Understanding and Managing Cravings: The Key to Unlocking Your Health Goals
Over the years, while coaching athletes using our holistic approach at Hustle One Fitness, I’ve realized that nutrition isn’t the sole focus of a nutrition program. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. Our lifestyle, sleep, stress levels, and physical activity all play crucial roles in our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. You see, we’re interconnected beings, and every aspect of our lives influences the other, including the choices we make outside our dietary preferences.
Here’s a little about cravings, and at the end here are 4 ways to curb your cravings.
Understanding Your Cravings
When your body craves something—whether it’s food, sleep, water, or something else—it’s essentially sending a direct message from your body to your conscious mind. It’s saying, “Hey, conscious being in charge of decisions, we need energy to support your plans.” Or when you’re exhausted, your body might signal, “We’ve been awake for 20 hours straight. We need some sleep!” These messages might indicate that you’re stressed, thirsty, bored, emotional, or simply in need of a change in your state of being.
The better you become at deciphering what your body genuinely requires, the more accurately you can provide the right response instead of munching on sugar and cheese when you’re feeling bored, sad, or even aroused.
Cravings at Meal Times: Perfectly Normal
There’s a simple test: If you’re genuinely hungry and would opt for a piece of fruit, that’s having an appetite. It’s normal and healthy to crave food at meal times. But if you’d rather go for a cookie or indulge in an entire box of Wheat Thins instead of that piece of fruit, it indicates a specific craving. These cravings can offer insights into what you might be lacking and what your body truly needs.
Cravings Stemming from Sleep Deprivation
In today’s fast-paced world, sleep deprivation has emerged as a leading cause of food cravings. When we don’t get adequate sleep and our days are packed with activities and stress, our bodies demand more energy. These extra hours of wakefulness require additional fuel, meaning we eat more to keep up.
When you’re consistently on the move or under stress, your calorie expenditure increases. If you eat the same amount as you would after a good night’s sleep, you’re bound to feel hungrier. In such situations, sugary foods become increasingly appealing as they provide an immediate energy boost for your brain and body. Your body knows that, by weight, fat contains over twice the energy of carbohydrates and protein, so fat cravings might also arise. Our bodies are incredibly smart, and sometimes they prioritize short-term needs over long-term health. If those daily needs don’t align with our overall health, the gap between optimal health and reality widens.
Cravings from Lack of Movement
In certain scenarios, people turn to food as a means to alter their emotional state. Maybe it’s boredom, frustration, or stress. Perhaps there’s a looming project at work or home that you’d rather avoid by indulging in comfort eating. Eating sugary foods triggers dopamine release, and you might find comfort in cheese because it triggers serotonin responses. These are distractions from tasks that need attention, and using food as a coping mechanism is a habit that can be replaced with practice.
A healthier alternative to changing your state than gorging on sweet or fatty foods is physical activity. Go for a walk, do some in-place lunges, or hold a wall squat. And if time allows, exercise. Exercise is a fantastic tool to shift your state of mind without compromising your fitness or body composition goals.
Stress has a wide array of effects on our bodies, and the response varies from person to person. Some individuals experience decreased appetite due to stress, while others can consume large quantities of food without gaining weight. The connection between stress and cravings is complex, and it often leads to desires for sugary and fatty foods.
If stress is the culprit behind your cravings, you have two primary options:
- Reduce Stress: Remove or reframe stressors in your life. Find ways to deal with them or spend less time exposed to them. Sometimes, it’s best to distance yourself from sources of stress, or reframe your perspective. This shift in mindset can be remarkably effective in managing stress-induced cravings.
- Introduce De-stressing Activities: Engage in activities that help you relax and downregulate. This could be reading, writing, journaling, exercising, engaging in creative arts, meditation, or simply going for a walk. These activities have one common goal: to help you calm down and regain your balance.
Cravings Due to Dehydration
Sometimes, your body signals hunger when you’re actually thirsty or dehydrated. This leads to misinterpreting your body’s needs, and you end up eating the same type of foods—salty, sugary, and fatty—as those who experience food cravings. The next time you feel a sudden urge to snack, try drinking a glass of water first. If you’re still hungry afterward, perform the fruit test. Would you eat a piece of fruit? If the answer is yes, you’re likely genuinely hungry, so go ahead and enjoy the fruit or have a meal if it’s your designated mealtime.
Cravings Stemming from Poor Nutrition
If your diet is high in sugar or fatty foods, it can generate cravings for similar foods. Consuming excessive sugary and hyper-palatable foods can make healthier, moderately sweet options like fruits, berries, and dark chocolate less appealing. But if you steer clear of those hyper-palatable foods for a week or two, your taste buds reset, making nutritious and minimally processed foods taste better. This alone can significantly reduce cravings for super-sweet and fatty foods.
Hunger after a meal can often be traced back to insufficient protein consumption. Our bodies might be signaling deficiencies in specific amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Consuming adequate protein during your meals can reduce post-meal snacking. For those following a plant-based diet, it’s essential to diversify protein sources to ensure a balanced intake of amino acids. Relying solely on one protein source, like beans, can lead to amino acid deficiencies.
Curbing Your Cravings: A Consistent Approach
Interestingly, the strategies to curb cravings align with the fundamental principles I offer to athletes striving to optimize their performance:
1. Sleep: Prioritize sufficient sleep and work on enhancing its quality to reduce sleep-related cravings.
2. Food: Balance your energy intake with energy expenditure to improve body composition. If your goal is to lose body fat, maintain a slight caloric deficit to promote consistent and sustainable fat loss while preserving or gaining muscle mass. This also curbs cravings for calorie-dense foods.
3. Stress: Manage the stressors in your life. When stressors can’t be removed, find ways to reframe your perspective and reduce their impact on your life. If your job is a major stressor, consider exploring new career options. Meaningful relationships and social connections play a crucial role in reducing loneliness-induced cravings.
4. Movement: Train as much as your body can recover from. Maintain an active lifestyle, engage in regular exercise, and enjoy physical activities. Avoid excessive training, which can lead to slow progress, frequent injuries, and unstable appetite.
Mastering these basics—sleep, nutrition, stress management, and physical activity—will pave the way for reduced cravings, improved body composition, and enhanced performance.
Stay committed and watch your cravings decrease as your journey toward better health and fitness unfolds.
Understanding and Managing Cravings: The Key to Unlocking Your Health Goals
- Greer, S., Goldstein, A., & Walker, M. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature Communications, 4, 2259. doi:10.1038/ncomms3259
- May, J., Andrade, J., Kavanagh, D. J., et al. (2012). Elaborated Intrusion Theory: A Cognitive-Emotional Theory of Food Craving. Current Obesity Reports, 1, 114–121. doi:10.1007/s13679-012-0010-2