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Food cravings: how to take back control

Food cravings are an intense desire to eat certain foods that seems to hit instantly from out of the blue. But why do we get them? Are they simply a sign of poor self-control or is there a physiological reason behind these food longings?

We speak with dietitian Joel Feren to find out the facts on food cravings, bust the myths and if there’s any way we can beat these food fixations.

Q: Why do we get certain food cravings?

Food cravings may be linked to imbalances within our bodies, such as a dip in blood sugar levels, changes in hormones, stress, poor hydration, or even the external environment.

Scientists have long studied the mystery of food cravings and have even used MRIs to look at how people’s brains react when a craving hits. This showed several areas of the brain are activated during a food craving and may in fact be those areas involved with emotions, memories and senses, especially taste and smell. You know the feeling when you smell popcorn and start to drool?

Q: Is it better to wait out a food craving or give in?

Research suggests that food cravings are transient, generally lasting for just 3-5 minutes. However, in some people they may last longer.

Distraction can be a helpful technique to wait until the craving passes, but beware, restricting foods can lead to binge eating so it may actually be better to enjoy a small amount of the food you’re craving.

I’m not talking about devouring a family sized block of chocolate, but allowing yourself to truly enjoy a couple of pieces. It’s about acknowledging the craving, giving yourself permission to enjoy the food without guilt and just being sensible with the frequency and portions. If you generally eat a healthy diet, a minor indulgence now and then won’t hurt.

Q: Why is it that some people crave sweets while others crave salty foods?

Cravings, like most food choices, are individual. Some of us have a fondness for sweet foods, while others favour salty foods. But it can depend on more than our taste buds.

What we crave can be triggered by a range of factors, even hormones and stress. Research shows women craving carbs or sugars just before they get their period can be due to changes in their hormone levels, specifically the hormones progesterone and oestradiol.

People with Addison’s disease, a disorder that impacts the production of hormones responsible for regulating blood pressure, may experience sudden cravings for salty foods. If you experience the symptoms of Addison’s disease such as severe fatigue, weight loss, light-headedness and/or salt cravings, it is important that you talk with your doctor.

Why do we tend to crave junk foods rather than healthy foods?

This is likely due to our emotions being at play. When we’re feeling down we don’t tend to reach for the apple in the fruit bowl, but rather the chocolate bar hiding at the bottom of our desk drawer, because sugary, high carb or high fat foods can provide a lift in mood.

Foods high in sugar and fat cause the release of opioids which release 'feel good' neurotransmitters in our brains.

5 tips to help manage food cravings 

• Stay nourished – many people find that protein helps to keep hunger pangs and cravings at bay. There are some surprising sources of plant protein that are easy to incorporate into your everyday diet and will help curb the cravings – think pistachios, peanut butter, cereals and yoghurt.

• Drink up – When we are dehydrated our body uses up more of our stored glucose (known as glycogen), reducing our stores. Reduced glycogen levels can cause us to feel hungry, and has even been associated with craving sweet foods. Many people also confuse thirst and hunger as symptoms are very similar. So, when a craving hits, try a glass of water.

• Sleep well – lack of sleep has been linked to seeking out unhealthy food and sugar cravings. One reason is it may suppress the hormones that control food intake. Try to aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night.

• Healthy swaps – if you’ve got a craving for something salty, rather than opting for a packet of potato chips try whole grain crackers. If it’s a sweet craving, a piece of fruit is a healthy substitute. Check out more healthy food swaps here.

• Downsize – try and minimise the portion of the food you’re craving. Take one biscuit instead of a handful or share a slice of cake with a friend. This way you can satisfy your craving without overindulging.