Many people are convinced that if you crave a particular kind of food, then your body must "need" it. While this may be true sometimes, it may not always be true. Sometimes cravings can indicate a specific deficiency and on other occasions it may not. In fact, sometimes the body's response (the craving) may provide erroneous information.
For example, a food craving for pickles or chips, which may be believed to indicate a need for sodium, may actually be triggered instead by a potassium deficiency (a similar mineral).
In an extreme case, reacting aggressively could exacerbate the deficiency and in some cases could lead to a life threatening condition. Supplementing with one, instead of the other could be life threatening. Therefore it is important to understand what a craving may mean; the information should be just a part of your action strategy.
What Do You Crave & What Does It Mean?
As to what a particular craving signifies, the answer depends on whom you ask. Some nutritionists and healthcare practitioners believe that certain cravings may be meaningful.
If you crave carbohydrates; such a craving can indicate low levels of serotonin and endorphins. According to some studies, carbohydrates initiate a chain reaction that theoretically can change levels of neurotransmitters influencing mood.
Serotonin is believed to play an important part of the biochemistry of depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety. It is also believed to be influential on sexuality and appetite. The name "serotonin" is something of a misnomer and reflects the circumstances of the compound's discovery. It was initially identified as a vasoconstrictor substance in blood serum - hence "serotonin", a serum agent affecting vascular tone. This agent was later chemically identified as 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) and as the broad range of physiological roles were elucidated, 5-HT became the preferred name in the pharmacological field.
Research with carbohydrate-cravers suggests that cravings for sweets may come with negative or depressed feelings that could be relieved as those levels change, but this idea is not universally accepted.
Many people doubt the serotonin/carbohydrate link because most people don't crave just carbohydrates such as potatoes, bread or pasta. They want some sweet, high-fat foods.
Instead of loading up on carbs try supplementing your diet with 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). 5-HTP can raise serotonin levels in the brain and can elevate mood and cause a sense of well being.
Other supplements that have been identified as possible "crave busters" include:
- Ginkgo biloba (also helps memory and brain function)
- Acetyl-L carnitine (also helps burn stored fat)
- St. John's wort (helps raise mood/serotonin levels)
- Vitamin B-6
- NADH (vitamin B-3 derivative)
- S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAMe, also helps raise mood)
Also try eliminating sugar and all high glycemic foods after 6 pm at night. High glycemic foods and sugar alcohols spike your blood sugar levels, lower GH levels, and will keep you in a vicious circle of craving more and more carbs.
From a weight-management perspective, the one thing you do not want to do is snack on high-carbohydrate foods before bed. This simply insures that you go to bed with a high circulating level of insulin and virtually guarantees that the body won't burn fat while you sleep.
Replace the carbohydrates with protein or some high-quality fats which will keep your blood sugar levels more even, increase satiety levels and diminish cravings at bay. Also eliminate excessive alcohol since excessive alcohol consumption contributes to lowered levels of serotonin.
For reasons that are not completely understood, the supplement L-glutamine (an amino acid), may curb sweet cravings. Try a good casein protein drink fortified with peptide glutamine (better assimilation).
Exercise may be a good approach as well since it has also proven to have positive, mood-elevating effects, and you will burn calories as well.
If you crave fatty foods it could indicate that your body is deficient in essential fatty acids (EFA's). There are two essential fatty acids - commonly referred to as Omega-3 and Omega-6 that are indeed essential for life because they are involved in the proper functioning of every cell, tissue and organ in the human body.
As structural components of membranes, EFA's help form a barrier that keeps foreign molecules, such as viruses, fungi, and bacteria outside of cells, and keeps the cell's proteins, enzymes, genetic material, and organelles (small organs) inside. EFA's also help regulate the transport of substances in and out of our cells via protein channels, pumps, and other mechanisms.
Transport Across Membranes
As a lipid bilayer, the cell membrane is selectively permeable. This means that only some molecules can pass unhindered in or out of the cell. These molecules are either small or lipophilic. Other molecules can pass in or out of the cell, if there are specific transport molecules. Depending on the molecule, transport occurs by different mechanisms, which can be separated into those that do not consume energy in the form of ATP (passive transport) and those that do (active transport).
EFA's also fulfill many functions such as:
- Keeping hormone-producing (endocrine) glands active
- Lubricating joints
- Producing prostaglandins (hormone-like substances that regulate blood pressure, platelet stickiness, and kidney function)
- Regulating oxygen use
- Electron transport
- Energy production within our cells
- Help form hemoglobin (regulating oxygen in the blood)
- Cholesterol transport
- Help generate electrical currents (make our heart beat in orderly sequence)
- Help our immune system fight infections by enhancing peroxide production
EFA molecules carry slight negative charges that cause them to repel one another, spread out in all directions, and as such carry oil-soluble toxins from deep within the body to the skin surface for elimination [detoxification].
There are many reported reasons why people crave chocolate. One belief is that your body may be deficient in magnesium (chocolate contains magnesium).
Note: A chocolate craving for women may be from hormonal changes before and during women's menstrual periods. Some believe chocolate may raise brain serotonin levels. Others believe a shortage of B vitamins can trigger a craving for chocolate.
This is why a craving can again, be confusing. Which one is it? Is it more than one? All? Since stress also burns B Vitamins, supplementing your diet with a good B complex is not a bad idea. Also try 5-HTP, a good multivitamin, or ZMA.
Where Does The Craving Come From?
The next time you pick up a food that you are craving ask yourself why you are eating it. Many cravings are in fact due to psychological causes (such as stress, and anxiety) and not actually as a result of a nutritional deficiency.
Try to become aware of your emotional triggers for eating so these triggers can be avoided, or at least addressed.
If you know that stress causes you to crave and overeat, then try to find an outlet to relieve the stress. Are you craving because you are bored? Find an activity to occupy your time.
If you notice that the craving is always linked to a certain activity (such as reading the newspaper or watching television), try changing your routine. Something as simple as reading a book may help.
Try changing the activity altogether. Try something like exercising. Exercise stimulates the feel-better chemicals called endorphins and improves your mood. Try taking a warm bath, call friends and family, or just wait it out for 15 minutes.
Very often you'll find that the craving has lost a lot of its strength by the time the waiting period is up.
Some cravings for food are actually thirst in disguise. Since most of us walk around dehydrated (see my article on water). Half the time what we perceive as hunger is really thirst. You can test that by drinking a couple of glasses of water; maybe some Crystal Light. Again wait a few minutes to let the crave pass.
When Do You Crave?
Knowing when you have cravings is important because it may indicate fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin levels. If your cravings are at night, eat smaller carbohydrate meals throughout the day to smooth out the blood-sugar levels that will feed the need for sweets later in the day.
Also do not diet by skipping meals or starving yourself, especially if you are exercising. It is almost impossible to control night cravings if you lack calories.
Controlling Night Cravings
The following is a partial list of suggestions that may be of assistance in controlling the "infamous night cravings" that often derail many dieters from reaching their goals:
- Eat large portions of vegetables and moderate portions of lean protein, whole grains, beans, fruits and nuts.
- Avoid eating carbohydrates by themselves. Instead, mix them with some protein and fat, but watch the quantity.
- Throw out any temptations in your pantry. Replace them with good food options.
- Keep busy so you will be distracted from thoughts of food (try working with your hands).
- If you are very "oral" and need to keep your mouth busy, try sipping warm non-caffeinated herbal tea like chamomile. This can also have a stress reducing effect that may get you to bed earlier, thus reducing the chances of binging.
- Delay at least 10 to 15 minutes before you eat so that your action is conscious, not impulsive. Most cravings will dissipate after 15 minutes. If you still crave the food, determine how important it really is for you to eat the craved food vs. the impact it will have if you eat it.
You do not want to find yourself even more depressed afterwards. This will then feed the culprit rather than stopping it (the all to common vicious cycle of stress and depression eating).
Be Careful About Moderation
For some, eating what they crave in moderation will stop the binging. For others it can start the binging process, making them feel guilty and crave the food even more.
By evaluating cravings, and objectively determining trends and triggers you will have the knowledge (and the power) that you need to control cravings so they no longer control you!