by Tara Postnikoff
Food cravings can stem from emotional, mental, and physical factors. How many times have you seen a commercial where someone is happily walking down the street with friends, holding a coffee cup… and you immediately want a latte so you can feel the same? That’s an emotional response, and it’s best not to give into these frequently.
There are also cravings that come from stress, mental fatigue or plain old boredom. When you are tired, you typically want a quick pick-me-up from a food containing sugar or caffeine. Finally, sometimes our cravings stem more from a biological signal that our body is missing something, like calories or a specific macro or micronutrient.
Before deciding when to give in to these cravings, it is important to identify where the craving is coming from. Is this your appetite talking, or are you actually physically hungry for something?
The cravings you want to listen to and address first are those that might be suggesting that something is missing from your diet. For runners adding significant volume or intensity to their training plan and who are also experiencing weight loss, low energy, poor sleep or performance loss, the craving might be an important sign. You may need to increase your overall calories or change the type of calories you are consuming. Water or fluid intake should also be addressed, because a cue for food may actually be a cue for thirst. When you become fitter, your blood volume and muscle mass increase, which can increase your need for fluids.
On long mileage days or the rest days that follow, you might find that your food cravings intensify. There could be several reasons for this. It could be because you created a caloric deficit with your workout the day before. Perhaps you didn’t fuel properly before, during or after the long run. Or, maybe your body is anticipating a higher volume of food out of habit. Tracking your food intake along with your training plan can be the best place to start to identify where these messages are coming from.
You need to make sure you are eating the right number of calories, as well as the right amount of each macronutrient: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. You also need to make sure you are eating the right type of calories, of the right quality. When you are eating a balanced whole foods-based diet made up of the right number of calories and the right types of calories, your body will be less prone to sending out confusing signals that you might interpret to mean “eat more, now.” This is because the foods and liquids you consume are providing your body with the nutrients it needs. In contrast, if you are eating a high percentage of your foods from refined or processed sources, these foods might not have all the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that your body needs. Rather than guessing at what your body is trying to tell you, you should log your food and drink intake for a week and have a sports nutritionist or registered dietitian review it.
If you’re diligent about your food choices overall and have the occasional food craving for your favourite cookie or salty snack, then don’t worry about it too much. Take the time to savour a small treat and you may find that’s all you need.
Tara is a Registered Nutritional Consultant, certified Personal Trainer and triathlon/running coach in Toronto. She is an avid distance runner and triathlete, and a regular guest speaker for Running Room training programs.