6 Reasons behind Cravings + How to Fix Them
By Teresa Wagner, RD, LD
June 9, 2020
What I know for sure, to use one of Oprah’s catch phrases, is that the last three months have given many of us a lot of really good excuses to eat; mindless eating or eating to numb our uncomfortable feelings. I’m bored; food is great entertainment. I’m lonely; food is good company. I’m stressed or anxious; food calms the mind and body. I’m overworked; food is a break. And for the introverts, I’m happy; food is celebratory. Can you relate to any of those scenarios?
Shuffling into the kitchen often leads to a game of mental tug-of-war …. “Hmm, what can I eat?” “No, you’re not hungry,” you reply. “But I feel like eating something,” you argue with yourself. “But you just had lunch an hour ago,” you reply. Then you take a moment to focus on your stomach to see if you are, in fact, hungry. Maybe you pick something you feel is innocent to see if it will take care of the problem, say a small handful of chocolate chips – perhaps justifying it because dark chocolate has antioxidants? Then after the sweet, you need something salty and crunchy to balance it out. There goes the sweet/salty cycle and the voice in your head returns. “Why did you do that?! You weren’t even hungry to begin with!”
Those darn cravings!
Maybe for you it’s less a mental tug-of-war and more a feeling. You have a flutter in your stomach that's not nerves and not hunger pangs. Maybe it’s a kind of ache in or between your shoulders; perhaps you feel it in the back of your throat or even a whole body discomfort. Cravings are hard to describe, most of us have had them … but how do you describe them? Merriam Webster defines cravings as an intense, urgent, or abnormal desire or longing. I also saw cravings described as “an irritation within the system." Combining the two descriptions is perfect –an intense irritation.
However you experience cravings, we’ve all found ourselves in that perfect storm of time, opportunity and high emotions that gives cravings the chance to take over so we make choices we might otherwise not have made. While comfy clothes are forgiving, you may be seeing the numbers on the scale tick up a bit or noticing your reflection is slightly rounder than it was a few months ago. As many coaches say, the best offense is a good defense. So what can we do to defend ourselves in our personal battle with cravings? Better yet, how do we end the internal struggle and have lasting peace?
6 Craving Triggers & Solutions
Dehydration: Cravings for food are often misinterpreted thirst signals. We are walking around dehydrated, as it’s thought that 75% of the US population falls short of the daily water recommendations. When we are dehydrated, we crave food because many foods contain water. That Icee at the gas station might sound really good because its first ingredient is water. Don’t get excited; its second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, followed by sugar so no, I’m not promoting this as an alternative to water.
The Fix: Drink half of your body weight in ounces of water (150 lbs. = 75oz H20 daily). Before I eat anything or even drink my coffee in the morning, I start the day with a large glass of water. After a night’s rest we wake up a bit dehydrated. Drinking water before coffee in the morning is a good idea too because drinking coffee will wet your tongue and blunt the thirst sensation. Another idea, keep track of how much you are drinking by filling a container with the amount of water to reach your daily water goal and ideally, by the end of the day it will be gone. A trick I love from fellow dietitian, JoAnn Ridout, is to use rubber bands on your glass or stainless steel water bottle. If the bottle holds 20oz and you weigh 160# then you’ll need four rubber bands on your bottle, as you finish the bottle slide a rubber band from the top to the bottom of the bottle. Infusing your water with fruit, mint or cucumbers can make water more appealing. Sparkling water, herbal and unsweetened ice tea are great options too. If you’re looking for something sweet, try adding a bit of stevia or monk fruit.
Lack of Sleep: Perhaps the stay-at-home order has thrown off your sleep schedule. Have you gotten in the habit of trading productive morning hours for late night TV binges? I hear from clients, and have experienced myself, that this is often when cravings hit – when you should be sleeping! When we’re tired, we crave energy, and if we’re not getting it from sleep we may look to food for energy.
The Fix: Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. If your schedule has become a bit looser, try going to bed without an alarm for a few nights and see how much sleep your body naturally wants. If you find a regular pattern, bed at 11:00 and wake at 8:00 am that’s a good indicator that you fall into the nine-hour camp. Once you know how much sleep your body needs, plan your schedule accordingly. I know my body likes 7.5 hours, so if I need to be up at 6:00 AM I better be in bed by 10:00 to ensure that I am asleep by 10:30.
Too Much Sugar: Sugar is addicting (no surprise there!) so the more you eat the more you’ll want. It genuinely feels good to eat sugar, and that’s why we gravitate towards it in times of stress. On the flipside, too much sugar sends blood sugar soaring. What goes up must come down, so then blood sugar dips too low … and what do we crave when our blood sugar drops low? You guessed it, SUGAR and fat. Some people really just crave straight up sugar like Starbursts while others crave potato chips or Snicker bars that have both the sugar and fat.
The Fix: Eat regularly, every 3 to 4 hours. DO NOT SKIP MEALS because intense hunger and low blood sugars can sabotage your healthy eating efforts and send you spinning on that cravings cycle. When you eat, have a balance of protein, fat and carbohydrates to maintain a healthy blood sugar level. A meal could look like 4-6oz of chicken, 1-3 c. low-sugar vegetables (like broccoli or Brussels sprouts), ½ c. starch or fruit and added fat like a tablespoon of olive oil or butter drizzled on your veggies. Our website, podcasts and blogs have a plethora of ideas on how to make balanced meals and snacks.
Not Enough Protein: Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of our neurotransmitters (chemicals that make us feel things.) When we have an adequate supply of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA we generally feel pretty good, happy, and calm. If you’ve been skimping on protein you may have cravings related to a low neurotransmitter supply – and generally feel pretty crummy too.
The Fix: Aim for 4-6 oz. of protein at meals (28-42g). Think the size and thickness of the palm of your hand. At snacks, eat 2oz protein (14g).
Alcohol: Quarantine has brought about a significant spike in liquor sales. If you find yourself reaching for more glasses of wine, beer or a cocktail you know that it produces a pleasurable feeling. This feeling is related to increased activity of dopamine, our feel good, self-esteem chemical. That increased activity causes our body to use dopamine too fast, which leaves our dopamine stores depleted and us feeling sad and unmotivated the next day. Sound familiar? Alcohol can also interfere with other feel good chemicals like serotonin and endorphins causing the post-party blues often lasting into the following day.
You can see how this becomes a continuous cycle. When we feel sad and unmotivated we look to food (or more wine) to cheer us up. Maybe that’s why greasy, carb-laden fast food sounds so good after a night of too much drinking. And don’t forget, alcohol can leave us dehydrated, thus triggering more cravings due to dehydration as mentioned above.
The Fix: Don’t drink alcohol. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s it. Once you start cutting it out and riding out a couple days of uncomfortable moods, you’ll realize you function much better without it. Having extra drinks was no doubt fun when quarantine started, but after nearly three months of sheltering in place alcohol is not a long-term coping mechanism. Save the drinks for special occasions, practice moderation and rotate between alcoholic beverages and water.
Too Many Visual Triggers: Are there junk foods in your cupboards, pantry or freezer that you want to eat as soon as you see them? I get it; I’ve been there. Do commercials on TV remind you of the yummy treat you bought on your last grocery store trip?
The Fix: Set yourself up for success by making the healthy choice the easy choice. Throw away the junk. Yes, I said throw it away. No, don’t just eat it all up to get it out of the house. We’ve all done it, made the excuse that if we just finish off that box of cookies or bag of chips we won’t be able to eat it tomorrow. Consider it waist food. Instead stock your fridge with cut-up veggies and a variety of fruits. Olives and nut butters are easy fats to keep on hand, as are the dry-roasted nuts and seeds in the pantry. Grass-fed beef sticks, turkey sticks and hard boiled eggs are handy for quick proteins. Try having an all-in-one salad on hand for a quick, delicious option.
Miscellaneous Craving Triggers
There are some triggers that can’t be neatly wrapped up in one group. So the next time a craving hits you, stop and evaluate what need you are trying to fulfill.
- Are you stressed? Did you know that the act of chewing can reduce the stress hormone cortisol? Instead of eating away our stress, try yoga, meditation, time in nature, faith practices, walking, breathing techniques or other stress-lowering outlets.
- Are you lonely? Simple, call a friend or family member. Chances are that they are lonely too.
- Are you procrastinEATing? Taking snack breaks is a great way to put off work that needs to be done. Schedule your snack breaks and only eat at those designated times.
- Are you bored? If ever there has been a time to start a hobby, it’s now. Can’t think of a hobby? Check the photo roll on your phone. Is this the opportunity to get that album started? What about gardening? Is it time you dusted off your guitar or piano? Hablas espanol?
Finally, my go-to habit when a craving strikes is to drink a tall glass of water, take 5-10 deep breaths and exit the kitchen immediately, preferably go outside. Give yourself 15 minutes to a half hour to evaluate if you are hungry. If so, have a balanced snack containing protein. I love cottage cheese with strawberries and a sprinkling of salted, dry roasted sunflower seeds; it’s satisfying and hits that salty-sweet-soft-crunchy combo!
If you are overwhelmed by all these options or if you need help implementing a craving elimination plan, make an appointment with me or any of our nutritionists (available by phone or video for now), and we can help.