Science Behind Cravings – Weight Loss and Fitness Lover

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The science behind cravings and keeping them in check - Articles

Science Behind Cravings

The science behind cravings and keeping them in check

At some point or another, we’ve all experienced cravings and have likely wondered where they came from. Taking a closer look, cravings are a strong desire for a specific food, taste or texture. When we experience feelings of natural hunger, it’s a physical sign from our body telling us that it needs more fuel in order to have energy so it can function properly.

When comparing the two, hunger is a signal that your metabolism is revved up and looking to break down nutrient-dense food for energy, whereas cravings can stem from many different underlying causes and stem from some sort of physiological imbalance going on inside, including nutrient deficiencies, stress hormones, or poor lifestyle habits. When it comes to the crave game, there are many factors that are part of the equation.

Restricted Calorie Intake

I can’t tell you how many times a day I talk to someone who is having intense cravings for sweets, starchy carbohydrates or salty foods, who I also find is severely undereating (I’m talking to you, 1,200 calorie crew). While daily calorie intake will vary for everyone, each person should focus on having a balanced diet that incorporates a variety of proteins, non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats and fiber to promote healthy living and can help fend off any cravings before they start to creep in. As a baseline recommendation, I tell my clients to focus on getting:

• Half plate non-starchy veggies (greens, brussels sprouts, green beans, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, etc.)
• 1-2 palm-sized servings of protein
• 1-2 thumbs healthy fat (avocado, olive oil, etc.)
• Starchy carbs as needed based on activity (typically 1-2 servings/day)
• Fiber: 25 grams or more each day

Often times when we have a craving, our body is trying to tell us something and is an indication of what our body needs or is lacking. Our body knows when it isn’t getting enough fuel and will make adjustments in how it produces hormones and regulates energy expenditure, but also in the way we develop and experience food cravings. If you’re restricting your intake of complex carbohydrates on a consistent basis, this could cause you to crave sweets (carbohydrates) or bread and pasta (starchy carbohydrates). Moreover, research shows that dieting or restricting food is correlated with an increase in food cravings. Even more interesting, attempting to restrict a specific food actually leads to an increased craving for the unavailable food.1

If this sounds like something you’re experiencing on a continual basis, meeting with a nutrition coach will help you to pinpoint the problem areas in your eating plan so you can create a plan that’s supportive of your personal goals and includes an appropriate caloric intake to minimize your cravings.

Nutrient Deficiencies

When calorie intake is too low and diets lack a wide variety of foods, nutrient deficiencies are the result. While the priority should be to have a balanced diet like I mentioned above, I always recommend a high-quality multivitamin to ensure nutrient gaps are fulfilled and your metabolism can run like a well-oiled machine. Research has shown that a few of the most popular diets (including low-carbohydrate diets) are rarely meeting the RDI’s (recommend daily intake) of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals.

Below are a few examples of nutrient deficiencies that can lead to cravings: 

  • Iron Deficiency – Iron deficiency can occur when you don’t eat enough iron-rich foods (i.e. red meat, poultry, fish, beans/legumes), when your body isn’t absorbing enough, or when you are losing more iron than your body can replace, which typically happens through excess blood loss or during developmental stages in life like adolescence, pregnancy, or breastfeeding. You may notice you feel more fatigued and/or short of breath upon exertion. Your muscles may feel weak, you may have pale skin color or your fingernails may become ridged, flat, and spoon-shaped. When we are lacking in energy, our bodies will crave foods that will give it quick energy (like sweets and carbohydrates that get into the bloodstream quickly). Don’t forget, calories are actually a measurement of energy!
  • Magnesium Deficiency – Magnesium deficiency develops with inadequate dietary intake of magnesium-rich foods (i.e. dark, leafy greens, sea vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and lentils, fish, whole grains), from an overly processed diet and/or from impaired absorption. Think of this mineral as your “relaxation” nutrient: if your body or mind feels irritated, agitated, tight or stiff, magnesium may be in short supply. Typical signs are muscle cramps or twitches, restless leg syndrome, numbness/tingling, anxiety, insomnia, PMS, headaches, or constipation.  A common craving that is indicative of a magnesium deficiency is dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is rich in magnesium and generally appealing food to most people, so it’s no wonder this specific food craving comes along with magnesium deficiency.

Hormone imbalance

There are two hormones that have a significant impact on our dietary behaviors: leptin and ghrelin. Produced by fat cells, Leptin is known as our satiety or “fullness” hormone and will signal to your brain when you don’t need any more food. When we have more fat cells, that means more Leptin. When there is a resistance to Leptin, this “fullness” signal can become impaired, making your brain unable to calm hunger hormones. Inflammation can also affect the receptor sites for Leptin, which can also affect your brain’s ability to sense fullness.

Ghrelin is associated with our appetite and is known as the “hunger” hormone. Produced in your stomach and secreted when it is empty, as your Ghrelin levels increase, so do your feelings of hunger. When Ghrelin levels don’t decrease after eating, the hunger signals and feelings can persist, and the brain won’t receive a signal that it’s time to stop eating. To help balance this hormone and the feeling of hunger, protein is an important food to incorporate into your eating plan as it helps with satiety.

As you can imagine, these hormones play a large role in cravings and if these two are out of balance, our natural hunger and fullness cues won’t be telling us to eat the proper quantity of food.2

Stress

When we experience stress, our body goes into the flight-or-fight mode. When this happens, a surge of glucose is sent into our bloodstream from our stored form of glucose known as glycogen. This leads to a release of insulin and a crash in blood sugar. This physiological process works well when a stressor is something we actually need to fight off or run away from (like encountering a bear in the woods) because we need that immediate energy. These days, our stressors are more chronic (work, hectic schedules, lack of sleep, etc.) and we aren’t able to burn off that blood sugar the same way as we would when facing an immediate threat. Chronic stressors increase both our cortisol (stress hormone) and insulin – both of which can lead to cravings.  

When we eat something high in sugar or carbohydrates, or if we eat meals with just carbohydrates without protein and healthy fats, it can cause our blood sugar levels to spike. To correct this, or to bring it back down to where it should be, our pancreas releases insulin. The result of this process causes a spike and crash in blood sugar and can lead to a variety of unwanted symptoms such as energy crashes, cravings, and even a tendency to hold onto more fat in our midsection (remember more fat cells = more leptin, your hunger hormone).

Blood Sugar Rollercoasters

It’s important to note that these crashes in energy can also cause us to crave more sugary foods in order to reach those elevated levels of energy like previously experienced. That’s why sugary treats and beverages can cause a vicious cycle when it comes to cravings. The sweeter things we taste, the more we will crave sweet things – often even sweeter than what we typically consume. This is one reason artificial sweeteners are such an issue, they’re actually sweeter than sugar itself. Overconsumption of artificial sweeteners will leave you craving sugar even more than consuming sugar will.

Short-term ways of managing cravings

The quickest way to solve the issue of cravings is to find a healthy alternative that satisfies you without the after-effects of a high-fat, high-sodium treat that’s loaded with sugar. Consider trying one of these recommendations the next time you experience a craving:  

    • Craving sweets: try one cup of mixed berries with melted nut butter or a few dark chocolate chips drizzled on top
    • Craving salt: try a small handful of lightly salted mixed nuts
    • Craving starchy carbs: try unsweetened oatmeal with a sprinkle of granola or a small bowl of lightly buttered popcorn
    • Take a walk, call a friend, listen to a podcast, read a book, do some light yoga or stretching, take a bath, etc.

Another short-term solution to cravings is to distract yourself. If you are able to identify that you are experiencing a craving and that you aren’t actually hungry, this is a great opportunity to add some self-care to your day. Try some of these techniques to distract yourself from the craving:

  • Take a walk, call a friend, listen to a podcast, read a book, do some light yoga or stretching, take a bath, etc.

Long-term ways of managing cravings

When it comes to making a long-term plan for managing cravings, I recommend the following lifestyle habits:

  • Focus on making sure your meals are balanced. A good place to start is tracking your food in a journal or using an app like MyFitnessPal. Having a pulse on your food intake can help reveal areas where you’re deficient to help you better pinpoint the cause of your cravings. Keeping a journal on other things such as stress level, mood swings, emotions, etc. can also help you make a correlation to your food intake. If you’re not sure how to get started, you can reach out to one of our nutrition coaches for help.
  • Start taking a high-quality multivitamin. No matter what type of eating plan you have, taking a high-quality multivitamin will fill in the gaps to ensure you’re getting proper micronutrients.
  • Make a game plan for managing stress. If you’re not sure where to start, read this.

If you’ve incorporated these recommended steps into your daily routine but you’re still experiencing cravings, it may be time to do some lab testing. Through lab testing, Life Time experts can better understand what’s going on under the hood and influencing your body’s relationship with cravings.

Through an assessment consultation over the phone, we walk through the results from your lab and talk through a game plan to incorporate dietary and lifestyle changes to help you combat cravings, achieve your goals and feel great.

Sources: 

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17466108
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1467-789X.2006.00270.x

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