My children recently found themselves “craving” ice cream sundaes. After dinner one night, they mobilized outside the kitchen, whispered for a few minutes, then approached me with the following argument: “Mom, you always encourage us to listen to our bodies, and our bodies are begging us to eat mint chip ice cream with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and sprinkles. We can taste it, we can’t stop thinking about it, and it is calling our names. We really should listen.”
Well, they made a solid point. I do want my children to listen to their bodies. Our bodies often tell us exactly what we need. Bodies remind us it is time to sleep by yawning, tell us we are dehydrated through thirst and help us fend off danger with a rush of adrenaline. Cravings can be primal and often beneficial to our well-being, as with thirst, but they can also be manipulated by modern food science and less beneficial to our health.
In his best-selling book, “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us,” Michael Moss explains how food companies create the perfect combinations of salt, sugar and fat to make us crave more and more of their foods. Some of these scientifically formulated foods hijack our body’s ability to recognize satiety and to stop eating. This doesn’t only happen to kids.
I crave things, too. Especially on sleepy mornings, I smell coffee even when we don’t have it in the house, red wine calls my name many Friday nights, and I have a love affair with dark chocolate. These are real cravings; I can taste the flavors, and I want to consume them now, not later.
Many different phenomena can trigger a craving. The red wine might be my desire to relax, so it’s a response to stress in my life. The coffee might be appealing because caffeine is a stimulant and my body knows it, or because it is an addictive substance. Sometimes I crave chocolate simply as a path to procrastination; other times it might be that my body is begging for an afternoon energy boost.
The best thing you and your children can do with a craving is to identify the trigger.
Possible triggers, other than true hunger, include:
- Boredom. Eating for entertainment or distraction is common.
- Lack of emotional fulfillment. People often eat to suppress negative emotions, or when they feel unfulfilled. Certain foods, especially simple sugars and carbohydrates, release feel-good chemicals, which help with mood or energy in the short term but often leave a person feeling worse in the long term.
- Habit. Environmental stimuli such as television commercials can trigger us to eat, and over time, individuals may create a habit of overeating in these or other situations.
- Stress can trigger cravings, especially for high-energy foods.
- Thirst. Double check that your body isn’t actually thirsty rather than hungry. Sometimes the body desires food for energy when it is actually sluggish from being dehydrated.
- The season. The body may react to the season by craving seasonal foods such as warm soups and stews in the winter and cooling peaches and watermelon in the summer.
- Lack of nutrients. I noticed this most distinctly while pregnant: After years of eating very little meat, I began craving it. It was probably the low levels of iron in my body that were speaking to me.
- Hormones. Both men and women can experience cravings related to hormones.
- Processed foods, as mentioned above. Food is our medicine, but when overmanipulated, it can also be our poison.
- A health problem. Sometimes an illness triggers cravings. For instance, an overgrowth of Candida in our digestive tract can produce sugar cravings.
Ways to combat non-hunger cravings:
- Stop and identify the trigger.
- Drink water.
- Eat slowly and enjoy your meals and snacks to trigger satiety.
- Eat enough protein and healthy fat throughout the day to prevent blood sugar dips.
- Enjoy a small portion of the craved food.
- Eat in a calm, undistracted environment so you can tune in to what your body really needs.
- Eat only when hungry.
- Add more naturally sweet foods into your diet such as fruits and sweeter vegetables.
- Get active.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, March 30, 2017.