It’s 8 o’clock at night, you’re sitting there binge watching your latest Netflix series and your stomach growls at you.
Damn, you’re hungry but you know you ate everything in your day already. All you can think about is sweet foods though. Oreos, cheesecake, pop-tarts, ice cream—-"ALL THE CARBS," as one of my clients would say.
Quite simply, these are the crazy cravings coming on. We’ve all had them but few of us are actually able to understand why we have them, if they’re normal and more or less, what to do about them when we get them.
First of all, let’s get the initial question out of the way—are they normal? The answer is a resounding yes. Cravings are just one of many ways that are bodies are trying to speak to us. One of the things about the human body that we should always keep in mind is that it is constantly trying to maintain a set-point or homeostasis. Our bodies hate change so when able to, they’re always trying to make sure that things more or less stay the same.
Thus, our bodies could be telling us to eat for a variety of reasons. If dieting and on a caloric deficit, the cravings are telling us the body needs additional calories to get back to maintenance or homeostasis. If we’re tired, it wants to maintain energy levels (more on that later) and if we’re nutrient deficient, our body is craving additional calories in hopes of meeting that need. It’s a pretty simplistic explanation but it’s also the truth.
Hormonally, when it comes to cravings or hunger, we are typically referring to both ghrelin and leptin that is secreted by our guts to regulate hunger. These two chemicals act through a yin-yang approach to balance our satiety and hunger responses. Ghrelin, is the signal sent from our gut that tells us we are hungry. Desperately hungry and we need energy yesterday. Leptin on the other hand is a hormone predominantly made by adipose tissue (fat) to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger.
It’s important to know how these two hormones interact when trying to understand why you’re experiencing the cravings you are on any given day.
Now, the first thing you should be thinking about when it comes to cravings is whether it’s hunger or just a craving. Hunger can obviously come from the stomach, growling at you (sometimes viciously) whereas cravings are that inner dialogue within your brain of going for the bag of chips or not going for it.
Once you have determined it’s a craving, ask your body why it might have a particular craving.
Working with clients, I would say two of the top reasons are stress and sleep deprivation. Starting with stress and the accompanying hormone cortisol, ask yourself if you’ve ever experienced stress eating?
For me I know the answer is definitely yes. I know there are times when I’m stressed out and simply just want to eat everything. Typically when we are in that state, we’re craving foods that are high carbohydrate and or high sugar. The reason for this, at least hormonally, is because of it’s insulin response which can act to shut off our cortisol receptors and temporarily relax our nervous system. In English, if cortisol is the fire, insulin or carbohydrates can act as a fire hose to help shut it down and eliminate the stress. Do it over time and we can develop a chemical pathway within our brains that, when our body sees stress, immediately craves carbohydrates.
Seriously it’s that simple.
Onto the second portion, sleep and you can see once again how a simple explanation will help you unearth a wealth of information about your eating habits. Back to our hormones, a 2004 study revealed that simply decreasing your sleep from 8 hours per night to 5 hours can increase the amount of ghrelin your gut secretes and decrease the amount of leptin in your body. What this means is that your body will be emitting more signals of hunger throughout the day and less signals of fullness or satiety.
Make sense why you’re crushing your second bag of potato chips and still don’t feel a thing on your hunger?
So what can we do about these cravings?
The first step is awareness—simply knowing that these are cravings. Second, it’s having a mindful discussion with yourself about why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. Are you hungry? Are you stressed? Are you upset? Are you just tired? Have you maybe not had enough vitamins and minerals today? What is your body trying to tell you?
From a coaching perspective, it’s one of the things I would work with you to try and figure out.
One of the hacks around this however could be….get ready for it….eating dark chocolate. That’s right. Researchers have found in a study that eating small amounts of dark chocolate 75% cocoa and above actually have an ability to suppress circulating ghrelin levels because of its bitterness and can slow the rate of your stomach emptying. Not only that, it is higher in fiber and is an excellent source of magnesium which is one of the largest nutrient deficiencies in North America that your body may be calling out for anyways.
Sure, this is a simplistic approach to what you should do about your cravings. There’s more you can go into, but this will help you with a general understanding of why you feel the way you do and hopefully provide some insight on where to go with it to create better eating habits to achieve your goals.
A former journalist and sports blogger, I've turned my writing prowess and love of fitness and nutrition into a personal blog where you can find anything you are looking for on the world of health, nutrition and fitness.