So, what are cravings?
They are predominantly a product of hunger - our body and our brain are constantly communicating about the current status of the body. When we diet or are in periods of high stress mentally or physically our body relays this to our brain via hormones that communicate changes in things like;
- Energy Intake
- Muscle Mass
- Fat Mass
- Stored Energy
Depending on the status of those things, the related hormones will relay signals to the brain that drives such feelings like the one in question - "hunger" - in an effort to maintain homeostasis.
The control of hunger could possibly be the most important factor when it comes to sticking to your diet, after all its usually a craving or hunger that tempts us off track whether its real physiological hunger or psychological.
So what factors contribute to hunger and cravings?
Food cravings are more often than not psychological but the psychological effects drive physiological factors. Cravings tend to be a signal to counteract an emotional response such as anxiety or stress, hence why we may reach for a sugary snack to induce a release of serotonin - a neurotransmitter that influences mood having a calming effect which may reduce appetite.
Simply eating too little food until the cravings become too much which then causes breakpoints in which a person may go off the rails, only to feel guilty for eating so much, then subsequently under eat again to offset the binge which leads to stronger and more frequent cravings as the disconnect between on and off diets becomes greater.
A product of number 2, many people overdo it in their attempt to lose weight by drastically cutting calories too low, or cutting out a single macronutrient like fats or carbs from the diet.
This can lead to an individual being malnourished. By reducing food intake too much or completely eliminating an entire food group we can miss out on key micronutrients too. In the effort to maintain balance the body will signal a craving in an attempt to address the issue forcing you to eat. For example, the second most common mineral deficiency in the western world is magnesium, a deficiency in magnesium can rear its head as a craving for salty foods.
5. Poor food choices
Now i'm not talking "clean" vs "dirty" foods here, thats a whole other bro-debate all together. I'm literally talking about food from a logical and strategical point of view.
Simply put... are you eating foods that satiate you or not? As food intake moves up or down dependant on the goal, so should the types of foods you eat. Some foods can keep us feeling full for longer and some can feel like you have not eaten at all.
Your food choice can be a very important factor to address.
Top Tips To Combat Cravings
1. Track & Eat enough food for your goal
- In simple terms, take the guess work out of it. At some point when very simple approaches cease to work, nearly everyone will benefit greatly from applying some tracking and management of food intake at some point. Yes some people tell me this is a pain, but the pain of simply spending all of 5 mins a day tracking food is a lot less painful than starving yourself and wondering why your cravings are so bad you cant stay "on" your diet and getting more and more stressed as your current approach isn't working.
Tracking food intake not only takes the guess work away and lay out in front of you exactly why you aren't progressing, it will show you what needs to be done. It is a great tool to take some of the emotional connection and rash decisions out of the process. Dieting can be simple, it's the human element that we need to manage and any strategies that minimize stress, maximize progress and longevity.
2. Get the right balance, cover the bases.
- By getting the right balance I actually mean - before you do anything else, eat enough protein! Protein can put hunger on the seat of its pants! Research consistently shows protein to be the most satiating macronutrient. Combine that with the fact that especially lean sources of protein are low calorie, this means you have to actually eat a fair amount of meat for your required amount of protein.
Secondly, ensure the diet has the right balance of fats and carbs. Fat is essential to the hunger equation as it slows gastric emptying is essential for hormone production (why people can very quickly feel awfull on too low fat content) and for plain and simple reason that fat = taste! Aim to keep fat content to a minimum of 20% of your total calories or higher if you prefer.
Not to forget carbs either, by including and not eliminating carbs completely, I believe, enhances the dietary approach, especially in the realms of combating hunger. Not just because we can retain more muscle and lean tissue, but we can also preserve strength more easily and it is less stressful and less tiring than eliminating carbs altogether. You can literally eat more food with a high carb approach, managing hunger better due to the simple fact that high fat foods are very calorie dense compared carb based foods.
Which explains why it is actually very easy to over consume calories when on a low carb diet especially when you think about how snacking on a few hand fulls of nuts or a pot of humous and carrot sticks in the afternoon as a supposed "clean" snack that can actually wipe out 2/3rds of womens daily calorie requirement..
So eat enough protein, don't go zero fat or zero carb, just balance them according to preference, training and target calorie intake.
And cover the rest of the bases
- Ensure you remain hydrated as dehydration has many, many negative side effects that also drive stress and hunger.
- Sleep! lack of sleep increases stress related hormones and seriously effects appetite control.
- Fibre, vitamins and minerals - should be covered by eating the right balance of foods.
3. Choose volume foods
You check your finances right? Well your body has an account too - an energy account - and calories are a lot like money, so spend them wisely....well, most the time!
Quite a simple trick really... As your food intake goes down, make sure you include volume foods. I class volume foods as foods that have a lot of mass but provide small amounts of calories as opposed to density foods that have a very small mass with a high amount of calories.
Density foods are great for periods of time when you are needing high daily calories and food consumption is increased, or if you struggle to eat enough, but not so great when dieting down and daily food intake reduces.
This is why choosing volume foods ,especially on a diet, is great for satiety. I'd rather consume a larger portion of actual food to get my calories than get my calories tightly packed in a single meager helping.
Volume foods are usually high in water and fiber content and low in calories relative to their size, meaning they not only take up room but they also decrease hunger thanks to fiber content too.
Think about it - what do you think would fill you up more? --->>>
Getting 50 grams of carbs from 13 tangfastic sweets or 50 grams of carbohydrate from approximately 400 grams of mashed potato?
Pretty obvious one I know, but you get the idea.
Here's some swaps I make from density to volume as food intake goes down and hunger goes up.
- Swap fatty meats for leaner protein sources.
- Try swapping sugary or sweet sources of carbs for rice or pasta, then mashed potatoes or even mashed carrot and swede for an even lower option.
- Greens - plenty of fibre and nutrients and verry little calories, pile them up with your dinner!
try using cottage or quark cheese and some berries as a snack.
- Swap a protein shake for a high protein desert - mix yogurt with your whey and some blueberries
Some extra tips I also use are...
- Sauerkraut - as food intake goes down, consumption of this rockets.
- After dinner melon and strawberries will fill you up.
- Slow cook - use low fat meat and piles of veg to make a hearty broth or casserole.
- Fake ice cream - blend up some cottage cheese with some whey protein and whack it in the freezer.
When dieting you are free to choose what ever foods you want within the realms of your requirements. It's up to you where you decide to get your proteins, fats and carbs from. But choose wisely and make logical decisions, i'd rather choose the ones that fill me up and leave me satiated than leave me craving more.
4. Try simply adjusting meal frequency or intermittent fasting
You can simply eat fewer meals and no, you don't have to eat little and often to stoke the metabolic fire! Eat the amount of meals that fits in with your lifestyle and that allows you to stay on track.
Aiming to eat 6-7 times a day or every 2-3 hours especially when in a deficit can be impractical for some, and also frustrating as you may never actually feel full, because the size of each feeding may have to be so small.
By simply condensing the same amount of food into 2 or 3 bigger meals will increase satiety, generally 3 seems to be ideal for hunger control and enables large enough portions. It will also reap the benefits of regular protein and amino acid uptake that will encourage progress from your training..
When food intake is high meal frequency may have to increase also, but as food intake drops down so can meal frequency.
Some find intermittent fasting (IF) works for them, by riding an initial morning spike of hunger first thing in the morning and forgoing breakfast until later they can condense their meals into larger portions. I find 'IF' usually works best for people who have busy or hectic working schedule. Many people talk of increased productivity during the fasting period, if it fits your lifestyle and helps add longevity and ease to your diet then that can be a good thing.
However some people just can't manage being fasted and end up focusing on the food they're not eating and watching the clock until meal time, rather than taking focus off hunger it can drive focus to it.
5. Other tips and tricks
Coffee - take coffee's appetite suppressing qualities a step further and try a Morning Whoffee. Put your whey protein and a good coffee well prepared together. The coffee has appetite suppressing qualities and protein has satiating properties, put them together for a perfect combo.
Sauerkraut - fermented foods have very positive gut health benefits alongside feelings of fullness. This also includes yogurt, kefir, kimchi and also kambucha - a variety of fermented, lightly effervescent sweetened teas.
Diet drinks - this can include fizzy water, soda water or even the odd diet coke, a combination of bubbles and flavour seem to do a good job on hunger. Try adding a effervescent Vitamin C and Zinc tablet to your fizzy water. And be sure to opt for aspartame free beverages.
Improve sleep. Try 5HTP for improved and deeper sleep with a de-stressing affect and appetite control.
Remember sometimes you are hungry and sometimes your belly just lies to you!
One of the key factors to dieting success is management of hunger. Now the problem is that the human element means hunger is a complicated beast that isn't just dictated by the body, it is also driven psychologically. The problem however is that paradoxically, psychology can assert an influence on physiology too.
So ride it out - as most cravings can be psychological and not physiological. Conquer the craving by riding it out, most will subside within 20 minutes, chew on some gum until then or drink some tea.
But even with all the tactics in place you may still experience hunger, so what do you do then.
I'll leave you with the words of Lyle Mcdonald; "You can suck it up or stay fat. After you’ve gotten your protein, fruit and fiber and fat and appetite supressants and exercise and flexible dieting strategies down pat, when hunger rears its ugly head, those are the only two options left."
Hunger is complex but go ahead and try a few of the above strategies, you will have to experiment but these are starting points that might help you take stress down and add longevity to the dietery process.