I used to think cravings were a fact of adult life, and something we just had to endure. Now that I’ve lived the Paleo lifestyle for two years and experienced a life sans cravings, I now know this isn’t true. Cravings happen for many reasons, all of which are subtle messages your body is trying to send you.
Living a life free from cravings is possible but you must address the issues surrounding the cravings in the first place. Below are 6 reasons reasons you might be getting cravings.
6 Reasons Why You Have Cravings
You Have a Nutritional Deficiency
This is usually a result of a conventionally healthy diet, loaded with wholegrain foods and low in fat and calories.1,2 Processed ‘healthy’ foods will also be a part of this. You should never give in to these cravings because although you feel that the bad food is what you need, it isn’t actually what you need3 – when did vitality ever depend on chocolate, sweets, bread, or crisps?
Anaerobic exercise is fueled exclusively by carbohydrates, meaning it is a sugar-burning activity… And what comes with sugar-burning? Cravings.
By giving in to the craving, you’re continuing the vicious cycle of eating foods that aren’t nutritionally dense or satisfying, and contributing to your body’s deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals.
Solution? Start eating more nutritionally dense, real food, and a wide variety of it – in other words, eat a well-formulated paleo diet. Use this article as a guide for what to eat according to your cravings and consider supplementation, as often even real food isn’t packed with nutrients anymore.
You’re Addicted to Sugar (and Possibly Wheat)
Again, this usually pertains to a more conventional healthy eating diet, especially in the context of wheat,4 but equally, Paleo folks can still be addicted to sugar despite eating according to a Paleo template. How? A result of a higher carb, lower fat version of Paleo that includes more fruit than veg, dried fruit, and all sorts of Paleo-friendly sweets and treats. Remember: just because it’s nominally Paleo, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. At the end of the day, your version of Paleo should still be about vegetables, quality protein, and an abundance of healthy fats, not Paleo pancakes with maple syrup and fruit.
Cravings can also occur in this context when transitioning to Paleo from conventional healthy eating. As a result of a Standard American Diet (SAD), your sugar-burning body is dependent upon carbohydrates for energy – derived from grains, sugar, and processed foods. When you come off those harmful foods, your body is initially in shock and uses cravings to urge you to eat these foods again.
In addition, sugar stimulates the same reward-seeking part of the brain as recreational drugs, alcohol, nicotine, and sex – pretty powerful!5 It is suggested that for some with serious substance addictions, it is best to tame the sugar beast first, then deal with other addictions.
Solution? If you’re Paleo and still dealing with intense cravings and sugar issues, or you’re curious about the Paleo diet, try a structured programme like a Whole30, Mark Sisson’s 21-Day Total Body Transformation, or Diane San Filippo’s 21 Day Sugar Detox. All are stepping stones to Paleo that also help conquer the sugar beast. As for transitioning cravings, you just need to be strong, drink some water, and know that they too will pass … sorry.
You’re a Sugar-Burner
These are people whose bodies rely on carbohydrates for energy, and can apply to Paleo or SAD followers alike. Carbohydrates are a cheap, quick-burning fuel resulting in the body’s need for more food, now – hanger anyone? Over time, carbohydrate dependency turns into carbohydrate intolerance, leading to metabolic damage, which in turn can lead to insulin resistance. A side-effect on this long, bumpy road is cravings: as a result of the insulin rollercoaster of ups and downs from a high-carb meal, cravings are a signal that the cells in your body need more fuel, now. Your stomach isn’t actually hungry, but your cells are starving and can’t be properly nourished when insulin is constantly searing through your veins.
Solution? Ditch the carbs. Try a programme like Phil Maffetone’s Two Week Test to measure for carbohydrate intolerance. At the end, embark on a low-carb, real food journey to slowly restore metabolic health.
It’s a Stress Response
This is one of the most powerful mechanisms in your body, which completely trumps healthy diet. Stress is the largest contributing factor to sugar addiction, making it incredibly difficult to overcome your physical need of detrimental, processed foods. It decreases your emotional, visceral, and behavioural control, while increasing your impulsivity and greater use of reward-seeking behaviour.5 Have you ever noticed how much junk you feel inclined to eat when things get tough? And even if you resist it, you may find yourself seeking reward in other ways, like shopping.
Stress of any kind – physical, emotional, dietary – causes total hormonal and nervous system overdrive in the brain; this impairs your metabolism causing abnormal blood glucose levels resulting in higher insulin levels, triggering a rewarding desire for sugary, refined carbs. Long term exposure to this – your entire adult life – results in cravings and perpetual hunger, then learned behaviour, addiction, and carbohydrate intolerance. The side effects of this physiological stress response are huge: increased body fat resulting from weight gain, fatigue, reduced immune function, and chronic inflammation, all of which are precursors to lifestyle-related diseases. And as if it wasn’t bad enough, people with more body fat seek rewards even more quickly, leading to this perpetual, harmful cycle.5
Solution? Tackle your stress, not the consequences of it. Slow down and stop overdoing it. Easier said than done, but the first step is acknowledging the impact stress has on your life and taking steps to deal with it.
A product of a stressful lifestyle, poor quality sleep or not enough sleep has a deleterious effect on your body: poor circadian rhythm regulation, cortisol secretion, reduced alertness, and compromised metabolic functioning resulting in reward-seeking behaviour and the desire for bad food. Sound familiar?
Solution? Again, tackle the stress, but also endeavour to eat real foods, whole foods, all the time. When all you want to do is eat cake, a well-formulated Paleo diet is the best treatment. Additionally, look to implement a consistent sleep routine, put down the technology at least 30 minutes before bed time, and try reading to help you fall asleep.
Too Much Anaerobic Exercise
This refers to endurance activities at 75% or more of your maximum effort, and constant high intensity interval training. This type of exercise is extremely stressful on the body, and can lead to a series of physiological and anatomical consequences.
Anaerobic exercise is fuelled exclusively by carbohydrates, meaning it is a sugar-burning activity. Your body accelerates this sugar-burning at rest for up 72 hours post exercise; just enough time until the next anaerobic session.2 And what comes with sugar-burning? Cravings.
Solution? Slow down to lower intensity physical activity, working in the aerobic zone of less than 70% maximum effort. Do anaerobic exercise – body weight exercises and sprinting – once a week, not every session. You will still see progress, and you’ll increase your fat-burning potential.
Above all, cravings are one of the many signs your body uses to say ‘Something is wrong with me.’ The more you learn about your own body, the better equipped you are to address the issue(s). Don’t ignore the signs; do something about them.
How do you manage your cravings? Have you noticed a reduction in cravings since following a Paleo lifesyle? Let us know your experiences in the comments below.
- Field, R. (2015). Paleo: 12 Weeks to Change Your Life. UK: Starfish Publishing UK
- Sisson, M and Kearns, B. (2016). Primal Endurance. California, USA: Primal Blueprint Publishing
- Sisson, M. (2012). When Listening to Your Body Doesn’t Work. In Mark’s Daily Apple. Retrieved 13 March 2016 from http://www.marksdailyapple.com/when-listening-to-your-body-doesnt-work/#axzz42mcq034Q
- Davis, W. (2014). Wheat Belly. London, UK: Harper Thorsons
- Maffetone, P. (2015). Why We Get Sugar-Addicted – And How to Break the Brutal Cycle. In MAF. Retrieved 13 March 2016 from http://philmaffetone.com/why-we-get-sugar-addicted/