One of the biggest concerns that many have when trying to lose weight or improve their health is that they feel that they cannot control what they eat because they struggle with food cravings. This is a very common problem in some of those I have advised in regards to nutrition. In most cases people who deal with food cravings are women, but that is not always the case.
There are several factors that may be influencing a person's food cravings. One of the most important is the nutrient density of the food we eat. Our modern diet is, unfortunately, very deficient in micronutrients (such as vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals), especially junk food or heavily processed foods. When we eat a diet based primarily on these foods, we might be getting enough calories, in fact maybe an excess of calories, but in most cases very few micronutrients. This results in the paradox of our modern society: obesity and malnutrition may occur in the same person. Yes, it is possible to be obese and malnourished at the same time.
One of the biggest problem I see, especially in the United States, is that our consumption of vegetables is way too low. Nutrition and health authorities have established that adults should be consuming at least 3 cups of vegetables per day. My experience with clinic patients and people seeking nutritional advice is that the average consumption of vegetables is probably a half to one cup a day. This is, unfortunately, sorely inadequate.
Vegetables are the food items with the highest nutrient density in the human diet, that is, they have the highest amount of nutrients per calorie. Apart from the many vitamins and minerals, vegetables are also high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, many of which have been discovered only recently. When we do not consume enough fresh produce on a daily basis, we are really stealing from our body the most important source of these nutrients.
Over time, slight nutritional deficiencies can develop, not serious enough to cause an obvious disease, but enough to cause our body to "ask" for what it lacks. A person in this situation begins to "crave" food because the body is asking for the nutrients it needs. But if instead of eating a healthy diet, with enough vegetables, whole grains, beans, fruits, etc., we continue to feed ourselves with junk or overly processed foods, our body receives an insufficient amount of nutrients yet again. We may fill our stomachs, but within a few hours we feel like eating again, even if we are not hungry. Without any improvement in our diet, over time this situation will likely continue to get worse instead of better.
If you have food cravings, the first thing I recommend is that you analyze the amount of vegetables or fresh produce you consume every day. Are you eating at least three cups of vegetables every day? If your answer is yes: Good! Now increase the amount to five cups, because three cups is just the minimum, and maybe you need more. If your answer is no, like the vast majority of people I have worked with, then your first task to solve your problem is to start consuming what your body really needs: at least three cups of vegetables and two fruits every day, the fresher the better.
Food cravings can come for other reasons as well, such as extreme calorie restriction, low-carb dieting, and low levels of serotonin in the brain (which may also be related to diet), among other factors. In future articles I will be exploring these other causes as well.