Most of us are familiar with the feeling of food cravings aka intense, overwhelming desire desires for a particular food. Psychologists say that cravings are often triggered by stress, boredom or underlying psychological factors - a theory supported by the fact that that areas of the brain associated with memory, emotion and pleasure are very active during cravings.
The two most common times for women to experience cravings, however, are during pregnancy and just before their period, which suggests that hormonal changes may also play a role. Another theory is that cravings may be related to nutritional deficiencies. So a craving for red meat, for instance, may be a sign of iron deficiency.
The sort of foods that have us running to the vending machine at 3pm can vary enormously from one person to another. But cravings are usually for foods which are high in fat and sugar or salt. Chocolate, ice cream, cheese and salty snacks topping the list of foods most often associated with cravings.
Keeping a diary of your cravings, the emotions you feel at the time of the craving and what you crave can help you identify triggers to avoid. The good news, is that whether its crisps or chocolate, mince pies or marshmallows that you crave, there are some simple things you can do which will help you take control...
1. Control hunger: Cravings are often triggered by hunger and low blood sugar. To keep hunger pangs at bay and blood sugar levels stable, it’s important to eat regularly and don’t skip meals. Aim for three balanced meals and a couple of healthy snacks a day.
Hunger and thirst can produce very similar sensations in the brain meaning it’s easy to confuse the two. Drink plenty of water.
2. Combat sugar cravings: Sugar cravings can be triggered by low blood sugar, low mood, stress or anxiety. Chromium supplements help maintain normal blood sugar which can help reduce sugar cravings. Sometimes just the sight of something sweet can be enough to trigger cravings, so keep sweet treats hidden away.
But, if you really have to act on your sugar craving try to satisfy it with something sweet but healthy, like a small portion of dried fruit or a banana. If your craving is for chocolate, a hot chocolate drink made with skimmed milk will often to do the trick, and also has fewer calories and is more filling than a bar of chocolate.
Sometimes it’s better to indulge in a small amount of what you crave so buy a single serve packs of sweet treats but remember: out of sight means out of mind.
3. Eat more protein: A study published in the journal Obesity found that increasing protein intake to around 25 per cent of your total energy (calories) reduced cravings by up to 60 per cent. Try having a protein rich snack such as nuts, yogurt, boiled eggs, milk, peanut butter on apple slices or oatcakes, between meals.
4. Experiment with healthier combinations: If you really have to act on your craving, try mixing the good with the bad. For instance: dipping fruit in dark chocolate, adding cacao nibs to nuts, or choosing wholegrain popcorn rather than crisps are just some ways you can indulge on the healthier side.
5. Try chewing gum: Studies show that chewing gum can help reduce cravings for both sweet and savoury snacks.
6. Distract yourself: Cravings are often transitory. In fact, experts say the average craving only lasts between 3 and 5 minutes. So when you feel the first signs of a craving, do something to distract your brain. Phone a friend, paint your nails or go for a walk - it might be enough to stop the craving before you act on it.
7. Eat a varied diet: Some research suggests that cravings might be the body’s response to a monotonous diet. In a study published in the journal Psychology & Behaviour, people who were given a diet which met all of their nutritional needs but consisted only of milk shake for each meal, five days in a row, experienced significantly more cravings than they did on a varied diet.