Food cravings and comfort eating

Food cravings and comfort eating can sabotage our efforts to eat a balanced diet. Why is it that we sometimes feel an overwhelming need for a particular food?

Food cravings can strike at any time. The types of foods we crave are often high-energy foods with few nutrients – like chocolate, cakes, crisps or chips. Although we might each crave a different food, our choices tend to be foods that we think taste good and bring immediate pleasure, perhaps with links to our childhood. I tend to crave fresh bread, butter and honey – so much honey that it drips down my hands as I eat. How do I overcome food cravings?  I keep a bottle of vanilla essence in the kitchen and take a whiff if I have a craving – the smell provides my senses with an overwhelmingly sweet sensation and the craving usually goes…oh, and I no longer buy honey!

Food cravings are likely to strike if we are hungry, but it is not necessarily so. Cravings have also been linked to:

  • Nutritional deficiency – are cravings the result of your body telling you what you are missing in your regular diet?
  • Hormones –  are hormones the cause of your premenstrual chocolate cravings?
  • Tiredness – are you overdoing it through the day or not sleeping well at night? Are you getting enough exercise?
  • Social situations – are you uncomfortable in particular places or with certain people?
Comfort eating may be more likely to occur when we are feeling bored, sad, angry, stressed, anxious, frustrated  or fed-up. Food can be a form of self-medication – a way to distract ourselves, reward ourselves, to cope or to cheer us up a bit. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs indicates that we need security, love, confidence, respect, approval, and to be able to appreciate our talents – if these needs are not met then food may fill the gaps. As a result we may eat even when we are not hungry.
What to do?
When we have had a bad day, or a long week, or have a lonely weekend coming up, a big bowl of salad is unlikely to meet our needs. So what can we do avoid food cravings and comfort eating?
  • Appreciate the difference between actual hunger (physical hunger) and a craving — if you haven’t eaten for a few hours then you are likely to need food and so should go and eat a meal, rather than eat mindlessly (and unhealthily)
  • Eat regularly to avoid blood sugar highs and lows which may lead to cravings – eat three times a day (balanced meals) with an healthy afternoon snack and stay well hydrated
  • Distract yourself for 20 minutes – find something to do with your hands, like make the bed, fold some laundry, vacuum the house, wash the car – anything to get you out of the kitchen and to stop your hands from reaching into the fridge, cupboards or snack bowl
  • Find other ways to deal with your emotions – talk to trusted family, friends or colleagues if you need help, tell your boss if you are overwhelmed at work, delegate chores at home, go for a walk if you are stressed
  • Don’t keep it in the house – if your cravings usually strike when you are at home then don’t buy the things that you tend to crave or don’t keep them in the house. A friend who craved chocolate decided not to keep it in the house but decided she would allow herself to walk to the local shop and buy a chocolate bar when she had a craving…after a few late night walks for chocolate during winter months she stopped craving chocolate. I no longer buy family packs of Doritos because I know I can easily finish the packet when I am watching TV or reading a book
  • Plan ahead – prepare healthier options, especially if you have a busy, stressful or emotional period ahead
  • Clean your teeth – the minty, fresh taste will take away your desire for anything else

It may take time to make lifestyle adjustments that enable us to avoid food cravings and comfort eating. Identifying the triggers that precede episodes of cravings or comfort eating may need some thought, though it may be as easy as realising ‘I’ll eat it if it is available’. Overall, try to develop a healthy, balanced diet, eat regularly, sleep well and take a walk during your ‘me time’.

Enjoy Good Food for Good Health

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