We all love holiday treats, whether they are in the form of chocolate, cookies, soda or processed food—and cravings for specific foods can be incredibly hard to ignore, especially with all the holiday-season triggers of family gatherings, parties and memories.
While there is no single explanation for a food craving, it is important to understand each individual body requires certain nutrients to function optimally. From low serotonin levels to a chronic state of inflammation, each body has various needs and is uniquely designed to utilize essential nutrients in food to achieve a state of balance and health.
Therefore, when depleted of an essential nutrient, a specific food craving may appear. Instead of resorting to willpower or deprivation, it is important to remember that cravings are a normal part of biological function. This will cause far less anxiety or frustration in making food choices.
Tame Your Food Craving
Once a specific food craving is recognized, it is better to address it than suppress it. Otherwise, the craving will become more aggressive, possibly leading to an unconscious habit that is difficult to unwind.
While cravings come in various forms, sugar is one of the most powerful food cravings, and in addition to the season’s chocolate Santas and Hanukkah pastries, it is also hidden in most packaged foods. Disguised under the names corn syrup, molasses, sorbitol, maltodextrin or evaporated cane juice, sugar is infamous for sneaking into our lives and wreaking havoc on our health and mood. New research is now suggesting high levels of sugar even affect our memory.
For most of us, the holidays are the time of year we consume the most sugar, and they are usually the most memorable time of the year. That makes it even more pertinent to understand and manage your cravings, especially if they relate to sugar, so your celebrations can, in fact, be memorable. Instead of resorting to willpower or withdrawal when cravings become unmanageable, a more sustainable response is to investigate the root of the cravings so the holiday can be enjoyed instead of survived.
In sorting through the numerous reasons someone can experience a craving, three of the most prominent reasons are outlined below:
1. Thirst. Many times, a craving can merely stem from an alteration in hydration status. When the body senses low levels of fluid intake, it will trigger the thirst response, which can sometimes be mistaken for hunger. Next time you feel an intense food craving, try drinking a glass of water before you grab the nearest food items. Often this simple act will resolve the craving altogether. If plain water is not appealing to you at the time of a food craving, try combining water with some lime, lemon and a few slices of cucumber. Pouring in some spritzer water might even make it the perfect bubbly treat you were craving.
2. Micronutrient deficiency. Cravings for specific foods can indicate a micronutrient deficiency. We tend to crave specific foods, especially during the holidays; micronutrients may play a role in cravings and the optimal function of your body.
Essential Nutrient You Might Be Missing
Magnesium. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of the population is lacking in this mineral. If you reach for chocolate, be sure to find some that has at least 75-percent cacao content or higher. You can also find magnesium in foods such as nuts, seeds, legumes and leafy greens.
Chromium. This trace mineral is important for blood sugar balance, as it plays a role in insulin sensitivity in muscle tissue. Chromium can be found in broccoli, grapes, cheese and chicken. Besides including more chromium in the diet, it is important to reach for more nutrient-dense sources of sweet foods, including fresh fruit or sweet vegetables such as carrots and yams.
Zinc, manganese, selenium, molybdenum, copper and iodine. Cravings for salty foods like chips and popcorn may result from chronic stress, which takes a toll on the adrenal glands. Besides managing stress, it is also important to consider including some unprocessed sea salt in your diet, because the minerals found in unprocessed sea salt are vital for optimal adrenal function and may be helpful in cases of chronic adrenal fatigue. Besides utilizing sea salt in your food, consuming foods naturally rich in these trace minerals, such as sea vegetables or young plants, may provide your adrenal glands the support they crave.
Calcium or essential fatty acids. Calcium plays a vital role in bone development and is found primarily in dairy products and dark leafy greens. Including calcium-rich sources of food into the everyday diet, such as mustard greens, turnip greens, broccoli, kale and cheese, may not only provide support for bones, but also keep you from that extra order of french fries. If the craving for greasy foods does not stem from a calcium deficiency but is instead linked to a fatty acid deficiency, it is important to eat foods high in essential fatty acids, such as walnuts, salmon and flaxseeds.
Iron. While red meat is not the only source of iron, an intense craving for animal protein may be indicative of an iron deficiency. Women are especially prone to this deficiency and should consider including a variety of iron-rich foods in the diet, such as fish, poultry, beans, legumes and greens.
3. Blood sugar imbalance. A primary cause of food cravings stems from unstable blood sugar levels, which is usually showcased in the form of a sugar craving. Once sugar is eaten, a hormone called insulin is released into the bloodstream. Insulin determines how sugar is going to be used in the body. Ideally, the sugar eaten is used immediately for energy. The only problem is when too much sugar is eaten, sugar floods the bloodstream, signaling the pancreas to pump out more and more insulin. Once insulin arrives to clear out excess blood sugar, it is stored in either the liver, in the form of glycogen; or in tissue, as fat.
When too much insulin is pumped out, too much blood sugar is taken out of the bloodstream. This is the point at which one experiences an energy crash and inevitably a more intense sugar craving. Therefore, to regulate the insulin-versus-blood-sugar circus, sugar should be eaten in moderation and paired with either protein or fat, which will slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.
An even better way to manage the release of sugar into the bloodstream is by eating it in the form of whole food such as fruit. Whole food forms of sugar are called complex sugars, which are slowly released into the bloodstream due to their complexity.
Preventing Sugar Cravings
Besides pairing a sugar with a protein or a fat, one of the most important things you can do to prevent the onset of a sugar craving in the first place is to maintain a regular meal pattern that includes a meal or snack at least every three hours. In doing so, you will never reach the point you make irrational decisions about what to eat out of pure hunger. Each meal or snack will instead be chosen intentionally and prepared with a modest but not ravenous appetite.
To do this, keep go-to snacks that can be eaten between meals on hand at all times. If the timing of meals and snacks is not enough to completely keep your sugar craving at bay, here are three more simple ways to combat a sneaky sugar craving:
• Get spicy. Spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and cardamom will all naturally sweeten your foods, reduce cravings and offer many additional health benefits, such as reduced inflammation, blood sugar regulation and improved memory. Sprinkle spices anyplace you would have traditionally added sugar. Who knew cinnamon in coffee could taste so good?
• Add a sweet vegetable to your meal. Sugar in its natural complex form, like that found in sweet vegetables—beets, carrots and yams—stabilizes energy and satisfies the urgency of a sweet tooth. Try to eat sweet vegetables in moderation with protein, fiber and fats, because sweet vegetables still promote a dramatic insulin response.
• Grab a square of 75-percent-or-darker chocolate. Deep, dark chocolate is loaded with antioxidant support and essential nutrients that make it a clean treat. Ironically, the bitter flavor of the dark chocolate paired with the healthy cocoa fat content is just the ticket out of sugar-craving mode, while it also boosts your serotonin levels.
Tune In to Your Food Cravings
Altogether, food cravings, especially around the holidays, can play a prominent role in food decisions. Instead of feeling defeated or anxious about them, simply tune in to what role they play in your body’s capacity to achieve balance.
There are many ways to address a food craving. Keep healthy snack options on hand at all times, drink hydrating fluids throughout the day, and keep tabs on the patterns of cravings, to manage the urges that can lead to poor food choices.
Most importantly, consider each craving a normal function of your body that is a protective mechanism designed to promote optimal health and balance.
About the Author
Ellie Freeman, R.D., holds a master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University. She firmly believes whole food is an elixir of health, and she uses it to stabilize energy, improve digestion and optimize weight. As the founder of Simply Nourished Nutrition, Freeman offers one-on-one counseling, group cleansing and simple health tips via email.