Photo of a person with a food craving
Getting to the bottom of your food cravings means doing some detective work

Got to have it?! Dealing with food cravings

9 July, 2013

Food cravings are a normal part of life, but can become intensified by certain circumstances such as stress or or boredom or during pregnancy.

Often a craving is not for the food itself, but for what it contains and the effect it has on your body.  Equally a craving can be the result of a dietary imbalance; diets which are high in grains often produce wild cravings in some individuals.  A craving is not a bad thing, it’s a message from your body.

If you are in tune enough with your body, you will be able to respond to it appropriately and giving in to the odd craving is not always a bad thing. But if a craving is allowed to turn into a habit or a binge, it can exacerbate existing imbalances. 

Most of us find it easy to give into cravings for chocolate and other sweet treats, but too much sugar is certainly not good for you and can drastically lower your immunity. This is just one reason why it may be helpful to try and understand where cravings come from and the best ways to deal with them.

Addiction, imbalance, discharge

Annemarie Colbin, American nutritionist and founder of the Institute for Food and Health, has made a career of combining Western and Eastern perspectives in her work. Over the years she has identified three main reasons for cravings: addiction/allergy, discharge and imbalance.

Addiction and allergy are two sides of the same coin. They both produce psychological or physiological symptoms which can be temporarily suppressed by eating the longed for food.  Eating the food makes the person feel better, though it does not cure the underlying problem.

Discharge is the term for a person who has changed their diet and is experiencing a longing for a food which is no longer part of their regime.  When you alter your diet, for instance changing from a diet high in processed foods to a raw food diet, the body begins to release, or discharge, toxins as well as the chemical “memory” of these foods. The body may interpret this chemical memory as need, even though it is not a genuine craving. That is why, when you do eat the longed for food, it isn’t as satisfying as it might be.

Imbalance is another very common problem created by modern diets.  In a fast moving world we tend to grab quick foods and often our diets are very high in one particular sort of food, usually carbohydrates, at the expense of others. Since the primary aim of the body is equilibrium, a craving for a particular food or foods can be seen as the body’s attempt to restore balance. In particular, a craving for fats and sweets together, such as those contained in baked goods and ice creams, may be a signal of protein deficiency. Pregnant women take note, since adequate protein intake is very important during this time.

What to do?

To diminish or eliminate a craving you should generally consider limiting for eliminating the longed-for food from your diet, but you can also use these mitigation methods adapted from Colbin’s excellent book, Food and Healing to battle some of the most common types of cravings: 


Eat less Meat, salt, dairy

Eat more Whole grains, baked yams, squash, apples dates, cooked fruit

Substitute Frozen bananas instead of ice cream, deserts sweetened with barley malt, rice syrup, maple syrup


Eat less Sweets, fats, alcohol, meat, grains

Eat more Seaweed, black beans, vegetables

Substitute Natural soy sauce, miso (in small mounts), herbs and spices 

Milk Products

Eat less Sugar, baked goods, fruit, meat

Eat more Leafy greens, whole grains, beans, fish

Substitute Tofu (in small amounts), nut milks

Fatty foods (both sweet and savoury)

Eat less Grains, fruit, salad

Eat more Proteins such as beans, fish, chicken, eggs

Substitute No need for substitutes


Eat less Salt, acid forming foods such as meat, sugar, flour, grain

Eat more Vegetables, salad

Substitute Grain coffee, herbal teas


Eat less Fats, salt, miso, soy sauce, animal protein

Eat more Complex carbohydrates, vegetables, corn, leafy bitter greens

Substitute Non-alcoholic beer, fruit juices, herb teas

Nutritional deficiencies

In addition, American nutritionist Earl Mindell believes that these common cravings may signal the need for an increase in specific nutrients. For instance:

Peanut butter/nuts B-vitamins, protein and fat. You need more B vitamins when you are stressed and more of each of these nutrients when you are pregnant. A good quality supplement will help diminish the craving and will be lower in calories!

Olives, pickles Sodium is probably what you need – salt to taste even when you are pregnant.

Bananas Potassium which helps to maintain the body’s water balance and normalise the heart beat.

Cheese Calcium, phosphorous and aluminium. Eat more broccoli as  a lower fat alternative.

Apples Calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium.  In addition, if you have a high-fat diet, your body  may be craving the pectin for its ability to lower cholesterol.

Cantaloupe Potassium and vitamin A are its main nutrients. But it also contains vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, biotin,  and inositol – so its not a bad craving to give into.

Milk Calcium is the obvious choice. But milk also contains useful amino acids such as tryptophan, leucine and lysine. As long as you’re not allergic let yourself have the odd glass (or consider Annemarie Colbin’s advice above).

Eggs Full of protein but also sulphur, amino acids, selenium and, in  the yoke, fat. The white, by the way contains useful fat, dissolving choline which is why the humble egg is considered a first-class protein meal.

And then there’s chocolate…

And then there’s that other big craving: chocolate. Chocolate is a complex food the consumption of which begins a rapid series of biochemical reactions in the body. Uncontrollable cravings for chocolate need to be addressed on both the physical and emotional levels.

Eating chocolate may stimulate the release of “feel good” brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) in the body; this combined with the immediate sugar boost may help a woman who is tired or depressed to feel better, albeit for a short time.

Most commercially produced chocolate, however, is laced with pesticides, additives and other undesirable synthetic chemicals (many of which are not listed on the label).

A more positive approach to feeling good, would be to pursue a regular course of exercise and relaxation and if necessary consulting a therapist to deal with feelings of depression and lack of self-worth. Chocolate also contains magnesium and iron, so another tactic is to make sure you are getting enough of these through your daily diet.

The influence of advertising

Finally, your food craving may simply be the unhealthy result of living in the modern world. If you watch a lot of TV you will be bombarded with images of every kind of convenience and junk food and several studies have found that viewing pictures of food (especially appetising food) can trigger cravings.

This can be particularly disheartening if you are trying to watch your weight. According to Dr Doreen Virtue, author of the book Constant Craving, overwhelming food cravings have major health implications since they are, in her view, the culprit behind every broken diet and dietary-related disease.

It’s also tricky when you are a parent because TV is a big driver of children’s cravings for junk food and a factor in the spread of childhood obesity.

Even when we aren’t particularly hungry before looking at food photos, they can actually cause the release of hormones that suddenly make us feel hungry. One recent study also found that drinking a sweetened beverage while looking at high-calorie foods can magnify this effect by stimulating the brain’s reward centres.

The best  way to beat the odds is to a) realise you are being manipulated into buying/eating; and b) turn off the goggle box and do something more interesting instead. Pastimes and hobbies that absorb you fully are more likely to be relaxing and will help to keep your mind off mindless eating.