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All you need to know about cravings – shaping good eating habits

When it comes to my journeys and eating habits during travelling, one of the most frequent questions I get concerns cravings. How to fight inevitable snack temptation? Especially during travelling, when everything is new, enticing and with every step we encounter something new, unknown and ready to be tasted… More often than not, we’re not hungry at all, it’s just ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’.

First of all, balance in eating, just like in everything else, is necessary. As long as our journey is short, we can spoil ourselves a little and have a few junk meals, it’s not the end of the world. You don’t lose or gain weight overnight, every glossy magazine sounds off about it. Well, keeping a diet is not all about losing or gaining a few pounds, it’s about providing your organism with all vital nutrients so you have enough energy to make efforts and you aren’t exhausted right away, you’re immune and your hair and skin are glowing. In other words, it’s your health that matters, not a six-pack. Therefore, if health is your priority, you’ll watch the quality of what you eat.

Cravings mechanisms are complex and can be rooted in different situations, the most common reason is hunger. Different countries’ traditions are a treasure house of various ways of dealing with snacking. Below, there are a few tricks taken from, among others, Japan and India.

Understanding the basics – cravings myths

For many years there was this strong belief that being hungry was related to certain nutrients deficit. For instance, if you felt the obsessive need for chocolate, it meant that your body lacked antioxidants included in cocoa or calcium for stronger bone structure. No matter that you were thinking about eating a milk chocolate consisting in scant amounts of calcium and cocoa.

The latest research shed a new light on our food cravings. It explains that sources of them can be both physiological and psychological. In addition, they are linked to social and cultural factors, our surroundings (let’s think about a pizza TV ad for a moment), habits, behaviors and so-called reward system. It makes a lot of sense if you think about people on very strict diets. Nutrients deficit should make them dream about fruit and vegetables, however it’s the other way round and they binge on junk food.

It reminds me of my fitness adventure, when I decided to exercise with a personal trainer and I asked him to make a diet plan for me. The goal was standard and reflecting little knowledge: to lose weight. One of my guidelines was to limit intake of food rich in fructose (I was eating a lot of fruit and my trainer didn’t like it). The first thing I cut down were bananas. After a few days, it resulted in slavering at a banana lying on my kitchen table. I started to cheat by adding some banana to my porridge (it’s only a small portion, it can’t be that bad!) and I ate it so voraciously as if my life depended on it. Literally a banana criminal :) It was pathetic. I’ve tried to reason it with fructose deficit that my organism tried to compensate. What’s more, normally I don’t eat so many bananas. When you look at this story in the light of the latest research, you can come to a conclusion that my behavior was not so related to any kind of deficit as it was to the fact that something was forbidden for me. It made it more enticing and I was thinking about it all the time, day and night. It’s well-known unavailability effect in psychology if something is no longer available for us, despite very little importance previously, suddenly it turns out we must have it. In a nutshell, there was no relation with fructose lack but with the words YOU CAN’T.

It doesn’t mean that being hungry is not connected to our physical needs. Dehydration and being thirsty is a perfect example. However, when it comes to food, sometimes our cravings are less important than general need for calories. Especially in case of a strict diet we’ve been on for a long time. Cravings are also strongly associated with brain activity and hormones production. As a consequence, majority of cravings are for food rich in sugar and fat, known for influencing on serotonin production that makes us calm and relaxed.

Our eating habits cannot be put into a single category since they’re rooted not only in biology but also in childhood experience of being awarded with food or in treating food as a way to abstract ourselves from unpleasant tasks and to calm down in stressful situations.

Craving for one thing is often a craving for something else

Sometimes feeling like having a snack between meals is simply a way to satisfy a different need for something delicious, sweet, fat and crispy. The important thing is to learn how to understand our body’s signals (sleepiness, muscle tension, thirst) and what our head tells us by emotional and psychical state we’re in. When we’re hungry for something unhealthy, especially sweet or fat, because we feel lonely, sad, anxious, depressed or stressed, satisfying our cravings is only a temporary solution. In such situations it’s a good idea to try relaxation techniques, to exercise more, sleep well and work on our emotions to find the nub of the problem.

Craving is another pretty name for a habit we didn’t get rid of

Snacking has a lot in common with our mindless habits and with something referred to as eating on autopilot. We search for some dishes that have been our emotional award in the past. (e.g. grandma baked a cake every time you got an excellent grade at school) and despite it’s been years ago, we still stick to this tradition (coffee and a cake as an award for business success). Snacking sweets is often the consequence of eating them on a daily basis. For instance, if we take a break from work in the afternoon and have a sweet dessert, the reason of eating is actually having a rest and snacking is an excuse to have a me-time. The good news is, it’s usually enough to change behavior pattern to get rid of snacking habit. You need to realize you deserve a me-time and you don’t need any particular excuse to have it.

Craving is usually related to restrictions

Remember me and bananas? Well, it’s similar in diet restrictions. I bet it happened to you before, you’ve just decided to go on a diet and, annoyingly enough, you immediately felt a temptation to eat pizza and chocolate. Your last chance to eat junk food before you will eat healthily. Here, attitude is the key. If you treat healthy eating as the end of the world you know, a challenge and transformation into better version of yourself, it will never work. The feeling of a possible failure will overwhelm you and lower your self-esteem. Why would you do that to yourself? Think of food as nutrients you need to properly take care of yourself and have more energy. Smile! And guess what? You can still grab some pizza or chocolate from time to time, it’s nothing wrong!

Cravings are thoroughly prepared in laboratories and we’re falling for them

Add it to the fact that tastes surrounding us have been designed. We have ‘groceries’ with additions enhancing flavor, sugar, fat…all of these make our taste buds go crazy. No wonder there are so many problems with weight control and obesity and the bad news is, the more we eat, the more we want. It doesn’t help that we’re being food-manipulated every step of the way. It’s exposition on supermarket’s shelves or lighting isn’t accidental. Did you know that they spray a special freshly-baked bread smell in front of in-store bakeries? It’s supposed to remind us of buying a bread and entice us to eat one. Another example are McDonalds located in strategic places by the road with nowhere else to eat, or at airports, full of hungry people getting off a plane and ready to grab a bite of a hamburger!

However, there’s a method to this madness. There are ways to regain control over our body’s cravings, what and when you eat. Other cultures have a variety of motivational tips:

  • Regain the taste of food!

Clean your kitchen and pantry out of any processed food full of ingredients you don’t know. Eliminate hydrogenated fats from your diet, excessive sugar and sweeteners, artificial sugar substitutes and everything including flavor enhancers, preservatives and a kilometer-long composition. Replace it with a snack prepared at home with three ingredients only. It will help you taste the flavor of natural products again.

  • Stop being so strict when it comes to food

We are being drummed up by the ideal proportions of body showed on the media, feeling guilty for every bite we chew. We eat rarely, small portions, we completely eliminate certain foods from our diet because we’re afraid of gaining weight. No one is immune to social pressure of a skinny, perfect body. It drives the diet industry that every year earns millions on our pursuit of being ideal. Such limitations are a royal road to unhealthy desires since there’s no person able to keep a strict diet for the whole life. It’s high time for you to have a balanced attitude to food, it is for you, not the other way round.

  • Start practicing ancient Indian Ayurveda rule of six tastes

Ayurveda – an ancient healing tradition originating in India – is based on the six tastes applied in meals. According to the tradition, maintaining body harmony and resisting snacking is possible thanks to consuming all six tastes within one meal: sweet (e.g. fruit, sweet potatoes, whole grains), sour (citrus fruit, blueberries, salad dressings, tomatoes, etc.), salty (soy sauce, salt, olives, dried tomatoes, etc.), bitter (kale, broccoli, cabbage, sprouts, etc.), pungent (chili pepper, onion, garlic, mustard, etc.) and astringent (tea, pomegranate, lentils, green apples, etc.).

In particular, adding sweet ingredients, such as a sweet potato, raisins or a mango to a salad significantly limits the urge to eat sweets later on. Furthermore, adding spices shaping these six tastes has stunning effects in cooking balanced, full of nutrients meals. 

  • Apply Japanese Washoku rule (five colors, five tastes, five cooking methods)

As it turns out, India wasn’t the only one to apply natural ways of finding a healthy diet. In Japan, the oldest tradition is Washoku, the rule of five colors, five tastes, five cooking methods.

The tradition focuses on food of five different colors ensuring maximum nutrients, five cooking methods so the meal is prepared in as many different ways as possible and five tastes in a single meal.

All of the above aim at reducing appetite and providing us with maximum pleasure and satisfaction of a meal. Even the cooking method is related to our needs, therefore various preparations ensure various texture of the food in order to save us from snacking something else. Three key techniques include: simmering, grilling or frying and steaming. The five tastes rule focuses on including sweet, sour, salty, pungent and astringent in every meal.

  • Find a healthier alternative to your favorite snacks

When you decide to go vegan and eliminate animal products, the things you will miss the most aren’t particular products but their ingredients, such as salt, fat, as well as their texture. The same goes with craving for processed food, sweets, chocolate, fast foods, etc. We are being tempted by sweet and salty tastes, fat or a structure. The key is to replace it with a healthier alternative. For instance, why don’t you eat dates instead of cookies or kale chips instead of regular potato chips?

  • Eat regularly, at the same time

Maintaining a stable blood sugar level is essential in balanced approach to eating. If you eat healthily and regularly, snacking won’t happen in your menu. It won’t even pop into your head!

  • Stop eating and drinking products advertised as diet, light, low-fat

Low-fat yoghurt and no-sugar juice is one big scam. Something without ingredients present in natural fresh food, such as sugar in fruit or fat in meat, cannot do us any good. We are an inseparable part of the nature, why would we eat something not created by it?

  • Feeling like snacking? Think it through!

Whenever you feel like snacking again, especially some junk food, take your time and think it through, analyze your situation. Are you hungry because you haven’t eaten a breakfast? Or maybe something has just happened? Have you been under stress? Or have you failed in something? Are you sleepy or tired? Try to understand what is behind your urge to snack. If it’s not hunger, it’s time to find the right solution. Don’t eat because of the stress, sadness or even happiness.

  • Give yourself some time

More often than not, snacking need will pass when it’s related to a temporary stress or anxiety. Don’t fight these emotions, let them flow through your body and mind, allow yourself to truly feel them and, instead of binging chocolate bars, give yourself some time. In most cases, snacking is not a consequence of hunger but of a certain event or emotions you’re feeling. When you calm down, your gourmand stomach will do so, too.

  • Teach your body new, healthy awards

There are so many things much more awarding than food! Children are taught that nice moments in life are related to sweets and it’s a kind of gratification and celebrating something special. That’s why later in life you look for an excuse to eat something sweet – name day without a cake? A day off without coffee and ice-cream? A promotion without a torte? – I’m sure we all know the feeling. Remember, it’s not natural reaction of our body, it’s psychological pattern we were trained to remember and act out – unfortunately our teachers were parents and grandparents. But we’re adults now and we can stick to our own rules. If someone could program us to eat sweets, we surely can reprogram ourselves. Just start with the tradition. Meeting with friends? Instead of a cake, go and have a green smoothie! Replace weekend ice-cream with an amazing stroll in a park. After some time you will associate nice moments with the time spent with close people, laughter, a beautiful day among the nature, not a piece of cake on a plate.

 

What are your biggest cravings temptations? Have you wondered, what stands behind them? Let me know, I’m really curious of your observations!

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