There’s a reason why your tummy keeps telling you it wants sugar, explains dietician Juliette Kellow.
Food cravings are usually our body’s way of telling us we’re hungry and it’s time to eat. But while the concept of intuitive eating sounds great, what happens if all you crave is sugar, sugar and more sugar and you haven’t hit your five-a-day for weeks?
Registered Dietitian Juliette Kellow explains why we crave certain foods at different times and how to combat the urge to binge on junk food:
Why do we get food cravings?
There are a number of triggers that make certain foods appeal at different times, but the three main reasons we get food cravings include the following:
One of the key ones is simply because we are hungry. Having a rumbling stomach and experiencing hunger pangs is the body’s way of telling us we need to eat something in order to replenish dwindling energy levels. Depriving ourselves of favourite foods or extreme dieting can also set up cravings.
Another trigger may be due to habits you have developed that link foods to certain occasions, such as snacking in the evening when watching TV, always having a biscuit with a hot drink, or munching on popcorn every time you go to the cinema. It’s also normal to desire certain foods after seeing or smelling them, such as wanting to eat cake after passing a patisserie window or a sausage roll after going into a bakery.
Hormones also seem to affect the desire for certain foods – some women experience cravings around the time of menstruation or when they are pregnant. Then there are the times when we want to eat in response to our emotions, for example, when we feel stressed, anxious, sad, fed up, tired or bored.
What do food cravings mean?
There’s little evidence that food cravings are our body’s way of telling us we are lacking certain essential nutrients. In reality, many of the foods we crave are low in vitamins and minerals – think chocolate, sweets, cakes, pastries, crisps, biscuits or buttered white toast! In fact, these foods tend to be high in calories, fat, saturates, sugar and/or salt – so rather than being helpful to our health, they may actually hinder it over time, if we eat a lot of them.
If you’re craving sugar ➡️ low blood sugar levels
Skipping meals or eating erratically can mean we end up seeking out foods that are high in sugar to give us a quick energy boost. But this effect is usually only short lived and the highs tend to be followed by a speedy crash in blood sugar, leaving us seeking out more sugary foods. Eating regularly and avoiding missing meals will help to stop these swings in blood sugar levels that can leave you craving something sweet.
If you’re craving salt ➡️ low on sodium
Meanwhile, a desire for salty foods is often put down to having low sodium intakes due to sweating excessively, for example, in hot weather or when exercising. In reality though, most people have more salt than they need in their diet and usually need less, rather than more. What is more important is to stay hydrated.
Can food cravings become a problem?
Food cravings only really become a problem if they mean someone regularly ends up overeating foods that are high in calories, as well as saturated fat, sugar and salt. If these sorts of foods end up taking the place of more nutritious foods, the result can be poorer intakes of essential nutrients like fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.
Food cravings only really become a problem if you regularly end up overeating certain foods.
Plus, excess calories can result in unwanted weight gain, which can lead to obesity. This is a risk factor for a number of diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Similarly, high intakes of saturated fat, sugar and salt can increase the risk of health problems, even in people who are seemingly a healthy weight. For example, frequent intakes of sugar can damage teeth, while high intakes of salt in the long term can increase blood pressure.
How to reduce junk food cravings
To combat the urge to binge on junk food try the following tips:
✔️ Start by asking yourself if you are really hungry. If the answer is yes, have a healthy snack like fruit, oatcakes or a handful of unsalted almonds. If the answer is no, think about what’s really causing the craving.
✔️ Keeping a food diary can help with this if it’s not immediately obvious. For a week, write down not just what you eat, but also when you ate it, where you were, who you were with and how you felt at the time. This will help you become aware of your triggers for eating – and awareness is the first step to making a change.
Write down not just what you eat, but also when you ate it, where you were, and how you felt.
✔️ Then identify strategies to help you overcome your cravings. For example, if you find you are frequently craving sugary foods or drinks, consider replacing your usual soft drink with one that contains low-or-no-calorie sweeteners or replace sugar in tea with a low-or no- calorie sweetener.
✔️ Keeping foods and drinks that trigger cravings out of sight may also help – many studies show we are more likely to eat foods if we can see them, so keep them hidden away.
✔️ Finally, it’s worth remembering that when you get a craving, there’s a good chance it will quickly pass so don’t act upon it immediately and distract yourself with something else such as phoning a friend, taking a walk or doing a crossword.