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Food Cravings and what to do about them

Food Cravings and weight loss

Research studies have shown that almost all women and nearly 70% of men experience food cravings.

Because these cravings are often for foods that are high in fat, sugar, salt and calories, they can seriously jeopardize our weight loss efforts and our long-term health.

In this article, we explain what food cravings are, why many of us have them and what can be done to eliminate them or at least minimize them and their impact on our weight loss efforts.

What are food cravings?

Food cravings are a strong desire for a specific food.

Typically, food cravings are for foods that are very sweet, salty, fatty, crunchy, or high in carbohydrates, but food cravings themselves can differ depending upon age, gender, cultural background and personal tastes.

The most commonly craved foods among women are chocolate, ice cream, potato chips, biscuits and French-fries.

Men also tend to crave chocolate and ice cream, but also crave pizza, pasta and burgers.

While most people experience relatively harmless food cravings from time to time, if our cravings become an addiction, they can lead to obesity, depression and the development of eating disorders.

What causes food cravings?

There is currently a lot of debate about the exact cause of food cravings.

The reality is that there are a number of possible causes, any of which can be responsible for our individual food cravings. In other words, the major cause of your food cravings may be different from mine even though we both crave the same food.

Knowing this, it helps if we can all identify the possible causes so we can test which ones affect us the most and take one step closer to finding the solutions that works best for us.

Broadly speaking, food cravings may be caused by physiological factors (bodily processes), psychological factors (mental processes), emotional factors, lifestyle factors or a combination of all of these.

Let's have a closer look at each in turn.

Physiological Factors:

The Physiological factors believed to be responsible for many food cravings include:

  • Our body is lacking certain nutrients which it cries out for in the form of cravings.
  • Our blood sugar levels, and therefore our energy levels, are low and our body tells us we need more via cravings.
  • We have low levels of serotonin (a hormone responsible for feelings of pleasure and relaxation) in our brain which causes an imbalance that our body tries to rectify via cravings.
  • Our glycogen (the main source of energy for our muscles) stores are becoming depleted and our body is trying to fix this by craving carbohydrates.
  • Our body simply wants a particular food taste, texture, aroma or temperature.
  • Our body is simply responding to sensory triggers, like smells and visual cues, like walking past a pizza shop for example.

One of the main problems with very low calorie diets is that they can cause many of the above factors to be present, such as our body lacking certain nutrients or our blood sugar levels being too low for example.

This is why some diets don't work for many of us and causes us to put on more weight in the long-term that it helps take off in the short-term. It is also the reason why weight loss programs like the Ultra Lite weight loss program, for example, include nutritional supplements designed specifically to reduce the likelihood of participants experiencing cravings.

Psychological Factors:

In addition to physiological factors causing cravings, there are also a number of psychological factors including:

  • Constantly thinking about foods that we totally deny ourselves or label "off limits".
  • Our mind simply telling us we have cravings, or not having the will power to say no to foods.
  • Our mind simply responding to mental triggers such as fast food advertising and the like.

Once again, some diets that severely reduce kilojoules or calories and totally forbid some types of food can lead to some of these causes to be present, such as constantly thinking about prohibited foods for example.

Emotional Factors:

Emotional issues connected to food cravings may include:

  • Stress, tension, anxiety, fear or impatience.
  • Depression or feeling down.
  • Feeling tired and having low energy levels.
  • Boredom or unmet needs for fun, play, excitement, or recreation – in other words,  too much work and not enough play.
  • A desire for love, appreciation, romance or sexual satisfaction.
  • Anger, resentment, bitterness or frustration.
  • Memories of happier times and wanting to return to those times.
  • Emptiness, insecurity or a desire for comfort.

If any of these emotional issues remain unaddressed, food cravings for "comfort food" can remain constant.

If our underlying emotional issues change however, so too will our food cravings.

If we do have some underlying emotional issue crying out for attention, it is often a good idea to get some help from a registered psychologists or similar mental health care professional.

Lifestyle Factors:

As well as physical, emotional and mental causes of cravings, there are also many lifestyle factors that can cause them, including:

  • Habit – we habitually eat dessert after dinner or eat a large popcorn, ice cream and a soft drink at the movies, etc.
  • Dieting – as we have already seen, some very restrictive diets can cause cravings and if our lifestyle is characterized by constant or yo-yo dieting this can lead to constant cravings.
  • Cultural aspects – because of their culture, many people have strong expectations to have certain foods at certain times and places.

Dealing with food cravings

Now that we've looked at some of the possible causes of food cravings let's have a look at what can be done to try to eliminate them or at least minimize them and the damage they can do.

Even though they can overlap, for consistency, let's look at the strategies for dealing with food cravings under the same headings that we used to analyse their causes:

Dealing with Physiological causes of food cravings

The ways we can attempt to overcome physiological causes of food cravings include:

  • Being aware that the greatest number of cravings occurs late in the day when our energy levels are low and overcoming this energy deficit by making sure that we don't go too long without eating at least a healthy snack.
  • Eating a well balance diet including as much variety as possible to ensure that we are more likely to be getting all the nutrients our body needs.
  • Exercising moderation in all foods we eat.
  • Using vitamin and mineral supplements where necessary.
  • Replenishing depleted energy stores after intense exercise.
  • Avoiding certain sensory triggers known to cause us to feel cravings (avoiding walking past vending machines or pizza shops for example).
  • Never skipping meals.
  • Eating complex carbohydrates regularly which release energy slowly.
  • Getting sufficient sleep.
  • Avoiding refined foods, especially sugar which causes steep rises in blood sugar levels followed shortly afterwards by steep declines.
  • Drinking plenty of water - often hunger is a signal that we're thirsty.
  • Trying to reduce food and drinks that are stimulants, like sweets, alcohol, coffee, etc.
  • If you don't have highly addictive tendencies and are able to satisfy your cravings by consuming a relatively small portion of the food you crave you should have some, but if by taking just one bite of the food you crave you will not be able to stop eating far too much you should totally avoid it.

Dealing with Psychological causes of food cravings

Some strategies for dealing with mental causes of cravings include:

  • Beware of "no-fault psychology", where we use excuses for our lack of will power and self-control to absolve ourselves of personal responsibility for our actions – which can also have serious negative effects on our long-term health and well-being if allowed to continue.
  • When about to satisfy a food craving, ask yourself what you want more, the food or the weight loss goal you are trying to achieve.
  • If there are two "off limits foods" that you crave, choose the least damaging (in terms of total kilojoules or calories) one of the two.
  • If you think you may be serotonin-deficient and want to increase your serotonin levels, identify and eliminate any possible food allergies (paying special attention to gluten and milk products), avoid alcohol, caffeinated drinks, cigarettes, and amphetamines, increase your exposure to bright sunlight, get 60 minutes of moderately intense exercise everyday and make sure you get enough deep, restful sleep every night.
  • Simply brushing your teeth or gargling with an antiseptic mouthwash or distracting yourself from thinking about food.

Dealing with Emotional causes of food cravings

Underlying emotional issues can often be very complex and therefore not easy to overcome. Having said that, some strategies for dealing with emotional related food cravings include:

  • Being aware of times when you are managing your emotions with food.
  • Keeping a food diary that not only tracks what you eat but when and how you are feeling at the time.
  • Addressing any emotional issues that cause you to crave comfort foods as soon as possible.
  • Remembering that calories cannot make us happy or resolve stressful situations, they will only mask the underlying problem and perhaps cause other problems in the process.
  • Not adding to our emotional problems by being too hard on ourselves if you do give in to our cravings.
  • Avoiding stress wherever possible or using relaxation techniques like exercise, deep breathing, yoga, Pilates, aromatherapy, massage or meditation to help us cope with stress.
  • Making an appointment with a registered psychologists or other suitably qualified mental health care professional or counselor for help dealing with persistent emotional issues.

Dealing with Lifestyle causes of food cravings

In addition to the above, ways to deal with some lifestyle related causes of food cravings include:

  • Being aware of any habitual or unconscious eating patterns that you have and try to change any problematic ones, like automatically ordering garlic bread as an entrée when dining at a restaurant or 'cleaning your plate' even though you are full.
  • Trying to find new favourite foods.
  • Eating small amounts of nutritious food every few hours to help combat food cravings.
  • Avoiding becoming famished during shopping trips and while traveling by carrying protein-rich snacks with you at all times.
  • Turning off the lights in your kitchen at night and avoid hanging out there.
  • Never skipping breakfast.
  • Keeping healthy snacks around the house or office.
  • Figuring out what works for us and repeating that behaviour.
  • Watching less TV.
  • Keeping food records in a food diary to track how much you eat and when.
  • Avoiding very low calorie diets.
  • Practicing portion control – avoiding up-sizing your meals at fast food restaurants, for example.
  • Never giving up on our weight loss goals.
  • Being aware that certain medications can stimulate our appetite – if in doubt about any medication that you take regularly, speak to your doctor or health care professional.

Conclusion

Research studies have shown that almost all women and nearly 70% of men experience food cravings.

Because these cravings are often for foods that are high in fat, sugar, salt and calories, they can seriously jeopardize our efforts to lose weight and our long-term health.

In this article, we explained what food cravings are, why many of us have them and what can be done to eliminate them or at least minimize them and their impact on our weight loss efforts.Good luck controlling or dealing with your food cravings and thanks for visiting weightloss.com.au.

Copyright Ultimate Weightloss.

This article was written by Scott Haywood.

Scott is the editor of weightloss.com.au. Scott has developed an expertise in fitness and nutrition, and their roles in weight loss, which led him to launch weightloss.com.au in 2005. Today, weightloss.com.au provides weight loss and fitness information, including hundreds of healthy recipes, weight loss tools and tips, articles, and more, to millions of people around the world, helping them to lead happier, healthier, lives.

You can follow Scott on Google+ for more interesting articles.

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