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The facts behind food cravings

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Lyndi Cohen1 May 2022|3 min read

Cravings when you're trying to lose weight

If you’ve ever Googled ‘best way to lose weight or ‘how to deal with weight loss cravings’, you probably stumbled across an article giving you a long list of foods you should try to avoid. 

There’s a major problem with this strategy. When it comes to dieting, creating a list of forbidden foods may actually make eating healthily harder.

Eliminating whole foods, particularly food groups may lead to increased cravings for the very foods you’re trying to avoid. And if you’re someone who has dieted in the past, your cravings may be more intense than someone who hasn’t dieted before. This is seriously unhelpful if you’re trying to lose weight. 

You might have already noticed this weird (and frustrating) phenomenon the last time you attempted a weight loss diet. Perhaps you started off feeling motivated from Monday morning only to find that by 3 pm, you’re eating chocolate while crouching in the pantry or a toasted piece of banana bread while at your desk due to overwhelming sweet cravings. 

If you get overwhelming cravings, you’re not the only one. According to one study, 97% of women and 68% of men said they experience food cravings.

Given that cutting out whole food doesn’t seem to work for combating cravings, what does? Let’s explore. 

Chocolate cravings

Chocolate is the most commonly craved food, and women are more likely to crave chocolate than men. We crave chocolate because of how it impacts our brain chemicals, making us feel better – particularly if we are stressed or tired – like in the afternoon and after dinner at night.  

Many think craving chocolate is a sign of magnesium deficiency but, sorry, this isn’t correct. It’s a myth. And while dark chocolate does contain magnesium, there are many other magnesium-rich foods not known to be high on the list of common cravings, à la dark green leafy veggies.  I wish it was that easy to cure our obsession with chocolate with a magnesium supplement. We’d all be doing it! 

The thing is, we condition ourselves to crave foods at certain times and in certain places. It’s something scientists call ‘learned overeating’. This might explain why your cravings are so strong while watching TV at night.

The good news is that potentially if you can break the pattern, you can break the craving. For example, if you crave chocolate, notice any trends or patterns. You might need to switch off the TV before enjoying a few squares of chocolate to help try and break this sequence. If opting for a piece of fruit isn’t going to cut it, then try to eat the chocolate mindfully, away from screens. 

SOLUTION: Don’t eat in front of the TV or computer. Find the patterns to your cravings (location, time) and then you can break them.

WATCH: Satisfy a sweet tooth with simple and clever sugar swaps

Craving carbs like bread and pasta

As we’ve talked about, a sure-fire way to increase cravings for carbohydrates is to cut them out of your diet. Research shows that people who crave carbohydrates the most are those who have dieted.

Your body naturally loves to eat carbohydrates as it’s the body’s preferred energy source. And the good news is, that complex carbohydrates like pasta and bread can be a healthy part of your diet. If you’re craving pasta, eat pasta but add as many vegetables into the sauce as possible. 

Craving bread? Opt for wholemeal then make sure you swap for healthier toppings that include healthy fats like avocado, salmon and even peanut butter. Adding healthy fats into your diet may help reduce cravings for unhealthy carbs. 

SOLUTION: Don’t cut out carbohydrates. Eat them mindfully. Use wholegrain carbs like grainy bread or brown rice as a starting point to build veggie-rich meals, helping you feel satisfied while loading up on the healthy stuff. 

Craving oily and fried foods

Your body is programmed to crave fat, as it’s an essential nutrient needed to provide energy and to help you absorb certain vitamins and minerals. We learned from the 90s (the hard way) that cutting out all fat isn’t a good idea. We need to include healthy fats in our diet.  

Rather than cutting out fat - which research shows can bolster cravings, let’s swap to healthier options. Some ideas? Swap bacon for smoked salmon. Swap butter for avocado. If you want food to be crispy, get an air fryer or bake them, for a healthier take on fried foods. 

SOLUTION: Swapping to healthy fats instead of cutting them out. A way more delicious and satisfying way to live. 

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Craving salty foods

Newsflash: most Aussies eat way too much sodium. Now, the highest sources of sodium in our diet are processed foods, fast food like chips and surprisingly sauces and bread. Eating too much salt isn’t healthy for our hearts – and heart disease remains a leading cause of death in Australia.

The best thing to do is to cook at home more, so you’re eating more vegetables and naturally have less sodium in your diet. Plus, going cold turkey is the fastest way to reduce salty cravings. It doesn’t take long for your body to become used to less sodium, reducing your cravings. 

SOLUTION: Cook more at home and eat more vegetables (which contain potassium).

The connection between cravings and sleep

There’s one major contributor to cravings that are often missed. Not getting enough sleep! And almost 60% of Australians have trouble sleeping and staying asleep and as a new mum, I feel you. 

SOLUTION: Practise sleep hygiene and get more sleep. Start by avoiding screen time at least an hour before bed. Instead of setting your alarm for when you’d like to wake up, try setting a ‘switch off’ alarm to start preparing yourself for some quality shut-eye.

Lyndi Cohen is one of Australia's most trusted dietitians (APD) and is a member of the healthylife Advisory Board. She's also the creator of Back to Basics, an app to help you be healthy without dieting. It takes the guesswork out of choosing what's for every night and helps you ditch yo-yo dieting.

You'll get quick and deliciously simple recipes inside a flexible meal planner to make planning, shopping, and cooking a breeze. Plus, access to enjoyable workouts and expert mindset tips by qualified health experts to help you stay on track. And it's pregnancy and postnatal-friendly. Start your free 7-day trial today.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board April 2022

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health you should consult with a health professional.