix, I’ll pour myself a shot of organic extra virgin olive oil and sip it slowly until I can get a more substantial snack or meal. It may sound odd, but it sufficiently tides me over  – and with something that’s healthy for my heart, brain, and whole body.

If you do make a poor food choice and feel a drop of energy, fix it by eating a low-carb, high-protein, high-fiber or high fat snack such as nuts and seeds, boiled eggs, or berries.

3. Imbalanced gut bacteria

Did you know that you have billions of bacteria living inside your body? In fact, the average person has at least 10 times more bacterial cells in their bodies than they have human cells.

Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be this way!

In fact, gut bacteria — otherwise known as your “microbiome,” is an essential part of your digestive system, and these “friendly” bacteria help your body stay healthy.

Unfortunately, not all the bacteria inside your body is friendly. More specifically, there are certain strains of bacteria that — if given the opportunity — will cause you to crave what “they” need to survive. What the “bad bacteria” normally crave is carbohydrates, sugar, candy, etc., that they can break down and absorb easily.

How to beat cravings due to bad gut bacteria: To stave off these unhealthy cravings that support the growth of “bad bacteria,” try to minimize sugar in your diet and take a probiotic supplement on a regular basis to keep those “good bacteria” fighting the good fight in your gut.

4. Stress and anxiety

If you’re feeling stressed or anxious, your body responds by searching for ways to stimulate your dopamine receptors. Unfortunately, this can lead to cravings for unhealthy foods, as these types of food can give your body a quick rush of dopamine.

To avoid stress-based cravings, you can start by attempting to avoid them altogether by avoiding stressful and anxiety-inducing situations (easier said than done). Another alternative is to consider meditation – breathe in, breathe out, focus on nothing but your breath. So simple and so easy, meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety after even just a few minutes.

However, if you’re like me and stress happens to find you no matter how you try to avoid it, you can still combat it before it makes you reach for something unhealthy.

How to placate your stressed-out self: When you feel that craving for a “comfort food” hit, take a series of deep breaths, or do a quick exercise. Go for a quick jog, put on a song and dance around the house, do some yoga or take a brisk walk. Exercise (even when light) is another dopamine-releasing activity that will give you a little rush of “happy” that may just squash that troublesome craving.

5. Dehydration

If you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated!

Dehydration can quickly lead to a number of other complications. However, one of the most common mistake we make is to think we are hungry, when in fact, we’re just low on fluids. The craving for food is because many foods contain water, and if our body senses we are not getting enough water directly, it makes us crave foods that may deliver at least some hydration to the body.

How to keep thirst from thwarting your healthy diet goals : The next time you feel a hunger craving, drink a glass of water instead of having a snack first, then wait 20 minutes. You might be surprised how often that “hunger” goes away!

How to Combat Fatigue and Regain Energy

6. Fatigue

In our fast-paced world, it is easy for sleep to fall on the priority list. However, fatigue is one of the most powerful causes of unhealthy food cravings. Not only that, but fatigue also has a negative impact on impulse control, self-control, and overall willpower.

This is because people who don’t get enough sleep tend to produce insufficient amounts of a hormone called “leptin,” which is a chemical that tells your body when it is full, and have excess amounts of a hormone called “ghrelin,” which tells your body when it needs to eat. These are called your “hunger hormones,” and when they are imbalanced, you get hungry when you don’t actually need food, and you often don’t stop eating even when your body gets what it needs. So when food cravings hit, this imbalance puts you at even more of a disadvantage in combating them.

How to beat cravings due to lack of sleep: While everyone is different, it is absolutely essential that you get a minimum of six hours sleep each night. For many people, however, six hours isn’t enough; seven and a half to eight hours is optimal. Listen to your body and help eliminate fatigue before it leads to a negative spiral in your health.

Hopefully, this added knowledge and resulting understanding of where food cravings come from helps you prevent unhealthy cravings and give your body more of what it needs before it starts to beg for those nutrients. If you suffer from uncontrollable food cravings, take a close look at your nutritional needs and habits to pinpoint whether or not there are some obvious risk factors you can eliminate to be on your way to less cravings and a more satisfied appetite.

© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

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