It happens when you least expect it. You could be watching a movie, or be in the midst of a meeting, or as in my case, writing an article—and it suddenly hits you, like a bolt from the blue, that you want...no, you need, a juicy burger, a bar of chocolate, or in my case, a cookie and cream ice cream! Have you ever known somebody crave broccoli or celery sticks?
Unfortunately, cravings tend to be towards foods rich in both fats and calories. And no matter how strong our resolve to stick to our diet, our willpower often succumbs.
Let’s understand the difference between hunger and craving. Our body “regulates” the former while the mind yields more power over the latter. Hunger serves a utilitarian purpose. When you are hungry, the hormone ghrelin communicates with the hypothalamus in the brain to stimulate your appetite. And once done eating, in order to prevent us from overindulging, fat tissues release another hormone, leptin, which tells our brain that we are satiated and can stop eating.
What happens though when food desires move from the stomach to the mind? Unlike stomach hunger, mind hunger has little to do with survival. There is no single explanation for food cravings—it could be a psychological factor, like stress, which makes one reach out for simple carbs that immediately boost levels of serotonin, which has a calming effect. Endorphins, or “feel-good” hormones, are produced when we consume fats and carbohydrates. Foods with high levels of sugar such as chocolate trigger an addictive response in the brain. You feel the need to consume more sugar, much like a drug addiction, because the brain has become conditioned to releasing “happy hormones” every time sugar is present, and thinks of it as a quick fix.
Junk that: Foods with high levels of sugar trigger an addictive response in the brain
Also, sensory memories of certain foods elicit instant gratification, reinforcing specific cravings. For example, if you associate your mother’s biryani with comfort food, you will crave biryani when stressed. The fact that those familiar pleasures have unwanted consequences on your waistline doesn’t seem to matter at the time.
Is there any way to prevent this seek-comfort-food-and-eat-it mindset?
“It’s not a losing battle,” says Susan Albers, a psychologist at Cleveland Clinic, Wooster, Ohio, US, in her book 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food. “You can rewire your brain. It’s about conditioning. We turn to food on autopilot, and we’re eating before we even realize it. When we (switch) it with something else, that becomes the default.”
What can you do?
Don’t let yourself get too hungry. You will invariably overeat to compensate.
Maintain a food journal for one month—list everything from the emotions you were feeling at the time of the craving, the foods you craved, how much you ate and how you felt after eating. You will be surprised at how often you find a pattern.
Controlling food cravings needn’t be a Herculean task. Instead of giving in to temptation, try to buy some time doing something else you enjoy, like listening to music, solving a puzzle or a crossword, reading a book, etc.
Let’s look at what some of the cravings signify and how we can tackle them.
Either you are withdrawing from processed sugar and miss the feeling of a “sugar high”, or you haven’t eaten for long, your blood sugar is low, and you genuinely need the boost. In either case, try filling up on plenty of fresh, whole fruit, which is naturally sweet, instead of processed confectionery.
Hot and spicy
Sometimes this craving comes because your body is not able to regulate its temperature, like on a cold day. A lot of perimenopausal women complain of this too because of hormonal fluctuation. It could also be due to zinc deficiency. Have offals like liver (if permitted), seafood and leafy veggies. This craving is not necessarily unhealthy, but could be if you reach for a samosa or a packet of instant noodles every time you get this craving. Instead, choose something healthy—like a soup.
You are probably low in chloride. Instead of having something salty like chips or French fries, try eating celery, cucumber, fish or spinach.
This could be because of a lack of iron. Load up on dark leafy greens and pair them with food high in vitamin C, like citrus fruit or a glass of orange juice, to enhance protein absorption.
Dairy, bread, biscuits, and other grain products
Both dairy and gluten-containing grains contain opioid peptides—which are amino acid sequences that affect the brain in the same way opiates do. They release endorphins, making you feel good, making this craving addictive. Try an elimination test. For example, eliminate one food from your diet, such as dairy products, to see if it makes a difference to your moods.
Dense and rich
We’ll put fast food, heavy desserts and cheese in this category. I see this very often with patients on a crash diet or a very low-calorie diet. It’s your calorie-deprived body’s “need” for energy that makes you crave dense foods. Instead, increase the calorie intake in a healthy way, by eating smaller portions of healthy food more frequently through the day instead of three big meals, and watch this craving disappear.
This is usually psychological. You are using food as a tranquillizer, relaxant or mood-lifter. In these cases you don’t need food because you are not really hungry. You need to exercise or talk to a friend to solve whatever is bothering you.
Vishakha Shivdasani is a Mumbai-based medical doctor with a fellowship in nutrition. She specializes in controlling diabetes, cholesterol and obesity.
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