What your cravings are telling you about your health
Your cravings could hold the key – WF dietitian Caitlin Reid explains how your emotions influence your menu.
You’ve got a hankering for chocolate and you need it yesterday. What gives? In the words of the great Bee Gees, it’s just emotion that’s taken you over. While food cravings are often thought to be an indication of nutrient deficiencies, few of us actually crave healthy options like fruit, vegetables or wholegrains. Instead, we hunt down high-kilojoule foods like chocolate and ice-cream, which provide comfort in times of stress and overwhelm. Problem is, they might hit the spot in the moment, but they won’t make you happy (or keep you healthy!) in the long run. Here, we reveal the feels behind your cravings and help you figure out a better fix.
You’re craving… Chocolate
Got a case of the sads? You’re probably already nibbling on your instant mood boost, aka chocolate. The dynamic contrast of a solid square of choccie that quickly melts in your mouth, combined with the taste explosion of sugar and fat, provide a euphoric e ect. Chocolate’s sugar content induces an insulin rush, which stores sugar in the body and increases the amount of serotonin in the brain, reducing pain sensations. Chocolate also contains plant chemicals such as phenethylamine (PEA) that increase the effect of the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline, further lifting you out of your slump. That is, until you’re left with an empty packet and a guilty conscience. Instead, go for a couple of strawberries covered in dark chocolate for an indulgent sugar hit you don’t have to feel bad about. Want to ditch the snack altogether? Good idea. WF psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson suggests sparing some time for something you find rewarding, enjoyable, fulfilling or inspiring. “This could be a chat with a friend, a walk outdoors, uplifting music, art (creating or enjoying it), looking at happy photos, a positive daydream or planning your next holiday,” she says.
You’re craving… Coffee
When you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, just getting through the day can be a challenge. Your solution? A cup of coffee is both an energy fix and a motivational treat. While a shot or two of espresso may provide the mental boost needed to get the job done, thanks to its caffeine content, too much interferes with sleep, meaning you’ll need another pick-me-up tomorrow, and kicking off a debilitating cycle. Instead, try sipping on a cup of green tea. It contains l-theanine, an amino acid that keeps you alert, yet calm, and half the caffeine of coffee.
If your daily java fix is also acting as a tantalising reward to keep you going through a tough day, try giving yourself something else to look forward to, tips Dr Johnson. “Whatever you find appealing that you can fit into your day will work,” she explains. “A walk around the block with a friend, sitting in the fresh air, listening to music or podcasts – making time for anything other than work will break up your day with psychological refreshment.”
You’re craving… Cake
Hands up if you’re juggling everything from work deadlines and family commitments to social engagements and weekends away? If you’re being pushed to your limits and your body wants you to chill out, there’s every chance you’ll seek out a comforting slice of cake to bring you back down. When you’re under the pump, the stress hormone cortisol is elevated. Fat and sugar-laden foods like cake inhibit areas of the brain that process stress, producing a calming effect that temporarily helps you tackle your massive to-do list. Make a batch of bliss balls with dates, almonds, vanilla, cacao and water and you’ll be a step ahead. They’ll provide a natural (steady) sugar hit with the same mouthfeel as cake.
Finding an island of peace away from the source of your overwhelm is important, too, whether it’s an actual sanctuary or a sensory one. “You can use senses other than taste to soothe yourself, whether that’s touch (a foot massage ball or yoga stretches), sound (listening to the breeze or birds in trees), sight (watching clouds or enjoying the quality of the light) or smell (scented candles, flowers or fresh air),” explains Dr Johnson. “If you can, take a break. Distract yourself for a while and come back fresh, with a clearer head.”
You’re craving… Chips
Crunching through a packet of potato crisps is a pretty effective way to reduce stress, as the act of chewing eases tension. The jaw in particular absorbs the pressure of a stressy day, so each crisp bite offers a cathartic outlet for all that built-up steam. The hard crunch of a potato chip that disappears quickly in the mouth as you chew also provides an unexpected reward for the brain.
You can give yourself the same outlet with crisp vegetable sticks like carrot, celery and capsicum. They’re healthier than a packet of chips and will still deliver that stress-releasing crunch factor. For a mind-soothing texture contrast, dip your vegetable sticks in tzatziki or hummus. Another way to work off your wired mood is to shake it off like T-Swift. “When we’re stressed, hormones designed to make us run or fight can build up, creating that restless, on-edge feeling,” says Dr Johnson. “Burn off the energy with physical activity, whether that’s exercise, dancing around the house, doing chores to music or just giving your body a good shake.”
You’re craving… Ice cream
When we’re in need of soothing we often turn to foods that remind us of good times – so it’s no wonder a tub of mint choc-chip is our ‘just got dumped’ go-to. According to neuroscientists in London, licking a delicious ice-cream fires up your brain’s pleasure centre and makes you a happier person. It’s also thought that energy-dense foods that melt rapidly in the mouth like ice-cream reduce feelings of satiety and are more comforting.
Self-nurturing is a good idea when you’re feeling vulnerable but instead of heading straight to the freezer, try showing yourself some TLC another way, like going to bed early with a good book, taking a relaxing bath, cuddling a pet or even curling up in front of the TV, suggests Dr Johnson. Still want that creamy treat? Make yourself some healthy choc-banana ‘ice-cream’: blend a frozen banana with 1 tablespoon of cacao powder and top with flaked almonds. Sweet!
This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.