Our brain is the hungriest organ in the body, using 20 % of the body’s energy. So it’s no surprise that we feel a little hungrier when we tax the thing harder with the start of term time and work.
And this, together with the cooler weather, may cause cravings to hit.
When we don’t know how to eat for brain health, we often end up ravenous outside of meal times, turning to caffeine and sugary or salty snacks to keep us going.
But there is a different way. And it may come as a surprise to learn that the key is often to add something in to the diet, rather than just take away the snacks and caffeine.
I wish I had known about this way of eating when I was at university, when I always seemed to be exhausted between meals and snoozing over my books in the library.
But first let’s look at what cravings are, how they affect the brain, and how by loving ourselves wisely, we may curb cravings and provide brain food all at once.
Cravings without condemnation
Many of my clients lament eating too much salty and sugary food, or over-doing carbohydrates like bread and pastries. And they’re unhappy with how they continue eating the stuff, even though they always feel rattled and anxious afterwards.
Often my wonderful clients seem embarrassed about such habits. Many feel that if they were more virtuous, or had more willpower, they’d be able to conquer their cravings.
But I can heartily sympathise. After all, there was a time in my life when I could eat over 100 grams of chocolate every day – and sugary milk chocolate at that. (I wrote about it here: https://www.transformationnutrition.org/post/2020/01/16/comfort-in-winter)
For me, solving food cravings started with finding the reasons behind them. And if we want to deal with cravings successfully, I believe we best start from love, not self-condemnation, frustration, or shame.
Starting with negativity can make it harder to see the cause of the problem. But love, by contrast, will patiently find out what is really going on, and then – gently, effectively, kindly - take steps in a healthier direction.
Cravings vs hunger
First of all, then, what is the difference between healthy hunger and unhealthy cravings?
Well, it’s complex, and I certainly couldn’t cover it comprehensively here. (And I should also make it clear that I am not talking about diagnosed eating disorders in this instance.)
But one key difference, is that where hunger makes us interested in eating ‘real food’, like protein and vegetables, craving directs us urgently to one kind of food, which is often sugary, like pastries, or salty, like crisps.
If we’re generally blessed with enough food (and I say this, painfully aware that the UK has more food banks than MacDonald's) - hunger tends to feel like a gentle reminder, whereas cravings feel more like aggressive nagging.
Cravings can also create a desire to eat when you're not actually hungry – even when you feel full, or shortly after eating. You find yourself prising open the candy jar when lunch was only two hours ago.
Address triggers, curb cravings
As I’ve said in previous posts, when we know our bodies better, we can love them better.
And our cravings may have a number of different triggers. We might crave certain foods when we experience challenging emotions like anger, frustration or sadness, because we’ve previously learned to self-soothe that way.
Before I was a nutritionist, and not understanding the grieving process, I ‘coped’ by over-eating chocolate, instead of actually dealing with grief and working through it.
Hence the value of expert emotional and psychological support alongside nutrition, because in so many cases it proves crucially connected to physical equilibrium.
However, it is possible to work on the mainly physical triggers of cravings.
The key factor is macronutrient balance.
Macronutrient balance: brain food to curb cravings
Some basics for just a moment.
‘Macronutrients’ are the three main building blocks of food: protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
- Protein foods include eggs, nuts, cheese, meat, fish and beans.
- Fat-rich foods include butter and olive oil.
- Carbohydrate foods can be
1. nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates, like vegetables and whole grains, or
2. nutrient-poor simple carbohydrates like white pasta – or sugar.
Often, when my clients crave sugary or refined-carb foods, it’s not wholly because of emotional troubles; it’s because they are not eating the right balance of protein, fat and carbohydrate foods.
Mostly, it’s because they’re not eating sufficient protein and healthy fat.
Protein and fat
Many people think of breakfast as a meal of cereal, porridge, toast or croissants. Sadly, because these carbohydrate foods are quickly digested in the body, they don’t provide energy for very long.
If you’re doing lots of brain-work, or out in the cold, or being physically active, you may feel tired and hungry by mid-morning. Your brain will send the signal: more energy, ASAP!
And since the quickest way to restore energy is to eat something quickly digested like sugar or refined carbs, we’ll then crave those foods again, creating a cycle of carb-cravings.
On the other hand, if you eat proteins and healthy fats at every meal, you’re more likely to stay full between meals, and be able to concentrate meanwhile. (I've pictured olives above this post to represent olive oil, a wonderfully healthy fat.)
This is because protein and fat are slower to break down and provide energy for longer. For this reason, I often ask my clients to include protein and a little healthy fat in every meal.
A different breakfast
For example, at breakfast, porridge could become a base for a good handful or two of nuts and seeds. Or buttered toast could become an accompaniment for a couple of eggs, instead of just marmalade. These two breakfasts would both contain protein (in the nuts, seeds and eggs) and fat (in the nuts and butter).
As another example, a protein smoothie could contain a serving of hemp seed powder, some berries and a sliver of creamed coconut, which would provide protein in the hemp seed and a variety of fats in the hemp and in the coconut.
With protein providing steady energy between mealtimes, brain work becomes so much easier during the day. It’s amazing how people can forget all about their once-essential ‘elevenses’ and yet stay focused.
Fats for concentration
If you find that concentration remains an issue despite eating plenty of protein and some fat, it may be that you’re missing Omega 3 fatty acids from your diet.
Interestingly, several studies have found that a deficiency in Omega 3 fats plays a significant role in ADHD, a situation in which attention and concentration are particularly challenged.
So if you are not someone who enjoys eating oily fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel 2 or 3 times a week, you might consider other sources of omega 3 fats, such as hemp protein, or vegan omega 3 supplements.
There is also the question of fat metabolism, which I find to be a remarkably common problem. If you have difficulty breaking down the fats in your diet – often to do with liver and/or gallbladder issues - then you may not be benefitting appropriately from the fats you eat.
(There are various ways of discerning whether fat metabolism is a problem for someone. However this is a complex matter, so do contact me if you’d like to find out more about fat metabolism, and healthy fats generally.)
Brain food to curb cravings
I hope you'll agree that the typical approach, of solving food cravings by ‘just trying harder’ (and beating oneself up if it doesn’t work) doesn’t have to be the only way.
As we’ve seen, while some cravings may be driven by trauma or emotions that need support, cravings may also be a physiological sign that we need slower-burning fuel in our diets.
At the very least, when we consume sufficient protein and healthy fats, the tendency to crave sugar and refined carbs is more likely to reduce, and we're fuelling our brains in a highly effective manner.
By lovingly identifying and supplying our true needs, some of our challenges may just begin to become easier.
As always, feel free to get in touch with any questions, to say hello, or to book in a free enquiry call. And meanwhile, here’s to a wonderful autumn.
To your very best of health,
Clare Backhouse, dipION, Registered Nutritionist MBANT
Registered Nutritional Therapist CNHC
PS, for further reading on fats:
Crippa, A., Tesei, A., Sangiorgio, F., Salandi, A., Trabattoni, S., Grazioli, S., Agostoni, C., Molteni, M., Nobile, M., 2019. Behavioral and cognitive effects of docosahexaenoic acid in drug-naïve children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry 28, 571–583.
Königs, A., Kiliaan, A.J., 2016. Critical appraisal of omega-3 fatty acids in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder treatment. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat 12, 1869–1882.
Parletta, N., Niyonsenga, T., Duff, J., 2016. Omega-3 and Omega-6 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Levels and Correlations with Symptoms in Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autistic Spectrum Disorder and Typically Developing Controls. PLoS One 11.