The idea that we crave the foods we need is somewhat outdated now - it’s highly unlikely that the 9am caffeine fix, 3pm Mars Bar habit or the 7pm crisps ritual are actually what your body needs!
Whilst it might not be a bar of chocolate and a bag of crisps that your body is actually after, it is important to listen to your cravings though, as they are probably trying to tell you something…
Here we unravel 3 of the most common cravings (sugar, salt & caffeine) & give you our nutritional take on what your body might really be looking for…
1. Sugar (& refined carb) cravings
Sweets, cakes, chocolate, sugary drinks, white bread, pasta…
Food scientists have found that the brain finds rapid absorption of sugar (glucose) and the equally fast reduction in hunger more rewarding than slow release sugars. The brain associates these foods with pleasure, and every time you eat them, a very potent food memory is formed. Hence why, the more you eat sugar, the more your brain will want to eat.
In addition, when you eat refined sugars the body responds quickly with a surge of the hormone insulin. This crucial hormone not only brings your blood sugar levels back down into a safe range, but has a complex relationship with serotonin (the happy neurotransmitter) too. Eating refined sugary foods and drinks can give you a mood boost and make you feel good.
In theory, this might sound like a good thing, however these effects are short-lived and the mood-boosting high is quickly followed by a dramatic low, as sugar levels come crashing back down again. The natural reaction at this point is to reach for more sugar and so the vicious cycle of overeating continues.
Sugar fix - What are you really craving?
If you are constantly craving sugar perhaps what you’re actually looking for is a mood boost and a bit of extra energy. It’s also likely that your blood sugar balancing systems need a bit of extra support. Sugary foods such as chocolate and cakes are often labelled ‘comfort foods’ and that gives another clue as to what a sugar craving could be about. Perhaps what you actually need is a bit of extra comfort and support.
Alternative ways to deal with sugar cravings
• 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan) is a natural precursor to serotonin. You can take 5-HTP in supplement form to gently balance your levels of this happy neurotransmitter.
• Chromium is an essential mineral that helps to support blood sugar balance, and may help to reduce sugar cravings. Chromium is part of glucose tolerance factor (GTF), which helps to support the action of insulin at the cellular level. Chromium levels are often low in a typical Western diet; you can take extra chromium in the supplement form of chromium picolinate.
• Lifestyle – Inject a bit more fun and pleasure into your day. Take time out to do something you really love. And get regular exercise – it’s the best natural mood booster around. If you’re looking for comfort, invest more time in close relationships with family and friends. You will get more support from these (like a hug or a chat) than a bar of chocolate.
2. Salt cravings
Savoury snacks such as crisps, salted popcorn, nachos, French fries...
For most people, a craving for salty foods doesn’t usually mean you are lacking sodium in your diet (although it’s always worth checking with your GP first). The high levels of salt in a typical Western diet mean that most people are getting more than enough sodium. Salt cravings may however be a sign of stress overload and an indication that your adrenals are starting to struggle under the load.
Salt fix – What are you really craving?
If you are regularly craving salty snacks and you’ve been under a lot of stress, burning the candle at both ends, it’s possible that what you actually need is to give your adrenal glands a bit of a break and add some calming, stress-busting strategies into your day.
Alternative ways to deal with salt cravings
• Magnesium – This essential mineral is typically lacking in Western diets and yet is absolutely crucial for helping you to deal with stress. Often nicknamed ‘nature’s tranquiliser’, magnesium has a gentle calming effect, yet also works to support the adrenal glands and energy production systems too. Magnesium is needed in higher amounts during stress, so this mineral is the first port of call when you know you’ve taken on too much, and are starting to struggle under the load. Magnesium is best supplemented in the powdered form of magnesium glycinate as this is highly bioavailable and well tolerated in higher quantities by most.
• B Complex – These water-soluble vitamins are essential for energy production, to support the nervous system and a healthy stress response too.
• Vitamin C – Used up rapidly during periods of stress, this crucial nutrient is a useful addition to your day in the form of mineral ascoarbates if you are suffering from stress.
• L-Theanine - An amino acid found naturally in tea, which has been shown to have a soothing and calming effect. Unfortunately tea also contains caffeine, which can have the opposite effect. You can take L-theanine in supplement form to experience its gentle benefits in isolation.
• Lifestyle – Probably the most crucial aspect of dealing with stress is to look at ways you can reduce your daily stress load, alongside building in practical daily stress-reduction strategies. Gentle exercises, such as walking, yoga, t’ai chi and swimming are highly effective, as well as relaxing strategies such as mindfulness meditation.
3. Caffeine cravings
Tea, coffee, energy drinks, chocolate…
Caffeine is a stimulant that will give you a temporary boost in energy. This energy high is often followed by a sudden dip though, leaving you in need of another caffeine fix to pick you up again. If you need caffeine to get you going in the morning and at regular points during the day it could be that your energy levels are less than optimal. This may be due to poor sleep quality and / or a hectic daily schedule.
Caffeine fix – What are you really craving?
If you are regularly craving caffeine, you could actually be looking for a bit of extra energy. It’s time then to focus on getting better sleep and nourishing your body with plenty of nutrients for efficient and balanced energy production throughout the day.
Alternative ways to deal with caffeine cravings
• Co-Q-10 – A vitamin-like nutrient, which is a vital component of the electron transport chain, which generates energy in the mitochondria. Choose an oil-based formula to enhance absorption and bioavailability. Best supplemented with vitamin E, as this may help to support the activity of Co-Q-10.
• Magnesium – A crucial mineral for energy production; choose powdered magnesium in the form of magnesium glycinate.
• B complex vitamins – This range of water-soluble vitamins play an important role in energy production and need to be replenished frequently through the diet.
• Glycine - This little referred to, naturally occurring, non-essential amino acid has an important role in the sleep cycle. It has been found to be particularly useful for those prone to waking in the middle of the night and may help to support restful sleep; an important aspect of general feelings of calm and wellbeing.
• Diet & Lifestyle – Eat regularly (every 2-3 hrs). Choose complex, wholegrain, fresh foods made from scratch. Pair carbohydrate foods (fruits, vegetables, wholegrains) with high quality protein (lean meat, chicken, fish, pulses, beans, legumes) and fats (nuts, seeds and their oils, avocado, oily fish). Swap caffeine-containing drinks for energising herbal teas such as peppermint and calming chamomile. To nurture better sleep habits read our expert nutritionist & psychologist tips here.
Cravings can be a complex interaction between physiological and emotional needs. Sometimes a craving will indicate that you need to inject a bit more pleasure into your life, or perhaps nurture your support systems. Other times, a craving might mean that you need to fuel your adrenal glands or energy production systems with optimal nutrition, or simply just get more sleep. For every craving, there is a unique interpretation that is individual to you; what’s most important though is that you don’t just reach for the easy quick fix; this is a bit like a sticking plaster and over time, could catch up with you. You need to get underneath the surface of your cravings to find out what your body is actually looking for and instead, provide it with that. At first this can be a challenge; stick with it for a few weeks however, and you will soon notice widespread benefits to your physical and mental wellbeing.
Cravings in a nutshell