In this article:
- The science behind cravings
- Different cravings and what it means for your hormones
- The relationship between habits and cravings
- To indulge or to not indulge?
Sweet treats? Savory bites? Salty nibbles? Most of us have go-to foods that we always want to indulge in, yet many feel guilty giving in to these cravings. We often turn away from our cravings because they prevent us from reaching health goals such as weight loss and clean eating. Yet, our cravings can reveal a lot of information about our physical and mental health. Indeed, cravings can be our body's way of informing us that something is not right or is missing from our diet. Rather than fighting and tuning out cravings, listen to what your body is telling you, then act.
The science behind cravings
Our cravings stem from complex interactions between our digestive system, brain, hormones, and even our environment. Unlike a hunger sensation that starts in our stomach, cravings stem from our brain.
Cravings are often related to positive feelings or experiences associated with specific foods. Certain foods, such as foods high in sugar and fat content, trigger our brains to release opioids, which are chemicals that bind to receptors in our brain that make us feel pleasure. We also associate certain foods to positive experiences or memories. Furthermore, we only crave food that we have had before because our brain remembers pleasurable physical or psychological experiences associated with this food.
Aside from the physical and psychological markers of food cravings, some theories suggest that humans have innate cravings for high-calorie, energy-dense foods. These types of foods were a survival mechanism for when we were hunter-gatherers.
Different cravings and what it means for your hormones
Craving carbs may mean that your body is telling you that it is low in energy. For people with low thyroid hormone or hypothyroidism, fatigue is common. Therefore, it may come as no surprise that people with hypothyroidism may be more inclined to crave carbohydrates. After all, these macronutrients supply an efficient and rapid boost of energy. However, carbohydrates are a form of energy that does not last long. Therefore, we crave more and more carbs to try to keep our energy stores up.
If you find yourself frequently craving carbs, try adding more protein (like lean meat and fish) in your diet and include good fats such as avocados. Healthy protein and fat sources help our blood glucose not to rise and fall drastically, helping to sustain our energy for a longer time.
If your sweet tooth is out of control, it may indicate that you are in a state of stress, sadness, or even depression. Often, our minds crave something that offers a pleasurable reward when we are feeling low. Sugar releases endorphins in our brains, making us feel happier by increasing dopamine and serotonin levels. Similarly, when we have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, our body releases more glucose to respond to stress. When glucose levels fall, our brain "craves" more glucose or "easy energy."
Research has also found a sugar craving may indicate that you are low in magnesium. Magnesium is an essential mineral abundant in our bodies and plays a crucial role in every bodily system.
Craving fatty, fried foods?
If you crave fatty foods, your body is likely telling you that it does need fat. However, there are different kinds of fats, and the fat your brain is asking for may not necessarily be the fat your body needs. Many fatty and fried foods can cause inflammation, which can worsen autoimmune thyroid conditions. Instead, try to fulfill your fat cravings with a spoonful of coconut oil, avocados, nuts, and even seeds (unless you follow a strict AIP diet).
What about salt?
Dehydration and a deficiency in certain minerals are often the culprits behind your craving for salty chips. For example, calcium deficiency may be associated with salt cravings. Indeed, our body often uses a salt craving to help us maintain the homeostasis of our cells.
Where is the meat?
It is common to crave red meat when you are iron deficient. Many people with hypothyroidism have an underlying iron deficiency, which can worsen hypothyroid symptoms. Iron plays an incredibly important role in the conversion of T4 to T3. If you are craving meat, listen to your body and feel free to indulge in red meat, fish, legumes, and nuts.
The relationship between habits and cravings
Cravings are frequently the result of our habits. Often, we develop "bad habits" when we are trying to deal with stress or boredom. When our brains develop a habit, we expect a reward that comes from doing the same thing repeatedly. For example, many people crave a sugary treat in the afternoon. Our bodies sometimes crave sugar at this time of day because it will give us a burst of immediate energy and pleasure, which we often tell ourselves we need to finish out our daily duties. Once your brain is exposed to the reward of pleasure and energy in the afternoon, seeking out a sugary treat becomes a pattern and a habit.
Fortunately, our brains are very trainable, and we can change our negative habits to positive habits. To overcome a habit, we have to substitute one habit with something else. Thus, if you are craving sugar in the afternoon, re-train your brain to want something else, such as a walk outside or drink a full glass of water.
Changing behavior is very hard and takes time! However, if you are willing and dedicated to improving your habits, you are most certainly capable.
So, to indulge or to not indulge?
There are physical and psychological benefits of listening and acting on your cravings. Before you indulge, consider doing the following:
- Stop for a moment and ask yourself what your body is really asking of you.
- If your body is asking for a sugary treat, it may be saying you need a quick burst of energy. Is there something else you might enjoy doing instead, such as a quick walk outside or a power nap?
If you choose to eat the chocolate cake or snack on the salty chips, enjoy it! Mindful eating, regardless of your food choice, can have powerful benefits for our overall wellbeing. If you notice your cravings have become a habit, consider other ways you can satisfy your body's needs.
A note from Paloma Health
Many nutritional factors play a role in optimizing thyroid function. Work with a thyroid nutritionist in collaboration with a physician to determine nutritional status for optimal thyroid health.