We’ve all had times when nothing but a bar of chocolate or a packet of crisps will do. Have you ever wondered whether it’s all in your head or is your body actually trying to tell you something?
Food is so much more than just calories. It’s information for your body. The body is a wonderfully complex machine, constantly sending you signals about what it needs (nutrients) to function at its best. The trouble is, when you fall into unhealthy habits, you unwittingly train your brain and body to crave certain foods – usually foods that give you a quick fix. You feel great for 30 minutes but an hour later you’ve crashed again and you need another hit to keep you going. Sound familiar?
Are you craving sugar?
One of the most common cravings is sugar. In recent years, stories in the press have suggested sugar is as addictive as class A drugs. While some of these headlines may have been overstated there is certainly more to it than meets the eye.
The brain needs glucose to function. Glucose is a sugar, the main source of which comes from carbohydrates. Ideally our bodies want a slow, steady release of glucose into the blood stream throughout the day. This keeps us alert, productive and full of energy.
However, too much of the wrong kinds of sugar can throw things off kilter. Eating foods high in sugar and fat (like donuts, chocolate, cake, biscuits and sweets) triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward and satisfaction. You feel a pleasurable 'high' that you are inclined to re-experience, and so repeat the behaviour. Each time you repeat this you’re training your brain to think you need to eat these foods to help boost your mood and your energy. You are are riding a rollercoaster of peaks and troughs in energy, mood, stress levels and sleep. Over time, this can lead to the development of chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity, inflammation, immune suppression or chronic fatigue.
So, what causes you to crave sugar in the first place? You’re more likely to eat these kinds of foods when you’re stressed or tired, because your brain is looking for more fuel than it would be when you are relaxed and well nourished.
Sugar also stimulates the release of tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, which in turn converts to melatonin which you need to get a good night’s sleep. Women can be more susceptible to sugar cravings around the time of their menstrual cycle.
Studies have shown that higher oestrogen levels are associated with greater levels of the hunger hormone, leptin, which triggers stronger cravings for sugary foods.
PMS also causes an increase in the stress hormone, cortisol and a dip in serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’ - making you reach for chocolate, chips and sugary snacks to give you that feel-good boost.
Do you crave salty snacks?
If sugar isn’t your thing maybe you reach for savoury, salty foods; crisps, salted nuts, cheese and biscuits. Generally speaking, this may be a sign that your adrenal glands are under strain, and similarly to sugar, that hankering for salt could be attributed to stress, fatigue or PMS. Your adrenal glands produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline whenever you need it – whether it’s training for a marathon, meeting a deadline at work or gearing up for a big presentation.
This is helpful and necessary in the short term but chronic demand on the adrenals can result in fatigue and insufficient secretion of other hormones including aldosterone, which regulates blood pressure by controlling fluid levels and electrolyte balance in the body.
When your adrenals are tired and don’t produce enough aldosterone, your blood pressure can dip and result in salt cravings. These might be accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue, excessive thirst, headaches and nausea. If you are experiencing a multitude of these symptoms, you should see your GP for further investigation.
BUT this isn’t a free pass to consume salt by the bucket load. Too much sodium (the key element in salt) can tip the hormone balance the other way and contribute to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues.
How can you ditch those cravings?
The foods you choose to eat every day can help to regulate or trigger these cravings. Swap white bread, pasta, sugary cereals, low fat products and processed foods for lower GL (glycaemic load) alternatives such as wholegrains, pulses and root vegetables and include a portion of protein at every meal. This can help to regulate the release of glucose into the blood stream and avoid the peaks and troughs of the rollercoaster.
Quality proteins such as eggs, turkey, salmon, nuts and seeds are also rich in tryptophan and tyrosine, which support the production of serotonin and dopamine, and are a much healthier choice than a packet of chocolate biscuits or a slice of cake.
Making the switch to more wholesome and nourishing alternatives may also be a much more sustainable approach to healthy weight loss than faddy or restrictive diets.
Ultimately, it’s about tuning into your own body and how it’s feeling. What signs is it giving you each day?
As a Registered Nutritional Therapist and I can help you recognise these signs when they present themselves and guide you through simple and achievable dietary and lifestyle changes to to optimise your long-term health and wellbeing.