What to do when cravings strike

Emma White - Nutritionist | 01 Apr, 2024

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We all fall victim to cravings from time to time, usually for something unhelpful to the health kick we started a few days ago! As we know, it's rare to get a craving for vegetables – so it's something that most of us would like to get control of. The good news is, there are things you can do to help reduce the chances of experiencing a craving, and to try and overcome it when it strikes.

What are cravings?

Cravings are characterised by an intense desire to eat a specific food or type of food. They're not an urge to eat in general, but a distinct desire for a certain kind of food. They can occur when we're hungry or when we're not! And more often than not, cravings are for less nutritious foods such as chocolate!

Why do we get them?

There was a belief that cravings were a way for our body to let us know that it was lacking a certain nutrient. As convenient as this sounds, "ooo I must eat cake because my body needs it!" – this is no longer thought to be the case. The exact reason is unknown, but it's believed there are many factors that play a part in causing cravings – ranging from emotional to psychological, or even situational.

Risk factors

  • Emotions – this is a big one for many of us. Certain emotions such as feeling down can make us crave comfort food. We've all been there – you've had a rough day and the only thing that's going to fix it is a tub of Ben & Jerry's!
  • Boredom – feeling bored can spark a desire for certain foods, maybe just to entertain ourselves. Likewise, getting bored with the range of foods we're eating (e.g. when on a restrictive weight loss diet), can increase the chances of desiring something more 'exciting' – AKA donuts!
  • Situations – sometimes the occasion can spark a craving, particularly if it's habitual – something you're used to eating at a specific time and place. Imagine, you're at home, the kids are in bed, your partner is out, so time for you to crash on the sofa with your favourite trash T.V. and a large glass of red would really finish this picture off nicely! Or similarly, a trip to the movies wouldn't be right without a large bucket of popcorn would it?
  • Hunger – genuine hunger can spark cravings as we experience a drop in blood sugar. This leads us to crave sugary foods for a sugar hit to increase energy levels. The issue with this is that the sugar hit only gives a temporary boost, which is often followed by an even bigger slump and, yep you guessed it, more cravings.

How can we overcome them?

Experiencing cravings from time to time is inevitable. But the good news is that how often we experience them, and how we deal with them is, to an extent, within our control.

Preventing cravings

Preventing cravings

  1. Use the food triggers feature on the Nutracheck.co.uk website to try and identify the situations or feelings that lead to your cravings. This can help you to better understand the reasons why. We give you a helpful article for each trigger with advice on how to manage it better next time.
  2. Eating a well balanced diet high in complex carbs and lean protein will really help. Complex carbs such as wholemeal bread, wholegrain rice, pulses, nuts, seeds and oats are high in fibre; and lean protein sources such as chicken, fish, low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese and eggs take the body a while to breakdown, so both nutrients help to keep us feeling fuller for longer. This can help to stabilise our blood sugar levels, which can reduce the chance of cravings striking as we should feel more satisfied nutritionally.
  3. Monitor your diet and look out for patterns. Use the 'Notes' within your food diary to keep track of when you are craving a certain food. You can then look back over this and your general food choices for that day to see if you can spot anything in particular which may have lead to the craving. This will give you the knowledge you need to take control and avoid this situation in future.
Beating the craving

Beating the craving

  1. Try the 10 minute wait test – This is a really handy test to see how long you can hold off or if you can overcome it completely. When a craving strikes, wait 10 minutes. If the desire reduces, wait another 10 minutes and see how you feel. Keep repeating it until the craving has completely passed. Alternatively, wait 10 minutes and if it's still as strong, allow yourself a little of what you want, but then wait another 10 minutes before having more. Try to see if you can satisfy your craving on a small bite.
  2. Avoidance tactics – If you feel a craving coming on, do something else! Sounds simple but just distracting your mind and keeping busy can make you forget about a desire to eat – especially if you're not actually hungry. This is especially true if your craving is linked to boredom. Take up a hobby, do the ironing, read a book... whatever it is, remember your avoidance tactic and employ it whenever you need to.
  3. Do some exercise – If you get an intense craving to eat, going for a walk or doing some squats and press-ups for example, can really help to diminish the desire for food. You often find when you're exercising that your appetite reduces and you may actually lose your desire for fatty foods.
  4. Drink a glass of water – Simple enough advice, but sometimes a craving can be held at bay by dealing with the immediate need to consume something. Drinking water will not only hydrate you and quench your thirst (which may be the problem!), but it also fills your stomach which may delay the need to eat for a while.

Nutritionist Emma White (ANutr), MSc Human Nutrition is passionate about how food science applies to the human body, and how the nutrients in what we eat affect us and ultimately have an impact on our health.

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