Dietitian Susie Burrell explains what your food cravings could mean

You know the feeling – you sit down after dinner and even though you are not hungry, you cannot stop thinking about food. Something sweet? Gold crunchy? Or salty?

Food cravings is wanting something so badly that it is literally all you can think about, and often ends with an entire block of chocolate or tub of ice-cream being demolished in one sitting.

There is no harm in succumbing to an occasional food craving, but when we are regularly feeling that our cravings are out of control, or even keeping us from reaching a weight or health-related goal, it may be time to take action.

There is not one simple explanation for why we may experience a food craving. A craving for a specific food or flavor may come from a physiological drive to seek out calories or nutrients.

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Shot of a young woman searching inside a refrigerator at home
There is not one simple explanation for why we may experience a food craving. (iStock)

It may be behaviorally driven, with the brain programmed over time to seek out certain tastes or flavors. It may be hormonal, which may be the case when you are getting your period, or when you are pregnant.

However, a craving may even be triggered after seeing someone else eating, or in the case of food advertisements, seeing a certain food.

The first step in taking control of distracting cravings is to consider what is driving them.

Is it actual hunger? Or rather the need for something sweet? Have you eaten enough or could actually be hungry? Or it is more likely a bad habit? Once you have some insight into why you may be craving you will be in a better position to take control.

Is your craving a bad habit?

If you have eaten enough and the craving is likely habitual, the best thing you can do to break a habit is change your routine or environment.

For example, if your routine is to sit down every night after dinner and eat a sweet treat, your body and brain will be expecting this each day at a similar time. Short circuiting the habit by changing the behaviors around the cravings has been shown to be powerful in reducing cravings over time.

The first step in taking control of distracting cravings is to consider what is driving them.

For example, going for a walk after dinner, or calling a friend when you feel like eating chocolate rather than psychologically fighting it on your own.

Another simple strategy is to never feed a craving with more of the same type of food as you are likely to excite the brain and continue to eat far more than you need. The foods we most commonly crave – ice cream, chocolates, cakes and potato chips, all have a rich taste and mouth feel along with a particularly strong flavor whether it be sweet of savory.

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Susie Burrell says the first step in taking control of cravings is to consider what is driving them. (Supplied)

Behavioral research has repeatedly shown that the more intense the flavors we are exposed to, the more we can eat and hence our explanation for polishing off an entire bag of potato chips or packet of biscuits in one sitting.

Instead, try and limit yourself to a small quantity of the food you are craving before you change the taste in your mouth entirely whether it is via a cup of green tea, iced cold water with a lemon slice, or sugar free mints and gum. And of course, brushing your teeth is another simple management strategy.

Is your craving for sugar?

Cravings for sweet food specifically can be suggestive of a number of nutritional issues. It can be a sign you have not eaten enough carbohydrates, especially throughout the morning, which may be why you are craving sweet food through the afternoon.

The simple solution to taking control of these is to make sure both your breakfast and lunch contain 20-30g or 1-2 serves of carbohydrate rich food such as a slice of wholegrain toast, a piece of fruit or ½ cup of sweet potato or legumes .

Sugar cravings could come from not consuming enough carbs.

On the other hand, if you are eating enough and are still experiencing extreme sugar cravings, it may be a sign that your glucose and insulin levels are not regulating well. If you are carrying a significant amount of abdominal weight, and/or have a family history of Type 2 diabetes, it is worth chatting to your doctor about your glucose and insulin levels.

READ MORE: Dietitian Susie Burrell reveals her top five low-sugar afternoon snacks

Is your craving legitimate?

If the craving is a little random, especially for salty food or something specific like meat, it may be worth having a blood test to help identify if a nutrient deficiency may be driving your desire for that specific food.

Unusual food cravings have long been associated with nutritional deficiencies, with cravings for ice or even chocolate linked to low levels of magnesium and iron, and as such are worth formally investigating.

Author Susie Burrel is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Meco-host of The Nutrition Couch podcast and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.

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