The mind is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to food and sugar cravings. You know your triggers. The ice cream calling to you from the freezer, the chocolate chip cookies in the pantry, the delicious cheese fries at your favorite restaurant. It seems like the food is taunting you, but really, it's your brain.
We all have cravings, but do we understand why they happen? And more importantly, do we understand how to get rid them? I don't know about you, but I have experienced cravings so strong in the past that whatever I'm craving is all that I can think about. In that situation I almost always eat whatever it is I am craving because otherwise I'll eat my entire weight in other food while trying to figure out something else that will tame the craving.
Most food cravings have very little to do with hunger, but they have both a biological and psychological components. Sugar, carbs, chocolate, and salt are some of the most common things that people report craving.
Before we get to the ways you can overcome your food cravings, I want to talk about what causes them. Beware, there's lots of science here!!
Causes of Food Cravings
Leptin is a hormone that is produced by the fat cells in the body. Leptin acts on the brain (specifically the hypothalamus) and is supposed to tell it that we have enough fat stored, we don't need to eat, and we can continue burning calories at a normal rate. It has other functions, but the main role is maintaining energy balance.
In modern bodies, leptin is excellent at keeping us from starving, but the mechanism that is supposed to prevent us from overeating appears to be broken. Fat cells use leptin to tell the brain how much body fat it carries. A lot of leptin tells the brain that there is plenty of stored fat, while lower levels of leptin tell the brain that fat stores are not sufficient and we are at risk of starving.
We eat, body fat goes up, leptin goes up, we eat less and burn more OR we don't eat, body fat goes down, leptin goes down, we eat more and burn less.
People who are obese have increased fat cells and very high levels of leptin. But if leptin tells us not to eat, shouldn't people who are obese not have hunger signals and have no trouble losing weight? The problem is leptin resistance - there's so much leptin in the system that they brain just stops paying attention to it (it gets desensitized to it).
When the brain doesn't get the signals from leptin, it thinks that the body is starving even though it has more than adequate energy stores. This makes the brain change both our physiology and our behavior in order to gain the fat that our brain thinks we are missing. This can also be the cause of many food cravings, it's your broken leptin feedback loop telling you to eat more to get back body fat that you don't actually need.
Eating a lot of sugar can also cause similar cravings. Sugar triggers your fat cells to release leptin. These constant leptin surges can also lead to leptin resistance, which also further decreases your ability to perceive your actual appetite. Eating a well-balanced diet is the most effective way to keep a normal balance of leptin in your body and decrease cravings.
Low levels of serotonin
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. It is the mostly commonly targeted neurotransmitter when treating depression. Most of the serotonin produced in our bodies comes from our gastrointestinal tract and is tired directly to our mood, appetite, and digestion. When we eat foods high in sugar, insulin is released into our bloodstream. The insulin removes amino acids and the sugar, with the exception of tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, and without the other amino acids in the bloodstream (removed by insulin) it can enter the brain and increase the amount of serotonin produced. This makes us feel amazing for a very short time.
When serotonin levels are low, our brains think that eating something sugary or full of carbs like a candy bar or a bagel will make us feel better. Low serotonin can be due to many things including poor gut health, alcohol consumption, depression, and anxiety. This is why when you are feeling sad, you might often crave carbs.
Endorphins and Food Addiction
Our brain is designed to reward us when we do things that encourage survival. This includes behaviors such as eating. Our brains know that when we eat we are doing something "right" and releases feel-good hormones (dopamine and others). This might not sound so bad, except that our brains are also wired to actually seek out these rewarding behaviors. The problem is that modern junk food causes the "reward" (release of feel-good neurotransmitters) to be much bigger and stronger than it would have been otherwise.
When the brain sees that dopamine is too high, it removes dopamine receptors to keep things balanced. However, when you have fewer receptors, you need more dopamine to reach the same effect. This causes you to eat more junk food to get an even bigger response.
A recent study shows that sugar can actually have a more intense feeling of reward than cocaine. It’s that powerful. Another study looking at the addictive qualities of foods found that highly foods that are highly processed and filled with fat and sugar can cause addictive eating behaviors because of their rapid rate of absorption. The more you can avoid packaged and processed foods, the more control you’ll have over your food choices!
A Messed Up Gut
We have already discussed that low serotonin levels are linked to cravings, and that your gut is the center of serotonin production. In order for you to maintain levels of serotonin that allow you to feel good, your gut needs to be able to absorb nutrients from your food and produce serotonin. This processes depends on a good balance of bacteria in your gut. But when your diet is low in things like vegetables, fermented foods, probiotics, and high-quality proteins, the good bacteria die off and bad bacteria take over (fiber from vegetables is important for feeding the good bacteria) and create more cravings.
Sadness, boredom, stress, poor self-esteem, negative body image, etc. can prompt you to heed to the food calling from the pantry. Who doesn’t want a pint of ice cream when going through a painful breakup, losing a job, or just having a bad day? This phenomenon is called phantom hunger. Since most food cravings often disappear within an hour, choosing to eat a healthier food or opting for an activity that will boost your mood may give you enough satisfaction temporarily while the craving passes.
5 Tips to Overcome Food Cravings
1. Stay hydrated. Make sure that you are drinking about half your body weight (lbs) in ounces of water daily (for example: if you weigh 140 lbs, aim to drink 70 oz of water a day). Thirst and dehydration can make you feel hungry, and might cause an increase in food cravings. Drink water throughout the day to help you stay hydrated and control your hunger.
If you want to be more precise with your water intake, take a look at this post on hydration for athletes where I talk about some actual science behind how to figure out how much to drink.
2. Avoid sugary foods and processed carbs. To prevent leptin surges and blood sugar crashes from pumping up your appetite, avoid processed carbs and sugary foods as much as you can. You can definitely still enjoy delicious treats, just be sure to make them yourself with lower sugar, higher fiber, and higher protein ingredients, like dark chocolate, almond flour, cassava flour, or coconut flour. These ingredients don't tend to trigger cravings and they pack in some valuable nutrition that can help you be healthier overall.
3. Exercise and stay rested. Rather than relying on feel-good foods like French fries and cookies to help you feel relaxed and happy, try going for a walk and make sure to get into bed a little earlier in the evening (read more about why athletes need more sleep here). These activities produce endorphins just like chocolate or ice cream. Plus, the exercise can also boost your serotonin levels, something that can also help you skip sugar and extra carbs.
4. Make sunshine a priority. Getting 10-15 minutes of sunshine a day can help boost serotonin levels so you’re not reaching for an afternoon candy bar to turn your mood around.
5. Avoid trigger foods for 21 days. Unfortunately, your taste buds have excellent memory. If you really want to break food cravings, one of the best things to do is to avoid eating those foods. Find healthier options to eat when you’re craving candy, cheese, or chips. Things like smoothies, fresh berries, guacamole with veggies, or raw nuts can do the trick.
Does this mean that you will never get to eat birthday cake, french fries, or bagels ever again? Absolutely not! However, if you feel like cravings are taking over your life, hopefully these tips will help you regain your control again.