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Decoding and Managing Cravings

A juicy burger. Salty fries. A cold, sugary soda.

Have we sparked a craving? Food cravings are unfortunate road blocks in many people’s diet plans. While some cravings are circumstantial and easier to resist (like salivating at the smell of a bakery) others can be persistent, frequent and much more physical by nature (like craving a cup of coffee in the morning). For those who eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet, cravings should be minimal and controllable, but of course this isn’t always the case. Here are a few common cravings, what they mean for your body, and how you can deal with them.

pretzels1. Salt:
Your body requires a very small amount of salt each day. As an electrolyte that helps your body maintain regular, consistent fluid levels, salt is an important ingredient in your biological balance and health. Often we crave salty snacks, or foods that have an exorbitant sodium content that we may not even be aware of (check your canned soups as an example!)

Why do we crave it? Cravings for salt are often the result of your body’s conditioning. A high-sodium diet makes your body accustomed to lots of salt. When you try to cut back, your body reminds you. Excessive perspiration and dehydration can also trigger salt cravings, since our bodies lose sodium and other minerals when we sweat. It is also possible that salt cravings can be an indicator of more severe consitions associated with our endocrine / hormonal system so make sure to speak with a Health Care Professional if symptoms are unexplained or persistant.

How to manage the craving: Drink an electrolyte beverage after heavy exercise. Learning about proper endurance exercise hydration and electrolyte protocols are helpful for routine exercise. If your salt craving isn’t related to sweat, try  something crunchy and flavourful like seasoned rice crackers, a small handful of nuts, an algae product or dill pickle.  Follow up your snack with a big glass of water.

2. Sugar:
Sugar is another ingredient that hides in many foods and habits. Minimizing your sugar intake isn’t just about avoiding sweets like pastries and candy. It means being mindful of the sugar content in everything that you eat-from granola to peanut butter to juice.

Why do we crave it? When we consume a lot of sugar it causes a spike in blood glucose levels. You’ve likely experienced this- you eat something sweet and immediately feel good. Your energy rises and peaks and you may even feel happier. But shortly afterwards, your blood sugar dips again. This is the unfortunate reality of refined sugar; it sends your body on a roller coaster. When your blood sugar drops, your brain starts thinking it needs more refined sugar. Your craving returns. The cycle continues.

sugar cubesHow to manage the craving: Read your labels! Avoid products that have sugar added. Choose natural sweeteners like stevia or a touch of honey. You may also try satisfying cravings for sweetness with flavours. Add a pinch of cinnamon to your coffee instead of a sweetening agent. Use vanilla or nutmeg in oatmeal instead of brown sugar. And if you need a sweet fix, choose a tasty fruit like strawberries or watermelon. Remember to always balance out sweet fixes, even healthy ones, with some protein or healthy fat. This helps keep your blood sugar more stable and avoid the rollercoaster effect.


3. Caffeine:
For you coffee-addicts, you may find that your caffeine intake requires much more willpower to control than those cravings for sugar and salt. In truth, a single caffeinated drink triggers a significant reaction in your body, producing for many people a “rollercoaster effect” similar to that of sugar.

Why do we crave it? Caffeine triggers neural activity that stimulates the release of hormones. These stimulate your adrenal glands to produce that burst of energy you might experience after a dose of caffeine. When the “high” ends however, you may experience lethargy, restlessness, and an inability to concentrate. It’s a combination of taste and effect that brings most of us back to caffeinated beverages on a regular basis. With enough consumption however, your body will reach a state of adrenal exhaustion. It will require more caffeine to reproduce that desired high.

coffee mugHow to manage the craving: Ensure that you are getting enough sleep so that you aren’t depending on caffeine as a major source of energy. Try alternatives like herbal tea and natural coffee alternatives such as chicory. Any caffeinated beverage should be taken in moderation, to avoid putting your body through the unnecessary stress responses that caffeine can produce. Speaking to a Naturopath is a good way to identify if your adrenal glands need support and the best way to use herbs and lifestyle modification to help get your energy levels back up…sans caffeine!