There are many reasons why we experience food cravings, including genetics, upbringing, environment, hormones, emotions, nutritional deficiencies. Decoding the reasons why you'd do uncouth things for a slice of salami at 4pm can help you to break free from borderline food addictions, and reclaim your taste for nutritious foods.
I've decided to write about this because despite being a huge cheerleader for intuitive eating, I've found the biggest barrier many people find with this beautiful approach to eating is managing cravings for “unhealthy” foods.
Read on to discover what those cravings mean, and what to do about them if they are negatively impacting your health.
Food cravings are a normal and necessary part of life. In the pre-industrialised world, cravings for certain tastes such as salty, fatty or sweet directed us to eating foods that would help us balance out our diets with little more than the basic technology of our instincts and hunter, gatherer and/or farming abilities.
For instance, salty foods such as seaweed or rock salt straight from the earth contain many other minerals, including iron, selenium and iodine.
Fatty foods help us to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins in fruits and vegetables. Back when famines and long winters were commonplace, fat kept us satiated (and alive) for long periods of time.
Sweet foods are intrinsically rewarding and highly pleasurable because they contain the body’s primary fuel, glucose.
When we are clear on what our cravings are telling us and can follow them wisely, we can use them to our advantage. This is the premise behind intuitive eating.
Intuitive eating as a non-diet approach to eating says, in a nutshell, that pleasure, satisfaction, mindful eating, and getting a handle on emotional eating, are all pathways to becoming a more intuitive eater and therefore never needing to follow strict diet plans. Intuitive eating experts explain that humans are wired to maintain a healthy set point weight, and that if we just listen to and trust our bodies’ natural tastes and cravings, we will effortlessly maintain that weight.
But I crave ‘bad’ foods – so how can I trust my body?
What if your body is regularly telling you to consume ice cream in not-very-intuitive amounts?
What if you already know how to feel satisfied but that requires a large packet of chips?
What if you have food cravings that seem uncontrollable? Cravings that are so strong, they thwart your intuitive eating efforts? Do chocolate, cheese, wine, chips, coffee, greasy Chinese food, and biscuits come to mind?
Uncontrollable cravings for unhealthy (or as I prefer to call them, “sometimes” foods) are an issue many of my patients encounter when they decide to ditch diets and instead listen to their body’s natural tastes and cravings.
It freaks them out and often stops their intuitive eating efforts in their freshly trodden tracks, prompting them to run to the next diet or nutritionist to tell them “what to eat”.
There are genetic reasons you like the food you do, with certain genes more receptive to sweet, salty and fatty tastes. In addition, modern food industry has manipulated our taste buds into preferring high fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods with added artificial flavourings, and without the nutrients found in naturally salty and sweet foods.
What if you could manipulate your taste buds into desiring fruits and vegetables, and improve your health? What if you craved broccoli in the same way you crave milk chocolate? What if a bag of chips appealed to you about as much as a piece of shoe leather? It’s not that far-fetched.
We can retrain and revitalise our taste buds to prefer fresh, quality foods, most of the time. But first we need to understand why we crave the foods we do.
Genes affect your taste preferences
There is a genetic tendency towards food taste preference. A chemical called 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP for short) is a bitter-tasting substance, but only those with a certain genetic makeup can taste it. PROP is frequently used in scientific experiments because it’s a strong marker for taste sensitivity in general.
PROP super-tasters (who have a double copy of a PROP sensitive gene from their parents) perceive a strong bitterness to certain foods, as do PROP tasters (who carry one copy of the gene).
Then there are PROP non-tasters, who are insensitive to the taste of certain strong flavoured foods. So how do you know which you are?
What’s your taste profile?
· Prefer coffee black (no milk or sugar)?
· Like grapefruit, cabbage and Brussels sprouts?
· Enjoy a good, aged red wine?
If you answered a resounding YES to all of the above, you’re likely a non-taster. Strong blue vein cheeses, heavy salad dressings, and aged vintage go down with no trouble.
The positive side of being a non-taster is that you enjoy a broad range of tastes, and so you probably enjoy many nutritious foods such as cruciferous vegetables. On the flip side, you may need more flavour intensity in your foods and can be drawn to processed foods and sweets as a result.
If your answer was a definitive NO, you’re probably a super-taster, and very sensitive to flavour. You can be finicky eater, and a little goes a long way.
The great thing is you can detect sweetness and bitterness in alcohol, which may curb your appetite for the drink. Unfortunately, you may also snub nutrient-rich foods because you detect their bitterness.
None of these profiles are good or bad. Rather, knowing your taste profile can help you develop a strategic approach to healthy eating.
For example, if you’re a taster or a super taster, make an effort to experiment with a wide range of vegetables, rather than writing them all off. Cook them in different ways, add lemon juice to cut through any bitterness, or roast them to bring out their natural sweetness. Even Brussels sprouts can taste amazing with the right amount of butter, sea salt, herbs, roasting and lemon juice.
Non-tasters are vulnerable to overeating because they’re less discriminatory in general. Develop your sensitivity to negative alliaesthesia: the decline in our preference for specific tastes as we consume more of them over a short period of time. Try slowly, mindfully eating a chocolate bar, savouring every bite. If you’re like most people, after the fourth or fifth bite you won’t be experiencing the same degree of pleasure you did with the first bite (and you may detect some displeasure!)
I’m a super-taster. I can’t stand coffee even with milk and several teaspoons of sugar. The one time I tried a flat white I actually vomited. Red wine and beer are revolting to me, which is just sad because it makes me a social outcast! It took me a long time to figure out how to enjoy Brussels sprouts – roasting them in butter, lemon juice, nutmeg, garlic, and thyme does the trick now. Mainstream lollies and chocolate are sickeningly sweet and give me a sore jaw immediately, and a headache within minutes.
I decided that taste preferences don’t just boil down to genes. So what else influences them?
Experience shapes your taste preferences
Your past experience with food plays an even larger role in directing your desires than your genes. Eat the same flavours over and over and you generate more cells that convey the same receptivity to those flavours, while generating fewer cells sensitive to tastes you encounter less often.
That’s how cultures all over the world adapt to harsh environments and weird foods. One experiment involved Thais who regularly enjoy such delicacies as 100-year old duck eggs or khai yiao ma (literally “horse urine eggs”) and English gourmet cheese lovers with a penchant for extremely strong Stilton cheese, which has a smell not to everyone's taste and has been likened to that of feet.
Despite both groups having the same penchant for strong adventurous flavours, when the eggs were offered to the English group and the cheese offered to the Thais, the foods nauseated participants in both groups.
In our culture, one huge problem is the prevalence of and consequent desire for artificially flavoured foods. Many of us are hooked on processed foods. We get accustomed to their intense flavouring, sweetness, and saltiness, and many of us have lost our ability to appreciate the subtlety and complexity found in whole foods as a result. Let’s dive deeper now into sugar and fat, two elements that have been amped up to our detriment in many processed foods.
We are evolutionarily adapted to seek and enjoy sugar, with our taste buds for sweetness residing at the front and centre of our tongues. Unfortunately, today’s packaged lollies, chocolate and ice cream have been largely stripped of beneficial nutrients and packed with more sugar than their predecessors.
Many people enjoy sweet foods immensely. But just as your nose gets used to the odour of perfume a few minutes after you sprayed it, your taste buds quickly adjust to the sweetness of these foods, losing their sensitivity and requiring more and more to get the same “reward” level of satisfaction.
Nature has you hard-wired to enjoy those first few bites the most. When clients are learning to eat intuitively, I encourage them with all my heart to eat delicious food – but only as long as it is truly delicious. Once you’ve gotten some initial calories, the sweetness tones down the biological reward feedback system. Unfortunately most people ignore that signal and keep eating until the packet is empty, even if they stop enjoying it half way through.
Eat mindfully, ensuring that there’s pleasure with each bite. Stop when it’s no longer pleasurable and delicious – this is truly “trusting the body.”
The other reason we’re drawn to carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) is because they cause the release of serotonin in our bodies. This neurotransmitter stabilises mood, supports restful sleep (think of what happens after you eat a big bowl of pasta), and reduces the risk of depression.
Similarly, craving carbohydrates may reflect a drive for emotional stability, so if sugar cravings are a big part of your life it may be useful to question which of your emotional needs are not being met. Another tactic is to switch to more wholesome, low GI carbohydrates such as whole sweet potatoes, pumpkin, legumes, brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat. They still provide the serotonin benefits without the empty calories of processed sugar.
Like sugar, we are genetically programmed to seek out fat. It provides more calories with less food. It’s not the taste of fat we seek, but the texture and mouth-feel. Fats increase the availability of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, which is why it’s so important (and much yummier) to have a salad with a drizzle of olive oil, some goats cheese or chopped avocado, than with no fat at all. Fat carries flavour molecules, making food tastier and more satisfying.
Dietary fat also acts as a mild sedative and reduces stress hormones. We feel calmer when we eat foods containing fat, which explains the appeal of comfort foods like lasagne or a creamy potato dish.
In short, fat is something we need in moderation. There is very little research to support strong links between eating dietary fat (including saturated fat and cholesterol) and developing heart disease, cancer, and even putting on additional body fat. The low-fat campaign of yesteryear was based on little scientific evidence, something we are starting to uncover now.
Fat + sugar = heaven
If our predisposition for sugar combined with our predisposition for fat weren’t enough, the sum of the two is greater than its parts! A 50:50 ratio of fat to sugar stimulates the greatest rush of feel-good endorphins - the exact proportion found in high quality chocolate!
To cut down on naturally occurring sugars or healthy fats indefinitely is asking for trouble, because as you can see, we are wired towards seeking them out. The focus ought to be on reducing nutritionally poor forms of these, such as refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and trans fats such as those found in confectionary and some potato chips.
How to change your taste preferences
You can change your tastes if you deem that doing so will help you to improve your health. As an example, someone who needs excessive amounts of added salt and who also has high blood pressure would be a good advocate for changing his taste buds. The more salty foods you eat, the more salt you’ll need to enjoy food due to your taste buds adapting to a higher salt content, then needing it for stimulation.
Our taste buds have a three-week lifespan. Switch to low sodium foods or resist the temptation to coat your meals in a salt and after three weeks, you won’t reach for salt at every meal, and very salty food will no longer appeal to you. Try it and see!
This method also works with sweet and high-fat foods, but only if those are things you already have too much of in your diet. This approach will not work if you feel like unnecessarily restricting a whole nutrient group to lose weight beyond your healthiest, most comfortable body weight. Your body is smarter than that.
Gut bacteria may affect your food cravings
So we have our biology, genetics, upbringing, environment and emotions as potential drivers for various food cravings. But did you know the bacteria in your gut can also determine your food cravings?
The average person has approximately 1.5 kilograms of bacteria in their gut. These bacteria send signals to the brain via the brain-gut axis and can impact our behaviour and health. There is growing evidence to support the role of these important bacteria in influencing our cravings for certain foods.
Research has shown that mice bred in germ-free environments prefer more sweets and have greater number of sweet taste receptors in their gut compared to normal mice. Additionally, many gut bacteria can produce proteins that are very similar to hormones such as peptide YY and ghrelin that regulate hunger. This suggests that our gut bacteria (or “gut microbiota”) may influence our eating behaviour through peptides that mimic hunger-regulating hormones.
The use of targeted probiotic and prebiotic use is likely to become more common as we better understand how gut microbiota influence our bodily functions, including food cravings.
Want to make sure you're covered? Include fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha tea, natural yoghurt (dairy or non-dairy forms available), and probiotic and prebiotic supplements if necessary. Always refer to your health practitioner if you think you've got a gut bug imbalance going on.
The addictive nature of food
How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m addicted to (insert culprit food)?” Whether or not true food addiction truly exists is still open to debate...
In rats, sugar stimulates the release of opiates, which makes us feel good. Opiates in turn stimulate your appetite for more sugar. Give rats enough sugar, and they become reliant on it. The same mechanism occurs in addictions to cocaine, in both rats and humans.
When you take away sugar, animals exhibit anxiety and other signs of withdrawal. Is this addiction? Have you seen anyone sell their baby or commit murder for more sugar?
Whether or not “addiction” is the right word, the compulsion to continually seek out certain foods can be very painful. Rather than completely avoiding the drug-like high you get from chocolate and “just say no” (pure deprivation), it may be more realistic to slightly shift your chocolate tastes by including dark chocolate, seeking out the highest quality Belgian stuff, or making your own from organic ingredients.
Unlike other addictions, we can’t stop eating! On the contrary, I think we should celebrate natural wholefoods that makes us feel good - and that may include a little bit of high quality chocolate!
How do you know if your food “addiction” needs to be addressed? Start by asking, “is my sugar/fat/salt/caffeine habit causing me harm?”
It’s important for us to to relearn how to enjoy food and eating without being constantly dogged by the need for more. Here are seven hints to realign your taste buds and enjoy eating nutritious foods again.
1. Pump up your self-care skills. Look for other things you can do that are just as if not more effective at giving you the comfort or high you seek. Cultivate other avenues of pleasure besides food, without necessarily cutting food out as an avenue altogether. Friends, sports, concerts, museums, outings, nature, volunteering, and family all count.
2. Explore alternatives that provide taste you love. Adore sugar? Try a nearly-too-ripe peach, apples dipped in honey, hot cacao sweetened with stevia, or use spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg in foods. For a savoury fix, try miso, seaweed, umeboshi plums, mushroom stock, and spices with bite: black pepper, dill, basil, onion, ginger, coriander, and cumin. Go for full fat organic milk rather than skim milk full of anti-caking agents and synthetic antioxidants.
3. Eat mindfully, especially for those first few bites. That way you can see if the food is delivering on its promise. As you become more attentive, you may find the next few bites less and less rewarding. This knowledge can help you tone down your cravings and better understand what your body really feels like at any one time. And if that happens to be a Snickers bar, you’ll probably enjoy it more and need to eat less if you eat mindfully.
4. Pay attention to the whole experience of food rather than focussing on the in-the-moment pleasure of taste alone. Whether you’re at a family brunch or a movie outing, take notice of the scenery, sounds, smells, company and ambience. Eat with all your senses, not just your tongue.
5. Check for deficiencies. A blood test may reveal that you’re low in protein, Vitamin B12, cholesterol, or iron. Chromium supplementation is often indicated in severe sugar cravings. Hormonal or neurotransmitter imbalances can explain sugar cravings. See your health professional if you suspect a nutritional deficiency or imbalance.
6. Be patient. Many of us have lost the ability to sense the wonderful range of flavours in whole foods. We can learn to love the taste of almost anything given time. Remember, it takes 10 to 20 exposures for a child or an adult to accept a new food. Be open-minded and patient with yourself, and treat it as a sensory adventure into new unchartered and rewarding territory.
7. Consciously choose your value system. The more people learn about whole foods and show concern for the other reasons for choosing natural foods – besides the presumed effect on weight as second to taste – the more motivated they tend to be to include real, healthy foods. Other values to consider include cost, social justice, animal welfare, and environmental concerns. Increase your knowledge about where your food comes from and its larger impact. People who are very familiar with food-producing animal systems often eat less meat and enjoy plant foods more as their knowledge increases their social and environmental consciousness. Good for the planet, good for you!
A helpful overall goal may be to re-educate your palate to appreciate a wider range of flavour sensations and tone down the cravings that may be causing you harm.
Finally, keep in mind that the best approach toward eating is not one of denial and restriction. The best approach is one that cultivates pleasures and honours food and the act of nourishing yourself.
By becoming more attentive to and respectful of your food and the eating process, you will be drawn to more wholesome choices, learn to better appreciate the flavourful nuances of nutritious foods, and be able to better hear your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. All of which, in turn, help you to maintain the healthiest, most sustainable, and most comfortable weight for you.
Eat in peace,