Do you often get the nagging feeling to eat a luscious slice of chocolate cake, or a cone of strawberry ice cream on a hot summer day? Have you ever felt a strong impulse to eat a bag of crispy potato chips that just doesn’t subside until you pander to it?
You’re experiencing a craving -- an intense desire for a specific food. It’s normal. We all get a pang of craving that doesn’t go away until it’s satisfied. Every one of us crave for a certain food at some point.
Uncontrollable food cravings can become a stumbling block for people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) who are trying to maintain a healthy weight, have diet restrictions, or are following a whole-food plant-based diet.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to manage any craving and still succeed in achieving your diet goals. Read on to understand your food cravings better and how to handle them.
Why Do We Get Food Cravings?
There are several explanations why we long for certain foods at a certain time. Experts say that food cravings occur due to a combination of psychological, cultural, and environmental cues.
Experts claim that food cravings last about 3 to 5 minutes. These are often a yearning for junk foods or processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt, and other foods that your renal dietitian doesn’t classify as healthy or nutritious.
Below are the known causes of cravings:
- Release of endorphins - When you feel sad, anxious, or stressed out, your body releases endorphins to help you deal with the physical or emotional pain you’re experiencing.
Endorphins are considered a “feel-good” neurotransmitter and their release triggers our body to crave for foods that help lift our feelings. Higher endorphin levels can result in a spike of cravings. Satisfying a craving for sweets or salty foods releases dopamine which is associated with pleasure.
- Imbalance of hormones - The imbalance of leptin and ghrelin (fat- and appetite-regulating hormones) as well as serotonin (hormone associated with mood stabilization) levels in the body also causes cravings.
Foods rich in sugar and other carbohydrates cause the production of these hormones in the brain. In effect, you may get this inclination to seek out these foods more often.
- Dehydration - A lack of fluid diminishes your body’s ability to process glycogen which is the body’s energy reserve stored in the liver and muscles. Without sufficient glycogen, the body will crave sugar to increase your energy.
- Habit - Other experts believe that cravings all boil down to habit. We reach for a snack when we’re bored while some people use eating as an escape from certain tasks.
- Lack of sleep - A craving for sugar can also be traced to sleep deprivation. When you lack sleep, your body churns out more stress hormones called cortisol. An increase of cortisol levels can result in the fluctuation of feel-good chemicals in the brain. This results in your body longing for sweet, salty, starchy foods and other foods that induce happiness.
Not all cravings are equal. We experience different kinds of cravings.
Selective Vs. Non-Selective Cravings
Cravings are classified into 2 types:
Selective - These are cravings for specific foods. They could be your favorite doughnut, ice cream flavor, a specific fried chicken from your favorite restaurant, or a cocktail drink.
Non-selective - If you don’t have the desire to eat anything in particular but you feel like you could eat anything, you are experiencing non-selective craving. It can stem from hunger pangs or thirst. In many instances, drinking water can help resolve strong non-selective cravings.Sometimes, cravings don’t just appear out of thin air. There are certain factors that, when exposed to them, heighten our urge to eat or drink something at a particular moment.
When Do Cravings Hit?
Cravings ebb and flow. Like how memories flood us when we see, hear, touch, or taste something, there are “triggers” that you will encounter daily that will stir in you an intense desire for an unwanted food or drink.
Here are common situations that will most likely cause a surge of cravings:
- Exposure to foods that you constantly crave for
- When you see someone enjoying a sweet or salty food you’re addicted to
- Interactions with a person, place, times of day, activity, or situation associated with your usual cravings
- When you’re feeling specific emotions you associate with your cravings. This varies from person to person. Some people are in their most vulnerable state when they’re tired, stressed out, agitated, or frustrated. Others become vulnerable when they’re happy or excited.
- When you’re experiencing physical sensations linked to your food cravings
As you get more serious with your CKD diet, you need to learn what your cravings are and the triggers that contribute to them. Cravings are not at all bad, and giving in to them every once in a while is healthy.
However, constantly reacting to the slightest trigger can easily lead to binge-eating. So what’s the harm about it?
Watch Out: Cravings Can Turn Into Overeating
Satisfying a seemingly harmless craving is a slippery slope. Acting on a craving releases feel-good hormones that the brain interprets as a kick of pleasure. The more the brain gets rewarded by the experience, the more it seeks for that pleasure. The brain is wired to seek substances and behaviors that lead to a dopamine boost.
The thing about junk foods is they deliver a greater reward to the brain than whole and unrefined foods. This is why you tend to enjoy eating steak more than eating a bowl of salad. The former delivers a larger amount of dopamine to your brain’s reward system.
People who have developed an addiction to a particular food are chasing after these dopamine hits until they get the satisfaction their brain needs. The more they get rewarded each time, the stronger their addiction is enforced. They may even double the quantity each time to increase the effect.
Someone who discovered the delight and pleasure in eating medium-sized French fries a year ago may be eating a large serving of the food now to get the same level of reward. It can be difficult to moderate a craving driven by addiction.
This is why it’s essential to be really careful when indulging a craving and to pay attention to it when it surfaces.
9 Simple Ways to Control Your Cravings
Don’t let temporary cravings distract you from CKD-friendly dieting or ruin the amazing progress you’ve started. Here are tips in managing cravings and controlling the urge to eat foods that are unhealthy for your kidneys:
- Drink water. Thirst can often disguise as a hunger pang or food craving. Whenever you feel the desire to eat a specific food out of nowhere, try drinking a glass of water. Wait a few minutes. The craving may disappear because your body actually needs hydration. Be careful not to drink too much water beyond what your renal dietitian requires, as this may result in edema (body swelling due to fluid buildup).
- Plan your meals. Having a ready meal plan and knowing what you’re going to eat for the entire week reduces your tendency to act on your cravings. This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re currently subscribed to a CKD diet plan designed by your dietitian. Make sure to stick to it daily, adhering to your daily nutrient limits.
- Always eat on time. Hunger is one of the leading causes of cravings, so eat regularly and on time to avoid getting too hungry. As much as possible space out your meals at least 4 hours apart. If you need to eat a snack between meals, grab a fruit, a plate of nuts, or a veggie salad.
- Don’t shop when you’re hungry - Supermarkets are not designed for conscious dieters. They give you instant access to all the foods you could think of which doesn’t help if you’re trying to make healthier choices. So avoid grocery shopping on an empty stomach. Otherwise, you may end up giving in to unhealthy cravings.
- Avoid getting stressed out. When you’re exhausted, you become more prone to sudden cravings. Stress can also shape your eating behaviors without you noticing it. Stress also has harmful effects on your body. It can increase cortisol levels in your blood, increase your blood pressure, and can lead to weight gain. Try to manage your stress through meditation, getting enough sleep, and exercising.
- Get adequate hours of sleep. A lack of sleep can throw off your hormone balance throughout the day, resulting in poor appetite and the surfacing of sudden cravings. Try to get 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
- Practice mindful eating - Awareness of your eating habits, cravings, hunger, sensations, and emotions is key to pursuing a healthy diet. Practicing mindfulness allows you to tell cravings apart from physical hunger. It helps you become more rational in responding to your cravings as they come rather than being controlled by them.
Mindful eating starts with being fully present while you eat (i.e. not doing other activities like watching TV or using your phone while you eat) and chewing your food thoroughly.
- Fill your pantry with kidney-friendly foods - It’s also important to design your environment in such a way that the only available option within your reach are healthy foods. Stock your fridge and pantry with these foods:
- Whole grains - Brown rice, whole-grain barley, oats, quinoa, whole wheat couscous, and buckwheat
- Fruits - Apples, grapes, pineapple, watermelon, plumbs, and berries like strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, and raspberries. Eating fruits help in effectively controlling sugar cravings.
- Vegetables - Broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, lettuce, eggplant, green peas, mushrooms, and onion
- Plant proteins - Beans, nuts, legumes, and tofu
- Beverages - Water (you can infuse it with mint, lemon, or frozen berries), cranberry juice, sparkling water, coffee, or tea
Make sure to buy fresh and avoid canned fruits and vegetables. And as always, consult your dietitian in determining which foods are good for you.
- Name and tame your emotions - Emotions don’t always give rise to cravings, but it’s important to recognize their connection. Like we’ve established, we tend to binge-eat when we’re sad, anxious, or stressed out.
So it helps to learn to identify your emotions and manage them. Snacking may make you feel good in the short term, but no amount of your favorite food will heal emotional pain.
If you’re experiencing trauma or depression that’s causing you to overeat as a coping mechanism, don’t be afraid to consult a therapist. They will help you work through these issues and process your emotions.
Learn When to Indulge (But with Moderation)
Repressing an urge to eat something isn’t always healthy. When you’re direly craving for that snack, go grab it. But always remember to control your portions!
It will help to save up some of your sodium or glucose budget for the week for your “cheat” day. Eat a small amount of the food you really want to prevent possible instances of overeating later on. Check in with your dietitian to know how much you’re allowed to eat.
Keeping a tight rein on unhealthy cravings is vital for your health. It’s necessary if you want to diligently stick to your CKD diet plan. The first step to controlling your cravings is to acknowledge their triggers. Awareness of these root causes makes it easier for you to address them.
The strategies mentioned above can help you reduce and manage cravings for foods high in salt and sugar. But to succeed in implementing these practices, you also need to exercise self-control and to make a deliberate decision to commit to your health goals.
It also helps to work with your renal dietitian in creating a diet plan that minimizes your cravings and meets your daily nutrient requirements.
The Scientific Reason Why We Crave Unhealthy Foods
10 Reasons You Have Food Cravings — And How to Control Them Even on Your Busiest Days
How Food Addiction Works (and What to Do About It)
11 Ways to Stop Cravings for Unhealthy Foods and Sugar
Strategize Your Pantry for a Kidney Protective Diet