In my nutrition practice one of the most common things I am asked for is help with conquering cravings. I’m always of two minds about this, because I don’t believe that cravings are a bad thing – often a craving is our body’s way of asking for something that it’s missing. At the same time, I acknowledge that often times people do need some help getting a handle on their cravings.
Cravings tend to get a bad rap because the types of foods that people often crave (or believe they crave) usually end up on the naughty list. Think about it, you rarely hear your friend complaining about their out of control broccoli cravings, but you’ll hear about cravings for sugary, fatty, or salty foods quite often.
Getting control begins with understanding what your cravings mean. Is it a physical craving or an emotional one? Are you genuinely hungry, or are you bored/in a routine?
For instance, if you typically finish a meal with something sweet, ask yourself whether you actually want/crave sweets, or if it’s simply become a habit for you to reach for the chocolates.
If you’re cravings are habitual, try replacing the ritual with something else. I often advise my clients who find they crave sweets in the evening to start with a cup of herbal tea and see whether that does the trick. By taking the time to boil water, steep the tea, and cozy up with a mug of it, you’re giving yourself space to consider the craving. If you finish the tea and you find that the craving is still there, you probably genuinely want or need that thing.
Also think about the characteristics of whatever you’re craving. For example, if it’s potato chips we can determine that they provide salt, fat, and crunch. Will only a potato chip do, or would the crunch of, say, celery fill the same void?
Consider that often our cravings stem from emotional places. I feel sad/happy/angry therefore I want to eat chocolate/pizza/candy. If you can recognize that your craving is coming from an emotional place, is there something you can replace it with? More often than not, going for a short walk, writing in a journal, or calling a friend can fill the void.
Understanding your cravings goes beyond the emotional, though, and into the scientific. If you’re craving something specific, what is your body asking for?
Sugar is our brain’s preferred fuel, and something we’ve been biologically programmed to seek out, so it makes perfect sense that so many cravings are driven by sugar. Unfortunately, our biology hasn’t caught up with the fact that there’s sugar available in abundance these days, so cravings for sweet things deserve an extra level of thoughtfulness.
A craving for sugar can be related to tiredness, and your body’s way of looking for fast fuel to keep going. Sugar can be very habit forming, and once you are accustomed to a sweet taste it can be jarring to replace those foods with those that are less sweet. The good news is that you can work your way out of it by reducing the sugary stuff bit by bit, and after a while you’ll be surprised at how sickly sweet some things taste.
If you’re craving sweets, try to stick with things like fruit that come packaged with dietary fiber, nutrients, and minerals. I also like to pair sweet things with some protein and healthy fats, like a handful of nuts, which helps your blood sugar stay stable, which in turn helps keep those cravings under control.
Cravings for greasy, fatty foods often signal that you’re in need of some fat. Seems pretty straightforward, no? Our bodies depend on essential fatty acids for many vital functions, and we need fat in order to absorb fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
If you find yourself with an unscratchable itch for fatty foods, try replacing the standard junk foods and low-quality refined fats with healthy fats, such those found in avocados, nuts, olives, seeds, coconut oil, or MCT oil.
Don’t get me wrong, if you’re craving a pizza there are times that only a pizza will do, but it warrants asking yourself whether avocado toast drizzled with olive oil would suffice now and then. Or whether starting your day with an MCT oil latte would help reduce your cravings for greasy foods.
Also consider that often times fatty foods such as high-quality dairy and fatty fish (like salmon or mackerel) offer up a lot of nutrients like calcium, B12, and omega-3 fatty acids, and that may be exactly what your body is asking for.
Much like sugar, salt can become a bit of an acquired taste that you need to work your way out of. But cravings for salt can also indicate a need for minerals and electrolytes that you’ve lost due to activity.
My husband is an elite-level endurance athlete who has higher than usual salt needs on a regular basis, but particularly during a race. He actually chews salt tablets along the way, and he says he can tell his electrolytes are back in balance when the tablets start tasting gross. But when he needs salt, they taste great!
A craving for salt can also be a sign that you’re dehydrated, as salt (electrolytes) helps your body to hang on to fluids. It’s no coincidence that pregnant women often crave salty foods since their hydration needs go up, and so do their needs for the minerals that are often found in salt.
I’ve found that adding a tiny pinch of salt to my drinking water has gone a long way to not only maintaining hydration, but also to keeping cravings for salty foods at bay.
Chocolate deserves a special mention here since it’s one of the most-craved foods we hear about, and it’s got a unique package of sweetness, fat from the cocoa butter, and (when we’re talking about the good quality stuff) it’s also rich in minerals.
Cocoa is extremely high in magnesium, and since magnesium can help alleviate muscle cramps, it’s no coincidence that cravings for chocolate tend to go up when women are menstruating.
If you’re craving chocolate, treat yourself to a square or two of the good stuff – as dark as you can stand it – and see if that does the trick. You can also try making chocolate avocado pudding, which combines healthy fats from avocados with minerals from the chocolate and a touch of sweetness.72