Have you ever felt like you needed a bag of chips or chocolate bar immediately, and you couldn't focus on anything but feeding that craving? This is typical for so many of us, but it isn't entirely normal and can often indicate several different issues.
For starters, you may just be thirsty and a glass of water can help satisfy the craving. Or it could mean you're hungry, plain and simple. But it can also be something deeper. If the majority of your diet consists of packaged and processed foods, your body is most likely lacking the nutrients that it needs to thrive.
Needing acceptance, pleasure or love can also manifest in cravings. These intense urges can cause you to fill this need with something crunchy or savory. This is when you need to stop and listen to your body to figure out what it's truly trying to tell you.
In the parenting world, it seems that every reward comes in the form of food: cupcakes, ice cream, chips or candy. What happened to the time when you were rewarded with a dollar to put in your piggy bank? I see parents all the time bribe their children with candy and junk food. This tells them at an early age that if they do what they are told, they'll be rewarded with junk food.
This also happens in the work environment. At my job recently, there was an all-day health fair at the office. We all got weighed, had our fingers pricked for cholesterol, and our BMIs calculated. This was great, but two days later there was an all-company email letting everyone know there was “CAKE IN THE BREAK ROOM.” So here we are, as adults, still being rewarded with food that doesn’t nourish our bodies and that only contributes further to the vicious craving cycle.
Here are questions to ask yourself next time you are craving something unhealthy:
1. What's my hunger level?
If you haven’t eaten in four hours, then your body is most likely telling you it is time for lunch. If you just ate, rate your hunger level on a scale of 1 to 10. You might find that hunger isn’t really the issue.
2. What have I eaten today?
If you can't remember, it might be good to keep a food journal for a few days to notice any patterns. Figure out what you've already had, and determine what was lacking. For example, if you had a donut and coffee for breakfast, your body is most likely craving a good salad with protein for lunch to counteract the sugary breakfast.
3. What's my mood?
Try to really get in touch with your emotions about eating. If you're tired or cranky, you may feel that eating will solve this problem. But if you find you're binging on unhealthy foods, it could be your body telling you that you're lacking support or love in your life. This is where you really have to dig deep to uncover what these emotions and cravings are really about. Many times, they aren't about food at all.
4. What diet and lifestyle am I following?
If you're vegan or vegetarian, but are craving red meat, it's most likely your body telling you it needs this right now. If you've cut out a major food group and you feel intense cravings for it, your body is speaking to you. If you aren’t getting enough protein from certain food groups, your body will let you know by signaling certain cravings.
Here are a few suggestions for healthier alternatives when you have a craving for “bad” food:
Chips/Crackers: Try crisp vegetables, like carrot sticks with hummus.
Cookies/Cake: Try oatmeal bars or dried fruit instead.
Ice Cream/Milk Shakes: Make a healthy smoothie with frozen bananas, strawberries and almond milk.
Candy/Sour or Tangy: Try water with lemon or fresh salsa on greens.
No one likes to feel deprived, and that's really at the heart of why diets don’t work. They focus on cutting out certain foods rather than adding in delicious, healthy ones. If you have a craving for something sugary, you don’t have to deny yourself for the rest of your life. You can still enjoy treats sometimes, but pay attention to the portion and try to only eat half of what you were planning. If you sit down and chew slowly, you won’t need as much to really enjoy and feel satisfaction.
If you are eating well-balanced, healthy meals on a regular basis, you'll find your body stops craving junk food. It takes time, but it's so worth it in the long run.