Understanding Your Cravings - Physical Drivers

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Cravings are the worst!

At least that’s what I always thought.  There’s always been so much denial, guilt and flat out drama wrapped up in them.

We’re conditioned to think that cravings are bad.  And in turn, often think of ourselves as bad for having them.  

Heck, there for a while, I made it my mission to stamp out any and all of my cravings.  Needless to say, I wasn’t successful. BUT, I learned a lot in the process. The most valuable of those lessons being that cravings aren’t to be ignored.

Cravings are actually an incredibly powerful tool.

The more curious you get about them, the more in tune with yourself you’ll become.  

They’ll become direct feedback to help you adjust your diet to what your body needs.  They can also be a valuable gauge of how you’re doing emotionally. And provide valuable insights into your habits.  

The more you learn to read them, the better you can get at managing them -- and who doesn’t want that?!

So before we go further, I’d like to ask you to reconsider your cravings.  

Rather than thinking of them as bad and doing everything in your power to ignore them.  Consider why you might be having them. Can you do that for me?

There are a lot of different triggers for cravings.

Some physical, some mental and some emotional.

We’ll save the emotional and mental for another time.  

In this post, we’ll cover the physical side of cravings.  We’ll look at a few underlying causes and what your body may be trying to tell you. We’ll also explore a few ways to help you eliminate the physical triggers so you can reduce your cravings overall.

First, your cravings could be an indication that you’re not eating enough.  

Food is fuel and your body requires a certain amount to maintain life and fuel your activity.  

Every single cell in our bodies relies on fuel from our food to function.  Given that you’re a huge collection of cells, this means every tissue, every organ and every system in your body is reliant on the nutrients you get from your food.

We’re programmed to seek out food for survival.  If your body detects it isn’t getting enough, it can mess with your blood sugar and end up sending strong signals to your brain crying out for more food.

When it does, those signals typically don’t come through as veggie sticks and hummus.  

You want the big guns ---the burger and fries. The big ole bowl of mac n' cheese. The extra large M&M sugar cookies from the Safeway bakery with a tall glass of milk-- not speaking from experience or anything.

It’s going for calorie density -- the highest amount of calories for the least amount of effort.

Second, your cravings might be an indication you’re not eating the right balance of macro nutrients.

Macronutrients refer to fat, carbohydrates and protein.  When your macro nutrients aren’t balanced, it can cause huge swings in your blood sugar.  

The most likely culprits, consuming too many carbohydrates and/or not enough fat and protein at any given meal.

Large spikes in blood sugar throw off your hunger hormones.  They also result in quick drops in blood sugar. As a result, you start feeling tired, shaky, maybe even HANGRY!  

Your body sends signals to your brain. And once again, your brain tells you eat, eat, eat!

Your brain really likes simple carbohydrates for quick energy.  So you start scouring the office for chocolate, hit-up Starbucks a second time or throw back a bag of chips.  Anything to get that fix, satisfy that craving and give your brain the jolt of energy it’s after.

Finally, your cravings might be an indication that you’re lacking in micronutrients.

Micronutrients serve many purposes in our bodies.  Your body needs a wide array of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients to run optimally. They act as catalysts and cofactors in all sorts of bodily functions like digestion, detoxification, immune response, hormone production and more.

When these nutrients are lacking, your body begins compensating and prioritizing function. This can lead to imbalances, dysfunction and eventually disease.

Like we talked about earlier, your body is programed to seek out what it needs for optimal function. If it senses it doesn’t have what it needs, it sends signals to your brain to eat more. This time with the hopes of getting the vital micronutrients it needs.

Unfortunately, the messages don’t come across as clearly as, “Hey! I could use some more magnesium over here.”  

Instead they often come through as cravings or a more general drive to constantly eat.  Often times resulting in a calorie excess (think weight gain) while at the same time being undernourished.

There are many theories out there linking cravings for certain foods to specific nutrient deficiencies. The most common one I hear about is chocolate cravings indicating a need for magnesium. However, this appears to be mostly anecdotal. I couldn’t find strong evidence linking cravings for specific foods directly to specific nutrient deficiencies.

Rather than going down the rabbit hole of chasing specific nutrients, the big takeaway here is the importance of eating a whole foods, nutrient dense diet that includes a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.

How can you tell what’s at the root of your cravings?

First, keep in mind that it’s rarely one thing.  We’re complex beings and it’s likely that the cravings you’re experiencing are a combination of the the physical factors we just discussed, along with some emotional and mental factors we’ll explore in future posts.  

Addressing cravings is like peeling back an onion --- layer by layer.

With that said, some pretty clear signs that you’d benefit from addressing the physical side of your cravings include:

  • Low or erratic energy throughout the day -- the afternoon energy slump!

  • You rely on caffeinated drinks to get started in the morning and/or throughout the day

  • You get shaky, lightheaded, irritable or HANGRY if you go too long between meals

  • Headaches and/or fatigue relieved by eating

  • You have problems falling asleep or staying asleep at night

  • You have a restrictive relationship with food

  • You’re a perpetual dieter

  • Your diet is lacking in a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables

  • You regularly consume refined flours, sugar and processed foods

  • You consume low-fat foods like low-fat yogurt, milk, etc.

  • You don’t consume or consume very little animal protein, like meat or eggs

You won’t necessarily identify with all of these signs. Identifying with as few as two is a good reason to take a look at what you’re eating and how much you’re eating and make some adjustments.

Where can you start?

That’s going to be different for everyone depending on the signs you identified with and what you’re currently eating. But, I'll provide some suggestions based on what I commonly see.  

I often find that most of my clients could use some help balancing their macros at meals.  I typically find that people are eating too high a ratio of carbohydrates.

If you recall, carbohydrates breakdown into sugar and can cause those big swings in blood sugar when consumed in excess or not moderated by fat and protein.

Usually that means adding in healthy fats and increasing the amount of protein on their plate to slow digestion and moderate the release of sugar into their blood.  In some cases, it might also mean reducing the amount of carbohydrates at their meals.

A good and easy place to start with balancing your macros is the rule of thirds

Aim to fill your plate with:

  • One-third protein (like chicken, beef or fish)

  • One-third non-starchy vegetables (like greens, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.)

  • One-third starchy vegetables or whole grains (like yams, potatoes, quinoa, rice, etc.).

  • Then add some healthy fats to your veggies (like grassfed butter, ghee, olive oil or coconut oil)

Voile, a balanced meal.

You might need to make some additional adjustments down the road, but this is a good place to start.

Starting Small

If it seems overwhelming to think about changing up all your meals.  Start with breakfast.

By starting your day with a healthy dose of blood sugar stabilizing fat and protein, it’ll be easier to say no to the office donuts later on.  

For specific ideas of how to craft a balanced breakfast to stabilize your energy and decrease your cravings, download my free Healthy Starts breakfast guide.

Take Action

  1. Share this post with a friend or coworker that struggles with cravings - sharing is caring!

  2. Identify which physical factor(s) you suspect are playing a role in your cravings.

  3. Identify one adjustment you’re going to make. Need help? Head on over to my free Facebook Group and let me know where you’re stuck.

  4. Implement it over the coming week and come tell me how it went!