People who have difficulty regulating their blood sugar and those who suffer from hormonal imbalances even just at “that time of the month” often have immense cravings for particular types of foods. We all know at least one story about a woman who craved something bizarre when she was pregnant only to completely lose interest in that food or food combination once the baby was born, or a child who had a particular penchant for eating something in particular that most people consider quite unpalatable – soil for instance.
Generally, this is the body’s way of say “Hey!! I need something here. I’m missing something” but unfortunately our body isn’t always that great at telling us what exactly it needs.
People who develop a sudden desire to eat inappropriate things, for instance soil, are often deficient in iron, sometimes secondary to hookworm infestation. This phenomenon is actually not as uncommon as you might think. The medical term for developing an appetite for generally non-nutritive substances and for this desire continuing for longer than a month is ‘pica’. Whilst it is most common in pregnant women and children, whose nutritional needs are different to those of the general population, it can occur in anyone though it is generally the result of a mineral deficiency. Other possible causes for pica include underlying emotional or psychological issues such as obsessive-compulsive related behaviour.
Sweet or Starchy Food Cravings
For those who suffer from blood sugar imbalances the most common craving will be for something that increases blood sugar levels; sugar or starch.
The most important thing you can do to reduce your carbohydrate cravings, is to ensure that your blood sugar level and consequent stimulation of insulin production are kept as even as possible with as little spiking as you can manage. The best way to do this is to avoid eating large amounts of food at any one sitting, especially food which is either high in total carbohydrates or high on the Glycaemic Index. Specific culprits in this area might include potatoes, white rice, refined carbohydrates such as sugar, flour, bread, pasta & some fruits. It is much better to eat small amount of carbohydrates on a much more frequent basis, so that their digestion is spaced more evenly throughout the day and the glucose which they are broken down to enters your blood stream slowly. Alternating these mini-meals with foods that contain a high percentage of protein or beneficial fats will also help to stabilise your blood sugar and insulin levels.
In addition to dietary management however, you might find some of the following supplements useful:
This mineral is well known to reduce cravings by helping increase the efficiency with which your body manages blood sugar levels. A recent study in the Journal of Psychiatric Practice has also found that chromium effectively relieved carbohydrate cravings in people with atypical depression.
This amino acid also acts to stabilise blood sugar levels and can reduce carbohydrate cravings through helping maintain more even blood sugar levels in the brain. It works quite quickly too – if you take 500-1000 mg of l-glutamine when you experience a craving for carbohydrates and notice how quickly the craving goes away! It can happen within a few minutes.
Chocolate or Magnesium?
Cravings for chocolate are often cravings for Magnesium in disguise. Magnesium plays a vital role in many functions in the body and is quite commonly deficient in the modern, highly processed diet. Magnesium can be used as a therapeutic tool to relax tense muscles and high doses can even reduce the frequency and severity of migraine headaches. Magnesium can help you relax, cope better with stress and even has a slight sedative effect so is best taken at night with the evening meal.
That Feel-Good Factor
Exercise & Endorphins
Sometimes we crave unhealthy foods because of the rush that eating them can give us. We can get a similar rush though, through other means. Exercise stimulates the brain to release endorphins which give us a potent natural high. Have you heard of a “runner’s high” or “gym junkies”? The amount of endorphins produced by strenuous exercise is quite powerful and can be addictive. Endorphins are endogenous opioids – substances similar to morphine, codein etc which are made by the pituitary gland and hypothalamus in our very own brains in response to certain stimuli such as strenuous exercise, extreme excitement or profound peaceful relaxation such as meditation, orgasm and pain/injury. They have a powerful analgesic effect, like their synthetic chemical cousins and produce an unparalleled sense of wellbeing.
Next time you crave something unhealthy, take a brisk walk around the block or have a quick burst on your exercise machine of choice. If you still want to eat the food you were craving when you get back, you can treat yourself to a controlled portion whilst feeling good in the knowledge that you have just done some brisk exercise (which incidentally, increases your cellular insulin sensitivity).
The amino acid phenylalanine also causes increased levels of endorphins. This can be particularly useful in treating emotional eating and cravings not related to hunger.
One set of nutrients commonly missing from our modern diet is trace minerals. Our body requires these minerals – even if just in minute amounts – to perform a variety of functions. Processed foods and produce grown in poor soil simply won’t carry the same mineral content as wholesome, natural food choices. When we are deficient in these important nutrients, we can crave salty or sugary foods. High-quality unrefined sea salt is an excellent source of trace minerals, and there are also supplements available to make up for any deficiency of these important nutrients.
Tryptophan and 5-HTP
The essential amino acid tryptophan is a biochemical precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter which causes powerful feelings of well-being and satiety. Our serotonin levels are decreased when we are under a lot of stress, not getting enough sleep or adequate nutrition as well as by several medications. When our serotonin levels are low, we might have an increased appetite including cravings for certain macronutrient groups such as fats or carbohydrates.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid, meaning that our bodies cannot manufacture it, we must obtain it from our diet. Cravings for certain foods may be the body’s way of trying to obtain tryptophan in order to replenish it’s serotonin levels. Sometimes, supplementing with either tryptophan or a derivative of tryptophan called 5-HTP which is a little further along the path to serotonin, can help with cravings of both an emotional and physical nature. Ensuring adequate calcium, magnesium and B-complex vitamins is also important for women with PCOS as in addition to regulating blood sugar metabolism they can help to naturally increase serotonin levels.
F. Ceci et al. “The effects of oral 5-hydroxytryptophan administration on feeding behavior in obese adult female subjects.” Journal of Neural Transmission 76 (1989): 109-17
J. Docherty et al. “A double-blind placebo-controlled, exploratory trial of Chromium Picolinate in Atypical Depression: Effect on Carbohydrate Craving” Journal of Psychiatric Practice 11:5 (2005) :302-314,