With a massive three quarters (75%) of people worldwide eating snacks to satisfy a craving1, it’s clear that cravings play a significant role in our eating decisions.
In our recent Health Check Report, Dr. Doug Wright states that “it’s important that the odd treat doesn’t become a regular habit”, but the stats show that it already has, with over a third (37%) of parents and children eating at least one portion of chocolate or crisps daily2.
The effects of cravings
But what is driving us to act on our cravings? According our research, parents see their biggest obstacles to family health as time (24%) and money (21%)3, which would help explain why we’re reaching for quick and cheap snacks - that can often be unhealthy. It’s clear that this is starting to take a toll on our health though, with over two-fifths (44%)4 of UK parents classed as overweight or obese - figures from the NHS show that children aren’t far behind, with a reported 31% being overweight or obese.
Charlotte Stirling-Reed, a nutritional expert from SR Nutrition, commented on the difficulty we face in making healthy choices: “We live in an obesogenic environment where we are bombarded with energy dense and nutrient poor foods at every turn. It’s often hard to make the right choices when highly palatable foods are cheap and so readily available.”
What do your cravings mean?
It’s long been speculated that cravings serve to identify and satisfy the body’s nutritional needs. A craving for chocolate, for example, could be the brain’s way of communicating a magnesium deficiency that could be satisfied by a healthier alternative. This assumption has largely been deemed unfounded within scientific discourse, but it does beg the question: are there better ways we can get our essential nutrients?
Dr Glenys Jones, registered nutritionist at the Association for Nutrition, commented on the importance of nutrient-rich foods:
It is important to consider not just how many calories we are consuming and expending, but also the nutritional quality of what is being eaten. With over a third of people reporting that them and their children eat at least one portion of chocolate or crisps a day, we should be looking at trying to reduce these to being a more occasional habit as, as a nation we consume too much fat, sugars and salt, which high intakes of chocolate or crisps will be contributing to.
Here are some of the UK’s most common cravings, one of the key nutrients they provide and some of the better ways to meet your nutritional quota.
As many as 98% of British households regularly buy cheese, helping us consume up to 700,000 tonnes every year in Britain5. Cheese contains calcium, an essential mineral for helping to build strong bones and teeth, regulating heartbeat and keeping bloods at a good consistency. While a 30g portion of cheese contains a quarter of your daily calcium requirements, it also contains 7% of your daily calorie intake6. Swapping these in for soy, yoghurts and milk will still benefit your bones while keeping fat and salt to a minimum.
White bread and pasta contain a nutrient called chromium, which is thought to influence the insulin hormone and affect the amount of energy we get from food. Although chromium is important for a healthy diet, more refined grains like those in white bread contain about half the chromium than those found in whole-wheat bread.
Salty foods like crisps increase the body’s intake of sodium chloride (salt). While sodium chloride is an essential mineral to regulate bodily fluids, most of us exceed our recommended daily allowance, with the average person consuming 8.1g in the UK, as opposed to the recommended 6g7. Salt is found at low levels in all foods, but processed foods often contain added salt that most of us don’t need, so try and check the label wherever possible.
Chocolate is one of Britain’s favourite comfort foods. In fact, we eat more than any nationality other than the Swiss, the Germans and the Irish8. The good news is that chocolate contains the mineral magnesium, a mineral that helps to turn the food we eat into energy, as well as helping to make sure the thyroid glands work normally. Spinach, nuts, brown rice and fish are also great sources of magnesium, while also containing less fat and sugar than their cocoa counterparts.
An adult is recommended around 550mg of phosphorus a day to maintain healthy bones and teeth and help manage how the body stores and uses energy. While sweets contain high levels of phosphorous, most people can get all the phosphorous they need from their daily diet - with red meat, fish, poultry and oats all being good sources of the mineral.
Potassium is present in many foods, and it’s one of the many integral minerals that our body needs for normal heart function. While coffee does contain potassium, it also has a diuretic effect (increasing the amount you urinate) which can cause your body to lose too much potassium. Other foods high in potassium include bananas, brussel sprouts, nuts and seeds, all of which are high in dietary fibre, thus preventing heart disease, diabetes and promoting digestive health.
Adults are advised not to drink over 14 units of alcohol per week, but many of us are guilty of exceeding our set quota. Although alcohol encourages iron absorption, essential in red blood cell generation, it’s by no means the best way to improve your iron levels. Men are recommended 8.7mg of iron per day and women are recommended 14.8mg, levels that can easily reached be in nutrient rich alternatives like beans, nuts, dried fruit, brown rice and watercress.
Overcoming the cravings
There’s little evidence to suggest that stocking up on these nutrients will stop cravings completely, but opting for the nutrient-rich counterparts will keep you fuller for longer, making giving in to cravings less likely.
Of course, putting together healthy meals isn’t always an option, particularly when on-the-go, so Stirling-Reed suggests having healthy snacking alternatives on-hand: “My advice is to take food and healthier alternative snacks with you such as plain yogurts, dried fruits and nuts, crackers and a little cheese. Swap snacks where possible for healthier, nutrient-rich alternatives and make sure you have access to these readily.”
Another way to curb any unwanted cravings could be to imagine eating them. According to Prof Carey Morewedge, of Boston University, the answer is not to try and banish the cravings from your mind, but instead imagine eating them repeatedly. His study showed that those who imagined tasting, chewing and swallowing 30 chocolates ate 37% less chocolate than those who imagined eating three9.
Whatever your craving is, it’s important not to beat yourself up too much: it’s unrealistic to expect no treats at all, but there are ways to change habits to ensure cravings don’t get the better of us.
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Additional SourcesNeilsen Global Snacking Report 2014
Aviva Health Check Report, ‘Sugar buzz, snacking and screen time’, page 3
Aviva Health Check Report, ‘Happiness with family health, goals and barriers’, page 6
Aviva Health Check Report, ‘Sugar buzz, snacking and screen time’, page 5