Understanding Food Cravings

I was intrigued to learn of the recent research which suggests that the British are showing signs of addiction to curry. An urge to eat Indian food is, however, just one of a range of food-based addictions which are commonplace in our society. For many individuals, the desire to eat certain foods can be overwhelming, and in its most extreme form can manifest as bulimia nervosa, an eating disorder characterised by cycles of bingeing and purging. Bulimia and food-based addictions are generally considered to be ostensibly psychological in origin. However, in my experience, food cravings are almost always related to some sort of physiological imbalance. Blood sugar imbalance, brain biochemistry, nutrient deficiency and food sensitivity all seem to be potent driving forces in individuals’ predilections for certain foods. What is more, combating what lies at the root of an apparent food addiction is often the key to overcoming it.

The recent research into curry addiction performed at Nottingham Trent University shows the importance of understanding the physiological impact of food and its constituents. In this research, individuals eating curry were found to experience an increase in both blood pressure and heart rate. Researchers concluded that these changes were signs of an ‘addictive’ response to curry. Whilst some element of addiction may indeed be at play here, what appears to have been overlooked is that chilli and many other hot spices are well recognised in herbal medicine to help stimulate the circulation. It comes as no surprise therefore that eating hot and spicy food such as curry may increase blood pressure and heart rate. In this instance, the physiological impact of spicy food on the body does appear to have been neglected in favour of a more ‘psychological’ explanation.

Another good example of how physiology affects our desire for food concerns one of the most common food addictions of all – the ‘sweet tooth’. Here, individuals may have a strong desire to eat sweet foods such as biscuits, chocolates or desserts. Often believed to be related to a weak will and lack of self control, sweet craving is in fact usually triggered by low levels of sugar in the bloodstream (hypoglycaemia). When the level of sugar in the body drops, there is a tendency for the body to crave foods which replenish sugar quickly including sweet foods. Low blood sugar, and therefore sugar craving, tends to be most pronounced in the mid-late afternoon. Individuals who tend to get a yen for something sweet around this time would do well to take steps to keep the level of sugar in the bloodstream stable.

They key to stabilising the blood sugar levels is eating regular meals (including breakfast) based on slow energy-releasing foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrains (e.g. brown rice, 100 p.c. wholemeal bread), beans, pulses, meat and fish. It often helps for healthy snacks such as fresh fruit to be taken between meals too. Certain nutrients do seem to improve blood sugar control including chromium, vitamin B3 and magnesium. GlucoGuard contains these nutrients and has been specifically formulated with blood sugar stability in mind. GlucoGuard is available by mail order on 0121 433 8729. The normal dose is 1 capsule, twice a day. By keeping blood sugar levels from dropping into the danger zone, it is usually possible for individuals to successfully control sweet and sugar cravings.

Interestingly, blood sugar imbalance seems to play an important role in the condition bulimia nervosa. In one study from the USA, a group of bulimic women were put on a diet which was designed to maintain a stable level of sugar in the blood stream. The diet excluded all alcohol, caffeine, refined sugar, white flour products, monosodium glutamate and flavour enhancers. All the women in the study stopped bingeing while they were on this regime, and were still binge-free two and a half years later.

Some individuals find that stress or emotional upset can drive them to the biscuit jar or bread bin. However, even in what appears to be an essentially emotionally-based problem, a physiological mechanism is usually at work. The brain contains a chemical called serotonin which generally induces happy, feel-good emotions. Serotonin is manufactured in the brain from an amino acid called tryptophan which itself is found in foods such as meat, tofu, almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seed and tahini (sesame seed paste). Tryptophan is absorbed into the brain more efficiently if there is plenty of carbohydrate present, which could possibly explain why certain individuals gravitate towards sweet or starchy foods when upset or stressed. Interestingly, individuals who tend to comfort eat often benefit from taking a supplement called 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) – the substance tryptophan is converted into before it is made into serotonin. At a dose of 50 mg, two or three times a day, 5-HTP quite often helps to control this form of food craving.

A rare but significant cause of food cravings is nutrient deficiency. Sometimes we may crave foods because our body is looking for the specific nutrients contained in those foods. Craving for red meat can be a sign of iron deficiency, for instance. This mechanism explains why dogs sometimes eat grass and children can develop a strange fascination with dirt as a food. Another example is pica, where pregnant women get a desire to eat something strange such as coal. Coal pica, incidentally, is usually a sign of an iron and/or calcium deficiency. Ensuring a well-balanced diet, perhaps with the addition of a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement usually puts pay to craving related to nutrient deficiency.

Sometimes, food addiction is related to something known as food intolerance. Here, the body can react adversely to a food, and this may give rise to all-manner of symptoms and conditions including weight gain, eczema, arthritis, migraine and fatigue. Interestingly, some people seem to be drawn to eating the very foods which they are sensitive to. For instance, a penchant for bread and pasta can be a sign of a sensitivity to wheat. Children who love milk or cheese are normally sensitive to dairy products. Whilst it may seem strange that we should be drawn to eat the very foods that are worst for us, this type of food craving is really no different to other forms of addiction to agents more readily recognised as ‘unhealthy’ such as alcohol or nicotine. The good news is that elimination of the offending foodstuff(s) from the diet almost always leads to an end of the craving within three or four weeks.

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4 Responses to Understanding Food Cravings

  1. Laura 21 August 2010 at 11:18 am #

    This is a lot of good information you’ve got here and I congratulate you for the article. My opinion is that food cravings don’t have just one cause, they don’t appear, for example, just because we are stressed. Maybe it’s because we are, indeed, stressed, but we also lack magnesium. In my point of view we need to have a completely healthy, moderated life in order to stop food cravings.

  2. chetan 23 July 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    i am diabetic and had a food craving problem since 3 years but due to chromium intake of 1000 mcg a day for 7 days my sugar levels are steady and all craving has been gone thanks for such article for reference

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