Chris Sandel is a nutritionist and runs the company 7 Health. He specialises in helping clients ending dieting, reproductive issues and disordered eating and he’s here at Frame to talk about why we get food cravings.
I regularly hear from people who struggle with cravings. They complain that they are a slave to sugar or a “chocolate addict”. So where do cravings come from and what are they about?
If I’m simplifying things, there are two main reasons for cravings. The first is from a physiological perspective. If someone is getting cravings for this reason, it is because there is not enough energy coming in compared to what they need.
This could be because the meal they ate was too small, that they’ve gone too long between meals, that they’re not eating enough calories over the day or even that digestion is so poor that they aren’t able to digest their food properly. From an energy perspective, there is not enough getting to their cells to keep them going.
(And this can still be happening when someone is “overweight” or “obese”. Too often people think “well they have all this fat on them, it should just be turned into energy seamlessly”. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like this and if food is restricted or delayed, regardless of someone’s size, they can still get cravings).
When someone is getting cravings, what is it that they typically crave? They go for things that are calorie-dense, highly palatable and foods that are converted into energy easily. Things like chocolate and sweets, or fast food that they barely have to chew.
Your body is trying to prevent you from starving, so it is directing you towards foods that are going to give you quick and easy energy.
A perfect example of this is with women and their cycle. Lots of women experience cravings for a couple of days or up to a week before getting their period. This is a time when the body has to deal with hormones starting to drop down and the liver needs to break down and metabolise these hormones.
It’s a time for increased energy needs. But because women don’t consciously eat more around this time, it leads to higher amounts of cravings to get them to take in more energy. It’s why I suggest that women should eat more during this time, and when they do, their cravings become minimised or disappear.
The second reason for cravings is for emotional reasons. People are using food in this scenario to self-soothe. Or as a distraction because they’re bored. Or to numb themselves because they’re upset. They use foods to deal with their emotions.
This is often a learned behaviour. It’s not uncommon for parents to reward children with food like chocolates. The child is told that if they are good or behave they’ll get a chocolate. When they do, they aren’t just given the chocolate and that’s it. They’re told how good they were and how proud they are. Maybe when they are eating the chocolate the parents are looking at them with loving eyes and anticipation, just waiting for the child to smile as it melts in their mouth and they get that sweet taste.
This memory and experience then gets embedded so chocolate is now not just about the taste but gives a flashback to those emotions and that experience (even if it’s at a subconscious level).
And it’s not just parents but past experiences in life. Food becomes more than the sum of its nutritional parts and acts as an emotional switch that takes someone from one place to another.
People can often have a difficult time deciphering between the two types of cravings; is it physiological or is it emotional? For those who are concerned about weight (regardless of how much they weigh) the tendency is to blame all cravings on emotions and therefore, fight their body, telling themselves they are not really hungry.
When I’m working with someone, I tend to think the other way around and prefer to rule out the physiological side first. I get them to eat more, to eat more consistently, to stop with the food rules about “good “and “bad” foods and thinking in absolute terms.
Most of the time when people do this, the cravings take care of themselves and are severely minimised.
People don’t lose their sense of taste and they can still fancy some chocolate or cake or whatever their “treat” foods are. But there is a difference with their level of desire and they are no longer paralysed in their need.
If focusing on the physiological side doesn’t repair the situation, then we look at the emotional side. This can take on many forms depending on the situation but normally involves looking at their coping mechanisms. The goal is, over time, to expand the clients range so instead of reaching for food to numb or avoid, they can either deal with the root cause or use some other method.
(I will add that food is a fairly innocuous way to deal with emotions and there are much more problematic habits someone could choose. So while we want to expand someone’s coping toolbox, it’s probably unnecessary to try and remove “emotional food cravings” entirely but instead I prefer to remove the guilt and shame for when someone does use food in this manner).
Cravings are a biological function and are unavoidable. So when they do come up, instead of using willpower to “fight” against them, my suggestion is to look at the situation and ask “why might this be happening?” I promise this will serve you better.