Cracking the Craving Code

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You’re well on your way to your dream body, exercising regularly, watching what you eat, and then it hits you. The Craving. Something sugary or carby or crunchy — whatever it is, you can’t get it out of your mind. You know giving in will momentarily halt your progress, but the urge to eat it is so strong, you almost don’t care. You try to justify it to yourself. You struggle. You complain. You cave.

Though it’s quite common for women to attribute cravings to various stages of their menstrual cycles, experts disagree over the role estrogen and other hormones play. However, one thing is clear: Food cravings can have emotional and physiological triggers.

“Insulin is the most profound hormone that has an impact on cravings,” says Dr. Colette Heimowitz, MSc, vice president of nutrition and education for Atkins Nutritionals, Inc. in New York. “And its release can be triggered by stress. Stress produces cortisol, and in an effort to blunt it, the body will produce insulin, which drops blood sugar.” The result? Your body demands that you stabilize your blood sugar immediately by eating a high-carbohydrate food.

But the emotional aspect — craving foods you associate with comfort — can be as strong as physiology. “Cravings are a learned response,” says Dr. Elizabeth Ward, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “You can’t crave a brownie if you’ve never eaten one, can you?”

Occasionally, recurrent food cravings can signal deeper problems. For instance, if you find yourself craving alcohol, you might have a yeast infection. Likewise, an uncontrollable desire for spicy food could indicate a zinc deficiency because a lack of this mineral impairs your senses of smell and taste. But true nutrient deficiencies are rare in the American diet.

Allergens and Antigens

There’s a third trigger for cravings. “The body produces a certain amount of antigens to food it’s allergic to,” Heimowitz explains. “When it doesn’t get that food, the antigens signal the brain that the body needs more, and you get cravings. And you will keep on getting them until you completely eliminate that food from your diet.”

To discover whether your cravings are emotional or allergic in nature, Heimowitz suggests completely eliminating the particular food you crave from your diet for two weeks to rid the body of antigens. Then have a small meal of only that food, and see how you feel within a few hours. “You could get a headache, retain water, get really tired,” she says. If you have no physical reaction to the food, chalk it up to an emotional trigger. “The way you beat that is to just have an ounce or two [of the food] to carry with you, and when that’s gone, you’re done for the day,” she says.

Control-Freak Techniques

The best defense against food cravings, experts agree, is a good offense: Keep your blood sugar stable by eating small meals of whole, natural foods high in protein, healthy fats and fiber every few hours. Also, supplement with a good multivitamin and essential fatty acids, such as the omega-3s found in fish-oil capsules because the body can’t produce those on its own.

“If you plan your eating around protein and fat, and make sure you have enough vegetables for fiber,” Heimowitz says, “you’re simply not hungry, and you’re in better appetite control.”