Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Food cravings?

In just a few months we in the western world will be begin a new year, and with that new year some of us decide that it is a good time to change the way we eat.  Of course some people find themselves quickly derailed by a "craving" for [insert previously eaten food here].  A food craving is defined as an intense desire to consume a specific food, stronger than simple "normal" physical hunger.  Just about anyone who has changed the way the eat, even those who have been successful, can tell you a story about how they have longed for something that is no longer part of "the plan."  Food cravings are just one more obstacle that a lot of people have when it comes to achieving whatever the health goal is, so it's not a surprise (to me anyway) that one of the more popular ideas that pops up periodically is the idea that if you are craving a specific food you must be "deficient" in some type of micro nutrient (aka vitamin or mineral).  I've seen a variety of these "articles" floating around on social media (and spouted by well meaning relatives and friends trying to help you not eat whatever you are craving), but I think I managed to find a summary chart:
Food cravings

I am pretty sure some of you some of you saw immediately that the website had "naturopathy" in the title and decided to dismiss it outright.  For more on the quackery that labels itself naturopathy read this piece at  For those of you who were still curious and managed to read all of it; unfortunately there is no evidence that cravings are actually a sign of micro nutrient deficiency.  Lets take the every popular "I'm craving chocolate so I must be low in magnesium" statement.  Symptoms of magnesium deficiency often include agitation and anxiety, restless leg syndrome, sleep disorders, irritability, nausea and vomiting, abnormal heart rhythms, low blood pressure, confusion, muscle spasm and weakness, hyperventilation, insomnia, poor nail growth, and even seizures.  That's not to say that if you are feeling irritable eating a magnesium rich food source, or taking a supplement, won't help you feel better, but there is no mechanism in your body to increase your cravings for chocolate.  (And I know those of you struggling with tobacco addiction are wishing fervently that eating nuts would help you stop smoking.....if only it were that easy).

When it comes to foods high in calories (usually via carbohydrates and fat), keep in mind that humans have long been able to survive times of famine throughout history due largely to our ability to store excess calories, consumed during times of plenty, as body fat. So you might say that craving high calorie foods is part of our omnivorous/eat-whatever-we-can-find-to-survive programming.  Since those of us that have regular access to food are usually dependent on cheap, easy to obtain refined carbohydrates and processed fats; when we take that away, even though our mind knows we are improving our diet, our body is still wanting to that easy access to store up calories in case of a famine so we don't feel good.  Think about people who start a very low carbohydrate plan, like Atkin's induction diet; many of them experience fatigue, irritability, nausea, and intense cravings for sugar because the easy source of blood glucose has been removed.  After a few days the body will start using ketones for energy and they will usually start to feel better, but some people still feel horrible after a week or so and resume their former eating habits with a vengeance.  Or think of someone who decides to become vegan without learning about alternate protein sources and they try to survive on pasta; they go from getting adequate protein and fat to very little and they probably don't feel so good.  They either go back to eating cheeseburgers or they just try to fill up on more pasta and take in even more calories.

And then there's the "other parts" of eating, the parts that associate certain foods with good memories, family and friend celebrations, and the fact that certain parts of our brain (hippocampus, insula, and caudate) that control for memory and sensing pleasure are activated during food cravings.  Think about how many people who have tried to change their eating dread holiday celebrations with family and friends because they know that the "comfort foods" abound.

So now that you no longer have the excuse of "I want chocolate so I'm going to claim a magnesium deficiency" to fall back on, what could you do to manage your cravings and still change your eating lifestyle?
1) Plan to eat at least 3 meals per day.  If you are just starting out with a lifestyle change, now is not the time to think about fasting.
2) Make sure that you have protein, fat, and vegetables at each meal, if you are not diabetic, make sure that you include unprocessed carbohydrates like fruit, sweet potatoes, etc.  By making sure that you have the minimum of your protein needs and by allowing yourself to have the healthier fats, you can take the edge off the "starving" feeling.  If you have Type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, or some other insulin resistant related condition, limiting the carbohydrates will keep your body from having to over-produce insulin and inflate your hunger.
3) Clean out your kitchen.  Most of us do not lay awake thinking about the leftover pork loin, but we might lay awake thinking about the cookies.  Keep the temptation unavailable.
4) If you can find a lower calorie/lower carbohydrate option that tastes good, feel free to use a small amount daily.  (Your low carb ice cream only stays low carb if you eat about 1/2-1 cup per day.  You know who you are.)
5) If you are eating a "substitute" that you find that you don't like, stop eating it so you don't eat it and then whatever you are craving. (I'm old enough to remember rather unpalatable foods like Molly-mcbutter, etc.)
6) Get the small bag of candy, cookies, or one piece of pie, instead of the family size/the whole pie. Enjoy each bite.  
7) Some people do better with going cold turkey off certain foods, some people do better with gradual changes.  You know you the best.
8) If you do indulge in a craving, go back to your regular healthy eating habits as soon as possible.  Don't try to starve yourself the next day or you'll wind up back in the same cycle.  Shaming/punishing yourself doesn't usually work.
9) Find ways to stay busy in between meals so you don't eat because you are bored.
10) Start learning to bring your own meals and snacks to work so that you don't wait to long to eat and start working on whatever is left in the break room.
11) When you do enjoy your well planned treats, try to do so with supportive friends or family.  Nothing kills the enjoyment by other people judging you for eating foods of your own choosing.

Take home message--eating an overall healthy diet that contains all the essentials can help manage cravings, but there are no specific foods that will do so.

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