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What do my cravings mean, and what should I do about them?

Woman having an unhealthy snack

What do my cravings mean, and what should I do about them?

Regardless of how long you’ve been working at this whole “being healthier” goal, I think we can all agree that one thing has a way of rearing its ugly head over and over – cravings. Some people ask, “Will my cravings ever go away?” The answer, in my opinion, is no (though their intensity may). However, the reason for your cravings may change, and that is a more important question to consider. It is also, usually, the more helpful question because it can lead you to action steps as to what to do about it.

It’s important to realize the context of your cravings and to identify what things are truly going on – otherwise we can be discouraged into thinking, “That’s just how it is. I can’t overcome this, I’m just addicted to XYZ,” or feeling that you’re not good enough or capable enough to stick to healthier choices for foods (note – sometimes it’s not even an issue of eating healthier choices, but perhaps quantity). Having a list of things to consider for why you’re struggling with particular cravings can help move you out of that place of, “I’m stuck,” to “Let’s see what I can try out next that might help.” This puts you in forward motion and I’m sure you’ll grow and find progress in this.

Where is that Craving Coming From?

In working with clients of all kinds of backgrounds, stories, situations, and health concerns, there have been several things to consider when it comes to cravings. I aim to list out below the most common things I can think of for what may promote craving and one or two action steps you could do about it. Granted, one could go far more in-depth on some of these points but I’ll keep it brief. You can use the following questions to help you determine your next action step(s) to tackle your cravings.

#1: Are you drinking enough water?

Many recommendations encourage 100 oz or more for the average adult. That is more than most of us are use to! In any case we just probably aren’t drinking enough. Often, our hunger and thirst signals are confused and we think we want food when, really, we just need water. So, if you’re craving something, try drinking 16 oz of water (2 cups) and waiting 15 minutes. Do you still feel hungry? Then eat something, but not before you drink that water and wait.

#2: Is your diet full of volume and nutrients?

Part of feeling full and satiated, and therefore fewer cravings, is to eat foods that are high in volume and nutrients. You guessed it – vegetables!! Sometimes our body is craving certain nutrients, and when eating a nutrient-rich diet that is loaded with vegetables, we can satisfy that craving. Volume is important to distend the stomach fully to have it better signal to the brain, “Hey we’re full!” So, how many vegetables are you eating? Why not try upping your intake by 3 servings for starters (3 cups of vegetables) and see what happens. You may even need to eat far more than that (eat a variety).

#3: Are you eating enough protein and/or fat?

Sometimes the volume and nutrients of those vegetables aren’t enough. We soon shortly after feel hungry again and crave a snack. Proteins and fats chemically help the body feel satiated for a longer duration of time. As you can see, a well-rounded meal of vegetables, fats, and proteins is key. So, consider increasing a serving or more of protein and/or fats in your meals for starters.

#4: Are you getting enough calories?

Perhaps you’re thinking, “But I am eating a ton of vegetables, and I am eating what I think is enough protein and/or fats. I’m still hungry a lot and having cravings.” This then may not be a craving issue, really, but rather an issue of just not eating enough fuel for your body. This is especially important and prevalent to consider if you are regularly exercising. You might be needing more food in general, or perhaps more carbs to restore glycogen in your muscles (depending on the type of exercise).> So, consider doing some accurate food tracking where you log your foods eaten and how much (by weight!) you’ve eaten. See what you learn here. There are many free online tracking tools and methods to calculate, via mathematical models, how much your body may be burning in calories. Are you getting enough?

#5: Are you getting enough flavor?

Do you ever feel unsatisfied when eating bland food? I know I do. Consider adding on more spices, herbs, or seasonings to your foods. I even add them directly to my food after it has been cooked. Experiment! If you’re eating your dish and think, “Eh, it doesn’t have much taste,” then go straight to that spice cabinet and do something about it – your taste buds (and perhaps cravings) will thank you.

#6: What is your environment like?

This is a loaded question and many components are tied to it, as will be mentioned in the next few reasons below. Your environment might be messy and stressful. Or maybe certain snacks or foods are sitting out there in your view all the time. So, consider if the solution (or issue) is something around you rather than within you. Are certain foods out there in the open gnawing away at your willpower? Put it away in a drawer or cabinet – our visual cues are incredibly powerful to the brain. Another example – if you’re working from home and are just working on a laptop in your kitchen, you might want to consider relocating to a space that is more conducive to an “office” type of feeling.

#7: Is your craving tied to a specific activity or place (i.e. a certain trigger)?

For me, a trigger of mine is watching Netflix or anything on a screen. I always want to eat or do something while watching. I rarely just want to sit and watch. Probably a habit I’ve developed over the decades from eating snacks at the theater, pizza movie night on Fridays, boredom, and more. It’s a pattern for me if I’m not careful. What might your triggers be? It’s not always obvious until you intentionally begin playing detective. Think of activities, places, even emotions (which we’ll discuss in a moment) as a start. So, consider how you can address the trigger rather than just the response to that trigger.

#8: Are you craving specific foods or just food in general?

Sometimes our bodies legitimately need something specific, and cravings are a way for it to try and address it (although with not the best choices at times). If it’s a specific food, that means something very different compared to craving more food in general. If it’s more the case of food in general, that could be tied to what we just discussed earlier (about more veggies, fats, proteins, and/or calories). For specific foods – consider if that’s because it’s a trigger (e.g I always want popcorn because that’s what I do on Saturday afternoons!) or if it is something else. If it’s something else, see if there are healthier alternatives to address that craving.

#9: What emotions do you feel with your cravings?

It is important to not be afraid to consider if you are emotionally eating. We can easily turn to food for comfort or stress relief. It is not uncommon – after all, food is good at that and we all have to eat, right? Begin to reflect within yourself of, “What is really going on?” That can be a powerful step towards healing and balance in your life. A simple way you can start is by keeping a journal and writing the following things every time you have a craving:

  1. What you are craving
  2. Time of craving
  3. Emotion(s) you feel during that time (actual emotion, like sad, angry, frustrated, happy, etc)
  4. Why you think you are feeling this emotion.

See if any patterns emerge and what that unearths for you.

#10: Are you bored?

Hey – eating food gives us something to do. It might sound odd, but it’s true. It gives us something to do when hanging out with others to make silence less uncomfortable, or to feel we are “engaged in social activity” – doesn’t that sound familiar? When we are engrossed in something, though, we easily “forget” about eating (…or hydrating for that matter!) as if by magic. So consider – how am I using my time? Is there something I can engage myself in that is fun or productive? Do I need a hobby?

#11: Are you procrastinating or stressed?

This is very similar, or perhaps, a niche within emotional eating. You don’t need to go far on the Internet to read and know that stress increases the likelihood of cravings. Stress tends to do one of two things – encourage you to eat more than you need to, or the opposite (especially if it’s high anxiety and you have no appetite).

Think of ONE thing you can do to control your response to that stress, and start there.

This could be things like a walk outside in the sun, deep breathing, journaling, talking to a friend, getting more consistent sleep, etc. Also, if procrastination is a factor that is driving your stress, think of just one action step you could take next to move forward with whatever task/project/issue you have that you’re procrastinating on. Easier said than done, but you’ll feel so good when you tackle the things you want to procrastinate first because you’ll feel lighter and freer the rest of your day.

Summary

As you can see, cravings could be as simple as fundamentals of hydration and diet or as complex as considering deeper aspects of your well-being and overall balance in various areas of your life (and it may often be a combination of reasons rather than just one). Either way – the important thing is that there is something you can do about it, and the more detective work you do, the closer you’ll be to curbing those cravings. It is my hope this list helps you simplify the process of that detective work!

Here’s to your health,

Lead health coach Dan Tribley
EPIC Functional Medicine

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