Listen to your body to help master the munchies and cut out the foods that are holding you back. Nutritionist Louise Pyne reveals how
A study published in the journal Obesity revealed that cravings are linked to our body’s circadian rhythm (internal body clock), and cravings for sweet, salty and carb-rich foods tend to be highest in the evening, which is also the time of day in which hunger is at its peak. This means that in order to beat cravings, we need to pay attention to our body’s needs at specific times of the day. Whether your weakness is salty or sweet, an impulse for a particular food can offer clues about nutritional deficiencies and general health status. Here we share the most common cravings, what they could signify and how to manage them and keep your diet on track.
Chocolate is often the first thing we reach for to comfort us when our spirits are low. Cravings for sweet foods can indicate a deficiency of the happiness neurotransmitter serotonin and various factors can affect the levels of this chemical. Firstly, less sunlight during winter means your body naturally produces lower levels, which might explain why your sweet tooth is more intense when it’s cold and grey as your body is trying to boost levels of this mood stabiliser. Secondly, during the menstrual cycle, levels of various hormones such as oestrogen fluctuate significantly which also leads to a drop in serotonin. A desire for chocolate is also common during the menopause as the body produces less oestrogen.
Choose a couple of squares of raw or dark chocolate as the dark stuff contains antioxidants, and has even been proven to help slash levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and eat more eggs, bananas and cheese as these are rich tryptophan – a chemical that’s needed to make serotonin. Finally, try to practice mindful eating where you pause, listen to hunger cues and find out what your body is really telling you.
If you tend to chow down on sweets whenever your energy levels are zapped, it’s probably because consuming artificial sugars can give you an energy boost. That’s all good and well, but the problem is that this energy buzz is only temporary and causes ups and downs in blood glucose levels, meaning you’re more likely to crave sugary foods again once your sugar crash has hit.
Reach for a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts. Naturally sweet fruit like a ripe apple or a few strawberries should give your body the sugar hit it craves whilst containing enough fibre to avoid blood glucose spikes. Pair the fruit with a small handful of nuts like almonds which are a source of tyrosine, a co-factor needed to produce the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. The other benefit in combining the two is that when sugary foods are combined with protein and fats, it slows down the digestion of sugar and gives your satiety hormones a chance to regulate. This will help to provide you with the fullness you need to control the amount of sugar you’re consuming.
Cravings for salty foods like crisps can be a sign that your body’s water balance is out of kilter. Salt or sodium is a mineral that’s needed to regulate water balance. It also controls nerve function and blood pressure. Your body naturally regulates sodium levels through different processes and pathways but if levels are too low, it can bring on a craving for processed salty foods as your body needs sodium foods to replenish levels of the mineral. Other signs that you may be lacking in sodium include excess sweating, low blood pressure and poor nerve function, and this imbalance can be brought on by stress.
When we’re feeling the pressure, our nervous system and adrenal glands have to work harder and this can affect how well they regulate salt. Slow down! Anxiety-reducing exercise like yoga, tai chi and meditation can help to lower levels, and adding anti-stress foods to your diet such as glutamine-rich oats and antioxidant-packed blueberries will help to soothe and calm during tough times.
If you constantly crave red meat like steak, you could be low in iron. Women are more susceptible to iron deficiency as we lose iron each month during menstruation and red meat is the richest dietary source of the mineral. This nutrient plays a key role in keeping oxygen-carrying red blood cells healthy and low levels could mean you have anaemia, a condition that occurs when you don’t have enough iron to make haemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that helps to transport oxygen around your body.
Fortunately, however, levels can easily be topped up with iron supplements, so visit your GP for a simple blood test which will confirm whether you have low stores. And to eat your way to higher iron levels, ensure you eat a varied diet. There are two forms of iron – heme iron which is manufactured from animal products and non-heme iron which plant foods like legumes and greens such as broccoli and spinach. Unfortunately, although these foods contain plenty of valuable nutrients, non-heme iron is not as readily absorbed as heme iron. However, combining non-heme iron sources with vitamin C foods like carrots and red peppers helps to increase absorbency.
Cravings for curry could mean that you’re low in zinc. This mineral plays an important role in our sense of taste and if you have a deficiency, you are more likely to seek out strong or spicy flavours. Zinc also keeps our immune system healthy and is essential to hormone production and protein synthesis. One study which surveyed women in fourteen different countries found that one in five had low zinc levels, and according the World Health Organisation an estimated 17.3 per cent of people worldwide are at risk of zinc deficiency.
A poor diet and drinking lots of alcohol can disrupt levels as alcohol reduces the body’s absorption of zinc, so be mindful of what’s on your plate and how much booze you are consuming. Get levels back in balance by eating a varied diet with zinc-rich wholegrains, red meat and seafood.
You can also add more spice to meals – add turmeric to soups, spice blends to chicken, and paprika to roasted vegetables for meals that pack a spicy punch. Other signs to watch out for include recurrent infections, acne or eczema, hair loss and brittle nails with white spots as these often indicate a zinc deficiency. And if you do suspect your levels might be low, your GP or a registered nutritionist will be able to check your zinc status through a blood or urine test.