Controlling the Cravings

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Mar 29th, 2012)

One of the hardest parts of changing your diet is the cravings. Cravings for chocolate, for cookies, for ice cream, for anything really.

To control cravings it is first important to understand cravings. A craving is our body telling our minds that it is missing something. Our brains interpret this signal and let us know what we need. This is where we need to exert a little willpower to stop and think before we reach for that bag of chips. What our brain is doing is just following what we have taught it over all the years we have been alive. As we eat, our brain is cataloguing what our food breaks down into. This way it will know what to ask for. But the problem is that it asks for the most common source of something, not necessarily the most nutritious. So if we have not lived a healthy lifestyle until recently, when we need salt we will crave potato chips or when we need magnesium we will crave chocolate. We will also crave foods that give an exaggerated neurological or hormonal response which makes us feel good. These are generally the simple carbs and sweetened fatty products. These are not the snack foods we want in a healthy diet.

What we need to do is stop and think about what we are craving and break it down into what we most likely need and find something to replace that. I will freely admit that this is not very satisfying at first seeing as most of what we all crave is simple carbohydrates and other things that set off the most taste buds. It will take practice understanding what our bodies actually want but this is where sites like Self Nutrition Data come in handy. Once it becomes second nature, you will notice that you stop craving the bad foods and will actually want the healthy ones.

In general, we want the three big “macronutrients” (protein, fat, carbohydrates) the most but quite often these are combined with cravings for minerals like sodium, magnesium, or calcium. When carbohydrates come up in your cravings try satisfying these with vegetables. The complex carbohydrates will raise your blood sugar slowly (as opposed to the spike and then crash with simple carbs) and fill you for longer. Fats and proteins can generally be found in the same places. Foods like hummus or celery with peanut butter are great snacks for proteins and fats. Minerals are generally found with either carbohydrates in our dark green, leafy vegetables, or with protein in nuts and beans.

Sometimes the brain sends out cravings all by itself without our bodies telling it something is missing. This is the brain seeking the release of certain hormones that are released with food consumption, specifically dopamine and serotonin which cause pleasure. Our brains do this when we are depressed or we’re having a sedentary day. To combat this we need stop and think and ask ourselves, “Am I actually hungry, or am I just craving something?” If you can legitimately say your stomach feels empty then we can go ahead and breakdown what the craving means and address it.

There is another type of craving though. The simple craving for more food. This especially happens when we start cutting down on portion sizes as our stomachs have stretched out to accommodate our usual portions and thus will not sent the signal that they are full to our brains. This really cannot be helped after it has started but it can be avoided. By including sources of insoluble fibre in our meals, our food will stay in our stomachs longer and provide the sensation of fullness longer than a simple meal. Sources of insoluble fibre include crunchy vegetables (such as carrots and broccoli) and legumes. If you do happen to find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance of still being hungry after a meal keep a big glass of water beside you as your work and take sips every few minutes. This will tell your brain that you are eating and quiet it a little.

Anyone who has been following my blog for a while of my YouTube videos has heard me say, “Do everything in moderation, including moderation” many times before. This means that sometimes you need to cheat a little. It is stressful to keep up a new diet and be perfect all the time. So we all need to relieve this stress with moderating our moderation. When you have a craving try to weigh the Pros and Cons of giving in to that craving and see if the Pros win. To do this we need to be honest with yourself and it can only be done if we understand why we are making certain dietary changes. For instance, if we are changing our diets to decrease our cholesterol level we may be craving a bowl of ice cream at night. If our day consisted of some good exercise, lots of fibre and water, we have been good for the last few days, and today our boss yelled at us, maybe a small bowl will be ok as a little pick-me-up. On the other hand, if we changed our diets due to a sensitivity or allergy, there are going to be quite a few more consequences after cheating on that diet and it might not be worth it. As well, there are many substitutes for sensitivities and allergies that can be used in the kitchen to make our favourite comfort foods and have fewer repercussions.

So I encourage everyone to choose your snack foods wisely, based on your body’s needs rather than your brain’s wants. And remember to that food is not just a source of nutrients, it can also be a source of comfort and it may be needed as such. Changing your life is hard. Sometimes we all need a break. Just make sure it’s worth it.

Thanks for reading,
Dr. Ben

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