Diet wisdom traditionally says you should indulge yourself with a small treat, lest you deny, and then go on a big binge later on. But that approach may be worth questioning, especially if you find yourself craving calorific, high-sodium or high-fat foods with alarming frequency, says Dr. Kathryn Nobrega-Porter, Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine at Toronto's Wellpath Clinic.
"Research suggests that cravings for specific types of food may be associated with intake of foods similar to those craved. So when we take out the craved foods, it is possible that cravings decrease because there are fewer opportunities for conditioning," says Dr. Nobrega-Porter.
In other words: Cut down on the Buffalo wings and you may crave the Volcano Tacos less.
Why am I craving this?
A conditioned love of spicy (or sweet, or salty) foods is one factor in the origin of food cravings, but there are also others, including environment and emotional eating. But can food cravings be a sign that your body is missing key nutrients or that you have a hormonal imbalance of some sort?
For the most, part, probably not.
"Women's cravings may be partially influenced by estrogen and progesterone, particularly when pregnant," says Dr. Nobrega-Porter, but "humans respond to the texture, temperature, colour and appearance of foods rather than their chemical content," says the doctor.
There may be a cultural/environmental rationale for cravings like chocolate, for example. Yes, it does trigger a bit of an endorphin rush in humans, but so do chili peppers. In fact, says Dr. Nobrega-Porter, "Many foods can stimulate endorphin release in the brain."
Yet you're stuck on chocolate? Is it really the endorphins? Or is it the creamy, melt-y texture, sweetness and fond memories of eating bon bons with your grandma? Likewise, notes the doctor, studies have found that a craving for potato chips often can't be assuaged with a different crunchy, salty treat, like pretzels.
What this all means is: Take your food cravings with a grain of salt (literally).
It's possible your craving will go away on its own if you work out, go for a walk, knit, play an arcade game online or call your gal pal to vent about something that’s bothering you.
Or, sure, have a small amount of the food you crave, the caveat being that this may condition your body to keep craving the food in the longer term.
Page 1 of 2 - find out how to beat your cravings on page 2.
Alternatively, try these naturopath-approved alternatives and see if they reduce your cravings.
Craving: Chocolate and other sweets
What prevailing wisdom says about this craving: Maybe you're low on "happy chemicals" and your body is seeking a serotonin rush, the kind chocolate can provide.
What the naturopath says: Chocolate is the most commonly craved food, according to Dr. Nobrega-Porter. "Blood sugar imbalances can cause cravings for sweets," says the Doc.
What you should do: Don't let your blood sugar levels drop or you may find yourself craving sweets. Stay fuelled up with healthy, nutrient-dense foods. "Fresh fruit can provide a source of fiber and nutrients along with providing a sweet flavor," says Dr. Nobrega-Porter.
And if you want a nibble of chocolate too, keep it to just a couple squares of the antioxidant-rich dark stuff.
Craving: Fatty fast foods like burgers, fish and chips, etc.
What prevailing wisdom says about this craving: Fat is a common factor in many cold-weather comfort foods: salads just aren't as appealing in winter! But in our convenience-food heavy diets, frequently comfort foods are just junk food.
What the naturopath says: "Fats are responsible for the sensory properties of many foods and greatly contribute to eating pleasure. People tend to feel full and satisfied when they eat a high-fat meal," admits Dr. Nobrega-Porter.
What you should do: Go with your gut instinct, to a certain point. We do need fat in our diets – the good monounsaturated and polyunsaturated kind, not the cholesterol-raising, artery-choking saturated kind. "Fill up on good fats like fish, avocado, nuts and olive oil, to keep you feeling full and satisfied," says Dr. Nobrega-Porter.
Craving: Carb-tastic breads, pastas and pizza
What prevailing wisdom says about this craving: As with sugar cravings, an obsession with starchy foods like bread, pasta (or, for a one-two sucker punch of sugar and starch, doughnuts), you may be seeking a feel-good endorphin and serotonin boost. Or you're really, really hungry.
What the naturopath says: Keep your blood glucose levels steady throughout the day so you don't find yourself reaching for nutritionally empty refined carbs or calorie-heavy restaurant pastas and pizzas.
What you should do: "Healthy blood glucose balance is essential to prevent cravings," says Dr. Nobrega-Porter. So don't skip any meals. And make your meals last by including a lean protein like egg whites or chicken breast, which take longer to digest. "This will balance and buffer the release of sugars from the carbohydrates in your blood stream," says Dr. Nobrega-Porter.
5 emergency craving-busters
Didn't plan ahead and now you’re craving like crazy? Try these naturopath-recommended last-ditch diversions before you cave:
• Start a new task
• Try relaxation or deep-breathing exercises
• Get outside and walk
• Brush your teeth
• Read the label (or go online for nutritional info) before you indulge. Just scanning a sky-high calorie or fat count may stop you in your tracks
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