Diet is a 4-Letter Word

The psychology of eating

Help! I Can’t Stop These Cravings! Part 2

Part 2 of my series on food addiction

In last week’s blog, we discussed some of the emotional reasons you might be having food cravings. Today we’ll explore the biological and environmental reasons.

 

To recap, cravings are your body’s way of telling you that it needs something (protein, salt, love, etc.); your brain uses its memories of how you’ve tried to satisfy that need in the past and makes you crave it again – even if it doesn’t necessarily fulfill the true basis for the craving (e.g., craving chocolate when you really just need a hug). The vast majority of the time our cravings are connected to emotional needs. In essence, we crave foods that tended to comfort us as a child. But sometimes our cravings are the result of what’s happening around us (environment) or stem from a nutrient need that is not getting met. 

Nutrient-Related Cravings

1)      Vitamins and Minerals – As I discussed last time, I had a client who craved salty foods every day at 3:00pm. Although some of her craving was certainly psychological resulting from the expectation that 3:00pm was chips and salsa time, there was more to it than that. Research suggests cravings for salty foods may indicate a mineral deficiency. Jennifer’s diet consisted of highly processed, nutrient-deficient foods, so it makes sense that she might crave minerals. The trouble is she wasn’t craving the right mineral. With all of that processed food she was eating, she was getting more than enough sodium, but what her body likely needed were the other trace minerals that are absent in most processed foods today. But there again, her body was relying on its past misguided experiences. What her body probably needed was vegetables, especially leafy green veggies like kale and spinach, which are high in a variety of vitamins and minerals.

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2)      Dehydration – Because we have gotten accustomed to misinterpreting our bodies’ messages, we often lose the ability to distinguish between hunger and thirst. Often, dehydration feels like mild hunger. So the next time you find yourself craving a certain food, drink a glass of water (not coffee or soda), wait 10 minutes and see if you are still craving that food at the same intensity.

3)      Infrequent Meals – It takes a few hours for your body to digest a meal. After that time, your body starts to send out signals that it’s time to eat (salivation, growling stomach, etc.). If you ignore your body’s hunger signals on a regular basis (e.g., you’re on a diet and start skipping breakfast or lunch everyday), it goes into starvation mode. This triggers cravings for high sugar, high fat foods because your body knows that’s the fastest way to get much needed calories. So it makes you crave foods that fulfill those perceived needs.

Environment-Related Cravings

1)      “Oh the weather outside is frightful…” – Cravings can sometimes be tied to the climate. In the winter we tend to crave warming foods (e.g., cooked foods, high fat foods), whereas we crave cooling foods in the summer (e.g., salads, frozen yogurt). Dressing appropriately for the season and making sure you are keeping your body warm (or cool) enough can help curb weather-related cravings.

So what have we learned? Often our cravings come from emotional voids in our lives that we are looking to fill with food. Occasionally, however, your cravings might be stemming from an external factor (like the weather) or an internal factor like nutrient or hydration needs. As I stated last week, when we find ourselves craving a certain food, the first thing we should do is “check in” with ourselves and figure out what our body is really craving. Have you had enough water today? Is the weather influencing your food cravings? Have you eaten enough today? It may take time for this process to become natural, but before long you’ll begin to communicate with your body in a healthful way and you will be able to trust that if you are craving something it’s because you really do need it rather than to fill an emotional, nutritional, or environment-related void.

 

Next week: The Hormones of Hunger

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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