If you are trying to make healthier food choices and take back control of your food addictions, calming cravings is critical.
I believe cravings are a complicated interplay between psychology and physiology. Some say if you crave chocolate, you are deficient in magnesium. What’s more plausible to me is your craving chocolate because it’s a conditioned habit or that your body is under-nourished.
The food industry relies on the science of cravings to keep you coming back for more. There is a potent biological reason we continue to eat food scientists engineered hyper-palatable food, those companies coming up with chocolate-covered potato chips know what they’re doing. The overconsumption of fat and sugar releases dopamine, triggering your brain’s same area as drugs do and initiating not just a one-time craving but a repetitive learned behavior. When we know that certain foods taste good will make us feel good, even temporarily, we seek them repeatedly and end up locked in a cycle of using food for comfort. Biology will always win over willpower.
Ideally, we all want to get to the place where you don’t have to rely on willpower not to eat crappy foods, but that you don’t want to eat them, either.
Here’s your guide to crushing cravings: physiologically and psychologically
Taming the physiological sabuteur
Taste Bud Rehab
Frequent consumption of overly sugary, fatty, or salty foods, both hooks and dulls your taste buds; eventually, you’ll need to eat more to get the same level of satisfaction. Happily, the opposite is also true: The less of a food you eat, the less of it you need to score a rush. The more vegetables you eat, the more your taste buds will become accustomed to them and gasp, start to want. Think of healthy eating as an experiment. Give Taste Bud Rehab three weeks. It’s harder for some people more than others. Whether you have cut out processed foods altogether or cut down, usually within a month, you’ll notice that smaller amounts of your guilty pleasures are enough to hit the spot—leaving your palate more receptive to healthier flavors.
The Hormonal Aspect
Willpower won’t win over hormones either.
Eating lots of processed foods and refined carbohydrates puts the human body on a blood sugar/insulin roller coaster, meaning when your high blood sugar drops again, you turn into a ravenous beast who wants its next sugar fix.
Studies have found the part of the brain that handles stress is activated during times of cravings. If you can control your cortisol hormones with mindfulness or self-care, you will have another tool to help break the habit of reaching for food when you need to calm yourself.
Not getting enough sleep can wreck your health in a hundred ways, one of which is hormones. Two hormones that regulate hunger—ghrelin, and leptin—are affected by sleep: Ghrelin stimulates appetite, while leptin decreases it. When the body is sleep-deprived, ghrelin spikes, while the level of leptin falls, leading to an increase in hunger. A poor night of sleep increases cravings.
You can help control cravings through proper nutrition. Crowd out the bad stuff with MORE nutrient-dense food.
The food you eat affects the balance of brain chemistry, hormones, and blood sugar levels. Your diet is more about what you do regularly than what you might do in the moment of craving. Ensuring you are getting adequate protein, good fat, and fibrous carbs spread out over the day is your number one peaceful warrior weapon against cravings.
Both over- and undereating create unstable blood sugar, low functioning thyroid, and spike cortisol, which can weaken neurotransmitter mechanisms. Most food addicts tend to restrict food intake during the day, and then overeat at night, which can have a very negative effect on your food cravings.
Remember: Your meals should contain enough essential fatty acids and amino acids (protein) to build sufficient serotonin and dopamine, both of which help you manage food intake (particularly the intake of carbohydrates). Pay close attention to the food that you eat during the day and say to yourself, “Am I helping or hurting my cravings by what I’m about to put in my mouth?” Think like an objective scientist. If you know that food is composed of chemical and molecular compounds that can affect your biochemistry, doesn’t it make sense to choose the ones that will make you healthy, energetic, and vital?
Taming the Psychological Saboteur
Similarly to how you can retrain your biology, you can reset your eating psychology. Every time you use a coping mechanism to offset an unwanted food craving, you feed the more potent, healthier part of your mind. You’ve made yourself stronger, and more in control of cravings. Great! Now start all over again, and do the same thing tomorrow. Maybe it’s calling a friend, meditating, chatting on this Quest site, do whatever works for you. Keep building up that resilient muscle.
I know it’s hard, I do. But you can do it—moment by moment, one day at a time. After consistently sticking to avoiding slippery places and people who set up for a craving, people notice a dramatic improvement.
Mindfulness focuses our attention on the daily experience, moment by moment. By merely pausing and noticing, our awareness of behaviors that make us feel good can create new reward pathways in our brains. Mindfulness focuses our attention on the moment by moment. Our reward should be the twinkly little lights of a life well lived moment by moment, rather than putting pleasure on hold until we can finally allow for, at the end of the day, a floodlight of reward food and drink. The behaviors involved with floodlights of reward—overeating, for example—usually don’t make us feel good at all in the long run.”
Geneen Roth says that a women’s relationship with food is about something bigger—a search for wholeness, and I agree.
Coach Christina MS, CNS, LN