It’s tempting to believe your craving for a giant chocolate bar is your body telling you that you’re short in something or other, but studies show food cravings are more likely to be psychological than anything else. So what’s going on?
We know certain foods (like chocolate and sweets) activate areas of the brain linked with reward – so you eat a food, your brain gets a ‘buzz’ and you want more.
Stress also plays a role – rats placed in a high stress environments choose more high fat high sugar food, and high levels of stress increases our desire for carb rich foods, in part because they trigger the release of serotonin – a feel good hormone.
Lastly environment can contribute. Just walking past a cake shop or smelling a hotdog can trigger food cravings. In one study office workers ate 48% more chocolates when they were placed on their desk versus two metres away! When the chocolates were put in an opague container they ate fewer still.
You might not be able to change the number of ice-cream vans near your house, but there are some practical steps you can take to manage cravings.
- Eat a high protein breakfast Scientists from the University of Missouri-Columbia found women eating a high protein breakfast (35g) had fewer cravings for sugary foods over the rest of the day. This isn’t the only study to show the benefits of higher protein for appetite control either. Try eggs, Greek strained yoghurt, salmon on toast, or a fruit smoothie with a scoop of whey protein
- Tackle stress Cortisol – the stress hormone – has been linked with increased cravings for sugary carb rich foods. Write lists, turn off your phone, try meditation (I like headspace.com), or go outside for a walk – research published this year found a 15 minute brisk walk was enough to reduce cravings for sugary foods
- Exercise in the morning Getting up early to workout will make you feel good and it could also help you control cravings -researchers from Bringham Young University found 45 minutes of early morning exercise was enough to make your brain less likely to respond to sweet foods.
- Get enough sleep Just one night of bad sleep increases hunger hormones and cravings for junk food, which is why you have an insatiable appetite after a bad night’s sleep. Take your sleep seriously – switch off electronic devices, go to bed early if you’re not sleeping enough and avoid alcohol – it disrupts sleep patterns.
- Take away your triggers If a food is near you that you can’t resist, you need to move it. Take out the trigger foods from your cupboard and hide them in boxes out of your eye line. Fill your fridge with healthy foods – it’s proven that you’re more likely to eat the first thing you see, so make it healthy.