Though sugar cravings are nearly universal, we often fear and demonize these feelings while blaming ourselves for a supposed lack of self-discipline. Restriction of problem foods leads to feelings of deprivation, causing binging and remorse in an unhealthy cycle of see-saw dieting. Health experts offer a gentler and more holistic point of view on our unending hunger, citing cravings as a great starting point for understanding what our bodies’ true needs are.
Carb-Craving as Malnutrition
Too often we take for granted that eating is simply to make us feel full, presumably through consuming enough calories. What this simple view lacks is an awareness of the crucial point that not all calories are created equal. Foods that comprise the bulk of the American diet – such as pasta, breads and pastries, fast foods, snack bars and other processed foods – are denatured of many or most of their naturally occurring nutrients to extend shelf life, while exposing grains, nuts and vegetables to high heat in the cooking process destroys much of what nutrients remain. Deteriorating soil quality on farmland also contributes to a steadily decreasing availability of protein and minerals in the foods we eat.
These factors all add up to a pattern of overeating low-quality foods in the pursuit of feeling satisfied with their nutritional content. A smarter and far kinder way to treat our bodies is to find foods that are fresher, unprocessed and naturally high in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. Dark leafy greens like kale, collard greens, chard, and spinach are the most nutrient-dense foods that we know of, while specialty superfoods like goji berries, spirulina, chlorella, chia seeds, blueberries, and sprouts can supplement this more satiating diet. In general, eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains will crowd out less healthy foods and help satisfy cravings for nutrition.
Whole and unprocessed foods have the added benefit of having a high fiber content, which slows sugar absorption and creates a full feeling without the empty calories of refined sugars found in processed foods. The complex carbohydrates in nuts, grains, and vegetables are also absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream, preventing sugar crashes.
Nourishing Your Body
An easy way to add minerals to your diet is to supplement with a small amount of sea salt, which is much higher in mineral content than processed table salt. Sea vegetables like seaweed are also an excellent source of minerals. When selecting produce, try as much as possible to buy organic, as organic fruits and vegetables have up to twice the nutritional content of conventional produce. Eating seasonally ripe fruits and vegetables is also a body-conscious step towards satiety.
To counter afternoon cravings, try treats made with sweeteners that are gentle on blood sugar. Agave nectar and rice syrup are assimilated more slowly than white sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, while stevia is a natural non-caloric sweetener. Eating more complex carbohydrates like whole grains and root vegetables such as squash over the course of the day will also ease cravings. Finally, drink a glass of water when the urge to eat something unhealthy occurs. Many people are chronically dehydrated and mistake their thirst for hunger.
With the ready availability of every kind of food, we no longer use what we eat to simply feed hunger. Food is often used as the answer to boredom, loneliness, frustration, and stress, begging the question: what’s the route out of self-destructive eating patterns? The issue is complex. Carbohydrates, in particular, can be used as anti-depressants, as is evidenced by their soothing effects on our emotional state; if this is true for you, consider exploring treatment options including therapy or natural supplementation for depression. Lifestyle factors contributing to emotional eating include poor-quality relationships, stressful or unfulfilling work and lack of exercise. Exercise in itself has been found to be an excellent appetite suppressant and mood-boosting activity, making fitness essential for our well-being.
Chocolate cravings may indicate a magnesium deficiency, but its prowess as a feel-good food and female aphrodisiac are likely behind its popularity. Chocolate contains the chemicals theobromine and phenethylamine, both of which increase the production of the mood-boosting hormone dopamine in the brain. To experience the benefits of chocolate without weight gain or dependency, switch to tea, which also contains theobromine, or nibble on cacao nibs, the unprocessed and sugar-free form of cocoa. The amino acid phenylalanine (DLPA) and vitamin B6 combine in the body to form phenethylamine, though DLPA by itself is a powerful substance for reliably improving mood and energy.
Incorporating these healthful foods into your diet doesn’t have to be a chore. Dip celery sticks in that favorite peanut butter instead of spreading it on white bread. For breakfast, whip up an energizing smoothie with greens and fruit. Snack on superfoods instead of sugary treats and add healthy fats like olive oil for healthy brain function. Through gradual rather than drastic steps, you’ll soon find yourself full of moderate quantities of high-quality foods, and your body and emotions will reflect your cleaner, smarter choices.