Despite what the diet and weight loss industry would like you to believe, weight management ultimately comes down to energy balance. If you eat more calories than you burn, this causes weight gain. If you eat fewer calories than you burn, this results in weight loss.
If your energy intake equals your energy expenditure, then your weight remains the same.
There is no need for restrictive diets if you’re trying to manage your weight. Evidence shows that although diets may result in short-term weight loss, it is often difficult to maintain these results long-term. Dieting and food restrictions can also significantly increase cravings.
If you’re trying to manage your weight, it’s better to take a balanced approach to nutrition rather than restricting certain foods or food groups. Including all foods in the diet will help you manage your cravings.
Why You Experience Cravings
There are many reasons why you might experience cravings, including both physical and mental.
Hormone changes, like in pregnancy or premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can intensify cravings. Altered levels of the hormones ghrelin and leptin (hunger and fullness hormones) can also cause some people to experience cravings more frequently than others.
Poor sleep quality can disrupt hormone levels that are important in regulating hunger and fullness. This can cause increased cravings, especially at night.
Inadequate hydration and poor diet quality can also be the cause of your frequent cravings. If you’re not drinking enough water, your hunger and appetite may be more pronounced. Protein and fiber help regulate appetite, increasing fullness and satisfaction for longer. If your diet is low in fiber and protein, you may have cravings you can’t resist more often.
Stress and mood can also affect appetite and cravings. Increased levels of stress may be associated with increased hunger, cravings, and binge-eating behaviors. Negative moods may trigger a craving for comfort foods. Some people may rely on food for self-soothing instead of other healthy coping behaviors.
Restrictive dieting also increases cravings. The more you restrict something or label it as “off limits,” the more the brain and body want it. This creates a sense of scarcity when it comes to restricted food. When you finally satisfy the craving, the brain and body want to take in as much as possible because they don’t know when they might get the opportunity to have that food again.
How Cravings Can Lead to Unbalanced Eating
A balanced diet includes a variety of foods from all food groups. It allows for less nutritious foods in moderation rather than restricting them from the diet altogether.
Restrictive diets such as low-carb, keto, and paleo can increase the intensity of cravings for foods that are not allowed on the diet. Cravings can lead to unbalanced eating.
As mentioned before, restriction creates a scarcity mindset. When you restrict foods from your diet, it makes it difficult to enjoy them in reasonable amounts, and more likely that you’ll overeat them.
If you are constantly overindulging your cravings, it’s likely that your intake of nutrient-dense foods (fruit, vegetables, whole grains, proteins) will be inadequate, and therefore your diet will be unbalanced.
Why Restrictive Diets Don’t Work Long Term
Restrictive diets are often unsustainable and therefore aren’t a long-term solution to weight management. Being in a caloric deficit results in weight loss, but restricting the foods you enjoy to reduce calories is likely to backfire.
While a fad diet might produce results in the short term, unless you’re making sustainable changes in your habits, those results are unlikely to be maintained.
Additionally, restriction of certain foods can cause intense cravings. Researchers don’t fully understand food cravings, but eliminating chocolate, pizza, or donuts can lead you to crave those foods significantly more. The restriction isn’t a long-term solution because it’s not sustainable.
Black and white thinking and labeling foods as “good” and “bad” can lead to a restrict-binge cycle. This unhealthy cycle of eating can cause harmful weight fluctuations, which is associated with a higher risk of disease and mortality.
There is also a possible relationship between restrictive diets and the development of eating disorders.
It’s entirely possible to reach your health goals and manage your weight while eating a balanced diet and enjoying the foods you love.
The Healthy Way to Regulate Cravings
Eat more protein
Protein is a long-acting energy source required for multiple processes in the body. It helps to regulate appetite and increase feelings of fullness and satisfaction for longer. Eating protein with every meal and snack can regulate hunger and fullness cues, allowing you to better discern whether you’re truly hungry and stop when you’re comfortably full.
The next time you’re craving a carbohydrate-based snack (chips, cookies, crackers, etc.), add a source of protein with that food for a more balanced snack. This will decrease the number of chips or cookies you need to feel full but still allow you to satisfy your craving.
Eat enough fiber
Fiber is another nutrient that increases satiety. It also has many other health benefits. Fiber helps normalize bowel movements and soften stools. Additionally, it can help manage blood cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight.
Men aged 50 or younger need about 38 grams of protein per day, while men ages 51 and older need about 30 grams. Women 50 or younger need 25 grams daily, and 51 and over need 21 grams.
If you aren’t getting enough fiber each day, you may need to boost your intake. Good choices include:
- Whole-grain products
- Beans, peas, and other legumes
- Nuts and seeds
- A fiber supplement
Develop Healthy Sleeping Habits
Your hunger and cravings are significantly impacted by hormones that fluctuate throughout the day. Inadequate sleep disturbs these hormone levels and may lead to increased hunger and intense cravings.
Research shows that people who get inadequate sleep are up to 55% more likely to have difficulty managing their weight compared to people who get good sleep.
Getting consistent and quality sleep can improve your appetite regulation and decrease cravings.
High levels of stress are associated with increased cravings and poor eating habits, especially in women. Women experiencing high levels of stress have been shown to consume significantly more and have more cravings than women with lower levels of stress.
Try to minimize sources of stress in your life, and manage stress from things you can’t control with things like relaxation, meditation, and exercise.
There are several reasons you may experience cravings. Researchers are still studying food cravings, but one thing we do know is that restriction and self-deprivation of certain foods increase the intensity of cravings.
It’s better to follow a balanced diet that allows room for foods you enjoy while including more nutritious foods. You can manage cravings and regulate appetite by eating more protein and fiber, getting enough quality sleep, and managing your stress.