Today I am diving deep into WHY we get cravings – why certain foods seem to call out to us, while others hold little interest. I also share a very personal story and explore the possibility that had I learned to listen to my body sooner (rather than battling to control it), I might have avoided a whole roller coaster of heart-break.
Quit the drama!
I recently surveyed a group of women about what their most common cravings were. Unsurprisingly, the winners were sweet things and chocolate with fizzy drinks, coffee and fatty foods (such as crisps) following close behind.
Most of my clients struggle to some extent with cravings, often blaming them for years of failed ‘diets’ and efforts to lose weight. Significant chunks of time spent each day fighting internal private battles – trying to suppress urges to eat certain foods that they have branded ‘naughty’ or ‘forbidden’. One of the most rewarding parts of my job is coaching them through the process of releasing this food drama to a place where they find that life is so much simpler!
My fat fighting began at 13
I was about 13 when I heard about Rosemary Conley’s “Hip and thigh diet”. The basic premise being that fat makes you fat … advocating a low fat diet if you want to lose weight. As an impressionable early-pubescent teen, I embraced this idea enthusiastically. I wasn’t overweight, but like many girls of a similar age I was feeling self conscious about the lumps and bumps and curvy curves I was developing and I was terrified that I might be regarded as overweight. I subsequently embarked on a mission to obliterate as much fat as possible from my diet. No butter, no cheese, no oils, …. I drove my poor mum insane by refusing to eat bacon unless every last tiny bit of fat and rind was removed and it had been thoroughly dried with kitchen roll to remove the grease. No peanut butter, no milk chocolate and I became expert in making fat-free cakes (I had a desperately sweet tooth remember?).
I craved crisps
It wasn’t until I reached my early 20s that my puppy-fat disappeared that I remember being plagued by cravings – particularly for salt and vinegar crisps and creamy things, but I kept up the denial – trying to be ‘good’. Refusing to listen to what my poor body was asking for. I had been vegetarian since age 17 and then lived with a vegan for a couple of years too so was still eating a very low fat diet.
It was around this time that I was diagnosed with PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) as I rarely had periods and suffered from mood swings and skin outbreaks. If you’re not familiar with it, PCOS often walks hand in hand with fertility problems (not really surprising if you don’t have a regular menstrual cycle) and sure enough, a few years later, my husband and I found ourselves on a rollercoaster of unpleasant drugs and fertility treatments which culminated in my worst fear – IVF.
Learning to listen not fight
When I emerged from the blur of pregnancy and having a sleepless babe/toddler/pre-schooler I had a new respect for what my body was capable of creating and withstanding. I quit trying to control it and learned to listen. I cleaned up my diet and began to eat meat again (fat and all) and was astonished to find that after 20 years of mayhem (up to a year between periods), my cycle stabilised – regular as clockwork. It turns out that fat is an essential part of a balanced diet and very necessary for certain hormones to function properly.
So with hindsight, I guess those cravings were my body trying to tell me something. Something really very important. Something that maybe, just maybe, could have saved me from the emotionally and physically draining fertility treatments that eventually broke my marriage? Who knows.
Listen don’t suppress
My point is this: cravings are our body’s way of communicating to us when something is out of balance. Ignoring a craving is like ignoring a distressed baby. But by trying to connect with your craving and really understanding what triggers it and why, you can glean invaluable nuggets of information, helping you to understand what changes you need to make to improve our health.
It can take time and skill to really understand what underlies a craving, but some are simple to decode.
Try this simple exercise
Think about the last time you had a strong craving for something. Try to remember as much as you can about the circumstances: time of day, where you were, what you had been doing, what you were about to do etc.
Now look at the following list of common causes for cravings and see if any of them seem to ‘fit’ the circumstances:
1. Were you tired?
When we are tired our bodies look for quick sources of energy. Your body sees SUGAR as ideal as it requires very little processing (digestion) before it is useful. A caffeine craving is another common response to being low on energy.
2. Were you sad?
Learning to associate certain foods with comfort, is something that many of us do in childhood. This can lead to years of battles with comfort eating into adulthood. Learning to recognise comfort eating is the first step to finding different ways to manage your emotions that serve you better.
3. Were you bored?
Being bored, stressed, uninspired by a job, or lacking a spiritual practice can also prompt emotional eating. Many of us get into the habit of reaching for certain foods as a substitute for entertainment or to fill the void of insufficient ‘primary food’ (note – primary foods are things that nourish you, that aren’t food i.e. relationships, your work, exercise etc).
4. Were you dehydrated?
Many of us are chronically dehydrated and it is sometimes easy to confuse our body’s requests for water with mild hunger. Next time you have a craving try drinking a full glass of water before you decide how to respond to it, wait 10 minutes and see if the craving subsides.
5. Could your hormones be the cause?
When women experience menstruation, pregnancy or menopause, fluctuating testosterone and oestrogen levels can cause cravings. Many women crave high carb foods around the middle and end of their menstrual cycles.
6. Is you diet properly balanced?
The essential parts of a balanced diet are protein, healthy fat and healthy carbs, plus a range of vitamins and minerals. If what you are eating does not meet your body’s requirements, you may find it will produce odd cravings. For example, inadequate mineral levels can lead to salt cravings.
Try journalling about your cravings and look for patterns. What do you think is behind your most common cravings? Leave a comment below – I promise to read them all.
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