In today’s Q and A lesson we’re answering your questions on ” How Do I Control My Cravings?”
If cravings are driving you nuts and preventing you from reaching the body you want to achieve then make sure you read today’s Q and A.
It’s a 2 part lesson. You can access Part 2 here:
For a more detailed answer see Ross’s written response below.
Cravings are easily one of the most asked about topics so far, with dozens of people asking things like “How can I control my cravings?” As with virtually everything else in health and fitness, there is not one simple answer to this question. There are many potential solutions and the best approaches depend on the person and the situation.
The first step to dealing with cravings is figuring out what is causing them. Cravings are caused by a number of different things and usually multiple factors are responsible for your cravings. Figuring out the real cause is sometimes a challenge, because there are numerous factors to consider and craving triggers and symptoms are different from person to person.
To simplify things, I divide cravings into four categories, which are discussed throughout this 2-part Q&A.
Here are 2 types of cravings and tips to get them under control
Craving #1 – Physiological hunger:
This craving is what I call a true hunger craving. It is caused by simply not consuming enough calories and results in a general increase in the desire to eat. One problem with this type of craving is the hungrier you are, the less control you have over your eating. You become more likely to eat anything that is quick or convenient and those are typically unhealthy high calorie foods.
Another problem is the hungrier you get, the more you will eat when you finally do have food in front of you. These cravings combined with a bag of chips or similar junk food is a definite recipe for fat gain. This issue if further compounded because the cravings and overeating are most common later in the day.
Overeating in the evening is the worst time to consume extra calories, because people are least active and burn the fewest calories during the night. Since your body does not need extra calories at this time, extra calories will be converted into fat, especially if you eat a large amount because of strong cravings.
Physiological hunger signals should not be ignored, although some people try to fight them, because sometimes they can go away if you wait long enough. This may seem like success, but it is actually the last thing you want to do. Ignoring true hunger signals causes your metabolism to shut down and makes it harder to burn calories and easier to gain fat.
The best way to deal with physiological hunger cravings is to prevent them from happening in the first place. The solution is fairly straightforward as you just need to eat more (but not too much) throughout the day, especially in the morning. This is one of the many reasons why breakfast is so important.
When people skip breakfast, they create a detrimental calorie deficiency that the body works hard to counteract by increasing your cravings to eat more. These types of cravings usually overwhelm you at some point. Generally, the longer you fight this type of craving, the worse the outcome for both your metabolism and your waistline.
Action Step: The best way to prevent physiological cravings is to eat small frequent meals throughout the day. If this is not possible, make an effort to eat a balanced meal (quality protein, healthy fat, complex carbs) in the morning, ideally within an hour of waking up. This jump starts your metabolism and makes it less likely that you will experience strong cravings later in the day.
One of my fundamental nutrition rules is: when you feel yourself starting to get hungry you should eat as soon as possible. The more you stay ahead of your hunger (without overeating), the better your results (fewer cravings, better weight loss). Eventually you will learn how much food your body needs at any one time and even be able to plan when and how much to eat before you feel hungry.
Craving #2 – Specific food cravings:
A specific food craving is when you feel like you have to have a certain food for no particular reason. This could be a craving for any type of food or even a specific ingredient in a food, such as sugar or caffeine. These cravings are physiological as well, but they are not an accurate reflection of your hunger.
Note: There are other types of specific food cravings (less physiological) and cravings where you seek out foods that contain specific nutrients, but those are not discussed in this section. They will be covered separately in part 2 of the Q&A.
There are a number of physiological reasons why you may feel a strong urge to eat a specific food or ingredient and this section covers two of the biggest ones. It is also important to note that these cravings are often misunderstood and the signals your body sends can easily be misinterpreted, so they are problematic for many people.
A main cause of these physiological cravings is the ingredients themselves. Some foods/ingredients have addictive properties and eating them makes you want to eat them even more. One VFT reader wrote “It’s almost like some carbs ought to be on the controlled substance list.” While this statement was jokingly written, the sentiment is very accurate.
There are many ingredients that do act like drugs in the body and some carbs (sugar, etc.) definitely make you crave them more. Some common ingredients with addictive properties are caffeine and flavor enhancers (MSG, etc.), but there are many more.
Just as with illegal drugs and some medications, when these foods are consumed in significant quantities over time, your body will expect you to keep consuming them. If you try to stop consuming them, you can experience noticeable withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches or a lack of energy. The desire to eat more of the ingredient(s) increases as well.
I don’t personally have any experience with addictive drugs and I rarely drink caffeine or foods with many artificial additives, but I do have issues with sugar. I ate sugar all the time growing up and I still enjoy it whenever I eat it. Fortunately, I do not regularly eat foods with a lot of sugar, but that all changes if I am not feeling well.
Even now, after eating healthy for years, if I have a significant amount of sugar over a few days, I start feeling symptoms that I usually do not feel. When I stop eating sugar, the first thing that I notice is I crave higher carb foods (especially unhealthier carbs) more than usual. When I continue to avoid sugar, by not having it around, I often start getting mild to moderate headaches and definitely become more moody and irritable.
Getting through this phase is not very fun, but I know my body will adjust and get back to normal after a few days of healthy eating, so that gives me the incentive I need to stay away from the bad carbs. Unfortunately, many people do not understand what is going on and all they know is that they feel worse when the stop eating those foods, so they keep eating those foods, even though they are the source of the problems. It is a vicious cycle that will continue without direct intervention.
Action Step A: Once you figure out what foods have a negative effect, you can start removing or decreasing them from your diet. Going cold turkey and cutting them out right away may be too drastic and could result in strong negative symptoms. If this happens, gradually decrease consumption over time. Once you limit the intake of those foods, you will feel better every day and have better weight loss.
The other big thing that causes unhealthy physiological cravings is food allergies. These are not major food allergies like breaking out into hives after eating shellfish, but minor ones that people are typically not even aware of. These have various symptoms, such as feeling run down, mental fogginess, etc. The strangest thing is that many people actually crave the foods they are allergic to.
This is one aspect of nutrition that is completely counterintuitive and difficult to figure out, because the symptoms are often subtle or vague and vary greatly from person to person. Other than getting tested for food allergies, the best thing you can do is keep a nutritional journal to help you figure out what foods negatively affect you. Some common types of food that cause allergic reactions are dairy, wheat, corn, gluten, and any number of artificial additives (sweeteners, preservatives, etc.).
Action Step B: Write down what you eat and when you eat it, making note of any time you have negative symptoms (run down, headaches, etc.). Write down anything you notice, even if you don’t think it is related to nutrition. You never know what you will learn by keeping track of your food and drink intake. Even if nutrition is not the cause of a problem, it can be contributing and making your symptoms worse.
After doing this for a while, patterns typically emerge and you may notice that every time you eat a certain food, you feel a little worse a few hours later. This lets you know that the food is something you should avoid whenever possible. When you cut out foods you are allergic to, everything improves from your ability to lose fat to the way you feel on a daily basis.
That’s it for part 1 of my cravings Q&A. Stay tuned for part 2 which will have 2 more tips, as well as general advice for controlling cravings.
By Ross Harrison
VFT Fitness Expert
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