Aug. 17. 2016
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped® and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

“I’m craving sugar” is a common comment I hear from clients and readers alike, but why do we have food cravings? What are food cravings all about? Today I’ll uncover common food cravings from bread, fats, sugars, and more and give you strategies for helping manage them! Learn what to ask yourself to figure out if it’s truly a hunger based craving or emotion based craving, what nutritional deficiencies may cause cravings, and how to manage them in the future. Read on!

Cravings 101

Cravings are so individual and affect each of us differently. We do know that food cravings affect women more than men (2). Also, food cravings aren’t always about nutritional deficiencies like you may commonly read. There’s another piece to this puzzle we have to start addressing – the mental, emotional, and hormonal piece. Below is a full circle view of what cravings may mean from a nutrition standpoint.

If you’re craving __, then it may mean…

Healthful fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, nut butters, butter, coconut milk based products:

It may indicate your body is reaching for more calories and needs more energy! I often see these cravings with my clients who come to me on very low-calorie dieting programs. Their bodies are literally starving for nutrition and energy to function normally. Because fats (all that are listed above) are the highest source of calories per gram (9kcal/1 gram), this could be an indicator of increased energy needs. On the other hand, it could indicate that your body (especially if you’re a woman) is in need of more fat for increasing body fat percentage (I see this most with recreational athletes or those trying to get pregnant). It may also indicate that your body needs help from healthy fats to normalize imbalances in hormones. Remember, hormones are made up of fatty acids so we all need these, especially women!

+ Salty foods like chips, popcorn, sea salt, celery, etc.:

It may indicate that you’re either dehydrated, which may seem counterintuitive, or that you have an electrolyte imbalance.

Sugary foods like cakes, brownies, fruit, honey, refined sugars of any kind:

It may indicate blood sugar imbalances, low chromium, stress and increased cortisol, lack of high-quality sleep, hormonal imbalance, and as the example with healthful fats above, a need for increased calories since sugar is easy and quick calories for our body to utilize.

+ Chocolate:

First things first, are you close to menstruating? Women often crave chocolate, not just for it’s taste, but because cocoa in nature is actually high in magnesium- a common mineral we lose during menstruation. Chocolate and cocoa also increases your serotonin levels (i.e. happy hormones), and dopamine levels (i.e. feel-good hormones), and oxytocin (i.e. the “love” hormone). So, you can see why we might gravitate towards chocolate around that time of the month (4).

+ Carbohydrates like pasta, bread, crackers, wraps, etc.: 

A constant craving for these types of foods may indicate a lack in the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid most famously known from the Thanksgiving Day feeling of sleepiness after eating lots of turkey. In actuality, the sleepiness we feel after Thanksgiving dinner is probably just the abundance of food we’re consuming and energy going towards our digestive system. But nonetheless, tryptophan is needed to make serotonin, the mood-regulating neurotransmitter, so a lack of carbohydrates can lead to low mood and anxiety from the bodies lack of synthesising tryptophan. (3)

+ Meat/animal proteins: 

Are you vegetarian or vegan? This is always my first question when I hear clients with this craving. This may be a result of the low amount of protein you’re consuming or lack thereof, but there are also key minerals often found in higher quantities in animal proteins such as zinc, iron, B12, or omega-3’s (and CLA). I’ve talked at length about plant-based diets and how you can make them work for you, but it doesn’t mean that you should. Not everybody does well on a completely vegan or vegetarian diet. I recommend meeting with a registered dietitian to have a complete dietary assessment to see if you’re meeting your protein and nutritional needs first, then take action from there! You can sign up here for the next enrollment period when I’ll be taking on new nutrition coaching clients.

On another note about cravings, there is a thing called pica (pronounced pike-ah) (1) that’s most commonly seen in pregnant women or malnourished individuals where someone will crave something that’s non-nutritive items such as chalk, dirt, ice (typically seen with iron deficiency), paper, paint, etc. Pica stems from an extreme nutritional deficiency most commonly seen with minerals like calcium and iron, but can also come from an emotional/mental/behavioral disorder. Obviously, if you ever find yourself or someone you know craving non-nutritive items like these go check in with your physician to see what’s going on with your health. As always, listen in to your body, to it’s needs and intuition surrounding food choices. A lesson in mindful eating I teach clients is based around the concept of food cravings vs. nutrient needs and nourishment vs. emotional eating. If you find yourself with strong food cravings, consider practicing mindfulness during cravings or when eating to determine if the root of the craving may actually be an emotional or mental trigger.

Nutrition isn’t all about counting calories, grams of fat or fiber, nor is eating only for the purpose of sustenance. Food plays many roles in our social, mental, emotional, cultural, and physical aspects of our lives. We should respect all the ways food is involved in our lives. We all, myself included, should start taking a little more time enjoying and more time “freeing” our brains from the mathematics of food, diet fads, and nutritional dogmas and get back to bare basics of consuming whole foods as much as possible while finding what works for your body. If you want to learn more about enjoying in mindfulness, read my posts on mindfulness and mental and emotional health:

One Reason You’re Not at Your Happy Weight

2 Minute Mindfulness Challenge

Self Care and Why You Should Do It

Making Room for the Positive

xx McKel







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