By Ellie Rice and Shannon Doleac
We all have cravings. Whether it’s the bubbly-ness of soda, the salty crunch of chips, or the creamy decadence of chocolate, cravings can be extremely hard to stop! But why? Why do we have strong desires for sugar and high carbohydrate foods – especially when we know they aren’t good for us? Once we make the choice to take the first sip or the first bite, the choice to stop is even harder.
Science has shown that cravings have a lot to do with the neurological aspect of our brian. the part of the brain that lights up, or activates, when we eat sugary/high-carbohydrate foods is the same area of the brain that is activated when a person does drugs or drinks alcohol. When we consume even the tiniest bit of the food that we crave, our memory remembers that taste, and has a strong desire for more. This can quickly turn into a vicious cycle of crave, desire and want.
Researchers have “speculated that the sweet receptors (two protein receptors located on your tongue), which evolved in ancestral times when the diet was very low in sugar, have not adapted to modern times’ high-sugar consumption.
Therefore, the abnormally high stimulation of these receptors by our sugar-rich diets generates excessive reward signals in your brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms, and thus lead to addiction.” (Mercola, 2011)
Hormones can certainly play a large roll in our craving cycles. Leptin, for example, is a hormone produced in your fat cells that is designed to signal the brain that your fat cells are full and thus so are you. However, a dis-regulation in leptin production or a resistance to leptin signals can result in the feeling of hunger, a strong desire for sugary foods, and excessive fat storage. Ghrelin is another hormone that controls our hunger and when it becomes elevated, we “feel” more hungry than we really are.
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that work throughout our body, and dopamine and serotonin are two examples of such signals that effect our cravings. Through a complex relationship, high sugar and processed foods can influence the levels of such neurotransmitters and lead to a vicious cycle of wanting more and more of that food.
Our environment can also lead to the development of cravings. For example:
• Social outings:
When we go to a party, a lunch or diner date, happy hour with our friends or a movie, there are foods all around us that stimulate cravings. Our mind has a habit of relating social engagements with the chance to eat and/or drink things that we crave and know are not that good for us.
Breakups, the loss of a loved one, or not getting a job we had worked so hard for can all cause these cravings to be prominent. We’ve all experienced emotional eating.
• Our home environment:
The foods you have on hand in your pantry and refrigerator can either make it easier or harder to work through cravings. Keep the foods in your house nourishing, nutrient-dense and fresh. If you are surrounded by items that you have a tendency to crave you are more likely to indulge.
Throughout school or sports, when we have done something correctly or well, we are often rewarded with high-sugar/high-carbohydrate foods. Whether it’s candy, cookies, soda, pizza or cake, it creates an association between a job well done and food.
While cravings are real and produced through a variety of factors, the real question is how can we overcome the cravings we experience?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. DON’T buy the foods you crave!
2. Sleep MORE – you are less likely to succumb to cravings if you go to bed earlier. In addition, fatigue can lead to a false sense of hunger.
3. Exercise – exercise motivates us all to take care of our body. In addition to hormonal shifts that happen with exercise and thus reduce cravings, it is also a great “turn-to” when you are hit with cravings – taking a walk or doing 10 sprints will subside the urge.
4. Write down your goals! Write why you are interested in improving your health and reducing cravings and hang up your answer in a place you look to frequently.
5. Replace the food you crave with a better option.
6. Educate yourself on the negative impact processed foods can have on your health. Why are highly processed foods bad? Why are certain ingredients bad? What effect does it have on your body? How does it make you feel?
7. Get a support group. Having a small community of others around you who are going through the same thing can improve your motivation for change. Whether you put together a group of friends for a nutrition challenge or join one, it can be a great way to stay accountable and prevent falling back into old eating patterns.
8. Journal. Keep a simple food log and take note of how certain foods make you feel.
9. Drink a cup of herbal tea, take an epsom salt bath, practice yoga, and meditate.
10. Use positive self talk!