These cravings are telling you something so read on to learn what cravings really reveal about your health.
Many people might dismiss a ‘wisdom of the body’ theory as quackery. However, if you think about the biological processes happening within your body and the factors affecting these, the argument to substantiate a link becomes more compelling.
Food is so much more than just calories! It’s information. The body is an extraordinary machine, constantly sending you signs and signals about the information (or nutrients) it needs to function at its best. The trouble is, when you fall into unhealthy patterns, you unwittingly train your brain and body to think and crave certain foods. Often these foods give you a quick fix and you feel great for 30 minutes, but an hour later your energy levels are on the floor and you need another hit to keep you going. Does this sound familiar?
DO YOU CRAVE SUGAR?
One of the most common and well documented cravings is, of course, sugar and in recent years, articles in the press have suggested that sugar is as addictive as Class A drugs. How true is that really? There is actually more to cravings than meets the eye.
The brain needs glucose to function – in other words, sugar, which comes from carbohydrates. When you have a steady release of glucose into the blood stream throughout the day, this process works as it should. You’re productive, sharp, and full of energy. However, too much of the wrong kinds of sugar can throw things out of kilter. Eating something high in sugar and fat (like doughnuts, chocolate, cake, biscuits and sweets) triggers the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feelings of reward and satisfaction. By falling into this trap, you train your brain to think along the lines of ‘I MUST eat this to help me feel better’ – and you might use these foods to regulate your mood and lower your stress. But in the long run, this sets you off on a rollercoaster – with your energy, your mood, your stress levels and your sleep patterns. Over time, this rollercoaster can result in 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 inclined 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 produces melatonin, helping you to get a good night’s sleep. Similarly, 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 the stress hormone cortisol to increase and the feel-good hormone serotonin to dip, making you reach for chocolate, chips and sugary snacks to give you a feel-good boost at that time of the month.
Generally, the foods you choose to eat every day can help to regulate or trigger these cravings. Try switching white bread, pasta, sugary cereals, low fat products and processed foods for lower GL (glycaemic load) alternatives such as whole grains, pulses and root vegetables, as well as increasing your protein intake at each meal. This can help to regulate the release of glucose into the blood stream. Quality proteins such as eggs, turkey, salmon and nuts and seeds are also rich in tryptophan and tyrosine, which support production of serotonin and dopamine - a much better source than a packet of chocolate digestives or a bag of sweets! And making the switch to a more wholesome and nourishing alternative may be a much more sustainable approach to healthy weight loss than any of the crazy diets you might be tempted to try.
DO YOU CRAVE SALTY SNACKS?
Perhaps you are more inclined to reach for savoury, salty foods like crisps, salted nuts, cheese and biscuits. Generally speaking, this may be a sign that your adrenal glands are under strain, and similar to sugar, that hankering for salt could be attributed to stress, fatigue or PMS. You rely on your adrenals to produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline whenever you need them - that might mean meeting a deadline at work, training for a marathon or gearing yourself up for a big presentation. This is fine and necessary in the short term but chronic demand on the adrenals can result in fatigue and insufficient secretion of other hormones which regulate blood pressure for instance. As an example, when your adrenals are tired and don’t produce enough aldosterone, your blood pressure can become low and result in salt cravings and these might be accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue, excessive thirst, headaches and nausea. The flip side of the coin is that too much sodium, which is the key element in salt, should be avoided as it can tip the hormone balance in the other direction and contribute to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues.
Ultimately, it’s about tuning into your own body and how it’s feeling because cravings actually mean something. What signs is it giving you each day?