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Food cravings, pregnant women aren’t the only ones who get them. Nor are they the only people who have weird cravings! To be clear, cravings are not be confused with hunger. Hunger, or hanger, is a basic primal  response to needing food for survival, health and performance. Cravings are the strong urges to particular foods – the “I need THAT NOW” sort of feeling. Cravings often end up in a binge, and then a slippery slope away from smart and healthy food choices.

What causes the cravings? And just as importantly, how do we derail them?

It’s NOT A Deficiency

For years it was believed that cravings were due to nutritional deficiencies. For example, insufficient vitamin B or a lack of iron. But research shows that people have cravings even if their diet has sufficient calories, macronutrients and micronutrients. So no, you don’t need that bag of potato chips because you’re low in iron or that block of chocolate because you have low blood sugar. You’re having that craving because that’s what you want, or because that’s what you’ve been conditioned to want.

Note, I do believe that nutritional deficiencies play SOME in cravings. But only some role.

It’s Psycho-social

Both anecdotal reports and research points strongly to a combination of psychological and social factors having an almost exclusive influence on cravings. Just as I have repeatedly said, research has time and again shown that areas of the brain activated by comfort foods and cravings are the same as those activated by drug and alcohol addiction. These areas of the brain form the foundation of our internal rewards system.

When you repeated eat something you crave you reinforce a rewarding feeling for that particular food. That reward system becomes less sensitive to that food the more you eat it. So what do you do? You eat even more of it to elicit the same reward. Just like any other addiction.

Where does the social influence come in? The question should actually be where is the social influence NOT present?! Marketing influences (visual and auditory), your environment, the people you spend time with, what is in your pantry at home, who’s telling you the story (me in this case)? All of that has far greater influence on all decision making, big or small.

Overcoming Cravings

There are so many proven ways to overcome cravings. All these methods have come about because everyone responds to rewards in a different way. Let’s look at some ways to overcome them.

Accept that it’s but a craving and that you aren’t lacking anything in our diet. In fact, you might be eating too much of something.

Manipulate Your Environment
If you have a tea and cookie culture at your place of work, avoid the places where people congregate to eat. Keep your food in a cooler bag instead of having to go to the fridge. Don’t buy the foods you crave – if they aren’t in your cupboard you can’t eat them! And surround yourself with people who are supportive of your decisions.

If you’re feeling down, exercise. If you’re getting stressed at work, go out for a walk to calm down. Sleep deprivation causes hormonal imbalances related to cravings, so get better sleep instead of succumbing to the craving. In general, take care of yourself better.

You’re aware of the craving because it’s such a strong feeling. But stop to think about what might be causing the craving. Understanding the trigger/s that lead to cravings is often the best thing you can do to work through it.

If you have chronic cravings, like the tea and cookies at 4pm everyday or the chocolate before bed every night (For me it’s something sweet as soon as I wake up. That’s the result of years of cereal for breakfast) you have a bit more of a challenge. You’re going to need to do some planning and preparation to ensure that the foods you’re craving aren’t available and that you have substitutions ready, even if the substitutions are actions and not foods.

There’s no silver bullet for changing behaviour. You have to use a combination of approaches, and you’re going to have to experiment to find something that works for you.

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