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Why Do We Crave “Non-Optimal” Foods?

Written by Dr Aileen Alexander

Craving Non-optimal Foods
Dr. Aileen Alexander
Written by: Dr Aileen Alexander, founder and Director of This Doctor Lifts LTD. @thisdoctorlifts
It has been written to given you an insight into cravings and why they happen as well as to understand their management and support prevention of them altogether!

We've all been there, and we will all be there again.

Grabbing that share bag of Doritos and a bottle of wine on the way home from work on a Friday, stopping in past the pizza shop after a hectic day in the office because we are too tired to cook or finishing the kids chips on the way to the bin after you begged them to finish their dinner but they didn't… and you don't want to “waste it!” Then afterwards we feel “guilty” because it wasn't in line with our goals.

This guilt is compounded as we feel we have let ourselves down; it wasn’t what we had set out to do.

We tell ourselves “we are supposed to be losing fat, building muscle and we shouldn't be eating these “non optimal” foods.” So why does it happen?

When I say “non optimal” food I refer to processed, highly palatable and calorie dense foods. This means chocolate, cakes, ice cream, crisps, you know, the nice tasting stuff!

These are the foods that we all know we should eat in moderation yet often end up eating in excess leaving us feeling stuffed and deflated.

Some may refer to these foods as “bad foods” or “fattening foods” or even “forbidden foods”. I would disagree, as no food should be labelled as “bad”.

All foods have a role in our lives and all foods can be eaten with enjoyment, the key here is moderation.

I am a strong advocate of the 80:20 rule. This reflected 80% optimal foods (whole foods purchased in their natural state and minimally processed) and 20% “non-optimal” foods; basically whatever you like and this includes alcohol.

The trick is to learn balance, and first you must understand your nutritional preferences and choices and the meaning behind them. If we remove a food from ones diet completely, we immediately want that food. This can result in extreme, intense cravings and even lead to binge eating behaviour!

Eating Chocolate

What are cravings?

A craving, by dictionary definition, is “a powerful desire for something”. The example given in the Oxford English is a food craving, for chocolate!

A food craving is considered as an intense desire to consume a specific food and although many of us do not realise this at the time, this is different from hunger.

Cravings are also referred to as ‘selective hunger’ that may not be related to ‘specific hunger’.

In studies of food cravings it has been found that chocolate is the most craved food! I wonder why?

It is thought that this is related to the melting point of milk chocolate. Interestingly, this is only a few degrees lower than human body temperature. This means chocolate literally melts in the mouth… It's no wonder we crave that sweet taste and silky texture!


Why do cravings happen?

I am afraid there is no straightforward scientific explanation for cravings.

It is a far more complex issue and many things can contribute to the creation of a craving.

We do know that cravings are related to a cascade of hormones and this would support why pregnant woman often suffer from intense cravings; they are thought to be linked to a variety of hormones from serotonin to endorphins. These are both considered to be ‘happy hormones’ giving us that feel good factor.

It is known that sugar rich foods are more commonly craved as consumption of glucose triggers the temporary release of these ‘happy hormones’.

Consumption of glucose up-regulates the same areas of the brain as addiction (e.g. to drugs, smoking, alcohol or anything else). Despite this, there is no such thing as sugar addiction. 

I mean we don't go eating bags of straight sugar; in fact we never crave sugar alone. Instead we crave highly palatable, calorie dense non-satiating foods e.g. cookies, pizza, chocolate, cake, ice cream etc. eating these foods helps us to achieve the “bliss point” the term given to that “this tastes so damn good” feeling!

Furthermore, we are more likely to eat these foods in excess as they are poorly satiating meaning we don't feel full, we want to reach that “bliss point” again and again triggering the ‘reward system’ that lights up in our brains!

Cravings can be considered as a symptom. Most often when in a calorie deficit cravings have been caused by a negative emotion, experience or situation.

You may be tired, stressed, unhappy, frustrated, jealous, angry (insert negative emotion here). Surely, we treat the cause to prevent this reoccurring rather than dampening the symptom?

There are lots of reasons that we crave foods. If we isolate particular triggers these can be addressed and lead to prevention of cravings:

  • Restriction
  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Hunger
  • Anger
  • Low mood
  • Jealousy
  • Pressure at home/work
  • Poor planning or preparation
  • Food envy, peer pressure etc.
  • Thirst
  • Boredom
  • Availability
  • Lack of satisfaction from the last meal

Consider the points above. The next time you have a craving, look deeper, question yourself:

  • Can you identify why this has happened?
  • How could you manage them more effectively?
  • How could you improve your mind set?
Healthy Food Alternatives

How to prevent cravings

Prevention of cravings is the key to success. In order to prevent cravings you must not restrict.

As soon as we hear we cannot do or have something, we want it! This level of restriction can and often does result in binge eating behaviour.

This will pull you further from your goals than before you started! It is often the reason people find themselves ‘yo-yo dieting’. Insight into this is paramount.

Continued practice of restriction and avoidance can even lead to disordered eating which can become a clinical eating disorder if insight is not exercised. If you are concerned about this you should see your GP to discuss this further.

Ideally, we need to treat the source. We need to identify the cause and address this. Do we need to get to bed earlier, incorporate “non-optimal foods” into our nutrition, improve how we manage stress?

We need to assess and address hunger. We need to manage our negative emotions (anger, low mood and jealousy). We must have that conversation at work or home to improve our work/life balance or quality of life. We must plan and prepare our choices ahead of time etc.