Food Cravings: What Causes Cravings and How You Can Stop Them
If you’re reading this, you’re probably dealing with food cravings that don’t relent until you give in and indulge. The most common cravings are for sweets and refined carbohydrates, especially in the afternoon.
What Causes Food Cravings
There are two sides to food cravings; the physiological causes – the chemical reactions in the body – and the psychological triggers – the mental and emotional side of food cravings.
The Physiological Causes
When you’re stressed or anxious, your body reacts by releasing three chemicals, dopamine, cortisol, and serotonin.
Serotonin (sometimes referred to as the “happy chemical”) is a neurotransmitter produced by the brain. Your body pumps it out to reduce anxiety and improve your mood. It also works as an antidepressant.
When you experience a lot of stress or anxiety, your body quickly uses up its supply of serotonin to help keep you calm and centered. As a result, we instinctively reach for sugar and wheat because they trigger the brain to release more serotonin.
Cortisol (also known as the fight-or-flight hormone) gets released during dangerous or threatening situations to give you the energy boost you need to escape or defend yourself. But, it also gets released when you’re stressed or anxious.
For your body to create energy, cortisol sends a signal to your brain that it’s hungry. It creates cravings for simple carbohydrates, in particular, because those foods can be converted into energy quickly.
Dopamine is another feel-good chemical that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. When you eat sugar, it causes a large amount of dopamine to be released, and we look for that ‘high’ again and again. This response also contributes to your body’s addiction to sugar, which I explain below.
Sugar and wheat are highly addictive.
Wheat contains the protein gliadin. When your body digests gliadin, it creates a substance called exorphins, a morphine-like compound. The brain uses exorphins to cause an effect similar to that of opium. Unlike opium, exorphins don’t relieve pain or create a “high.” But they do create addictive eating behaviors and stimulate your appetite.
Multiple studies have shown that sugar is just as addictive as cocaine and heroin. Just like any other addictive substance (like drugs or alcohol), when you indulge in too much sugar, your brain decreases your sense of pleasure from it. That creates a tolerance to the sugar “high,” and we crave larger and larger quantities.
If you think you have a food addiction, take this quick online quiz by Dr. Pamela Peeke. It can help you determine how likely it is that you have one.
Emotional Eating: The Psychological Triggers
One particular study shows that individuals reach for comfort foods because of an association between the foods and happy childhood memories. When you eat those same foods as an adult, you get connected to those happier times and may experience temporary, emotional relief from negative feelings and emotional discomfort.
How to Stop Emotional Eating; this is where you have to do some self-analysis and dig deeper into your behavior. The most effective way to do this is to keep a journal.
With a cravings journal, you track what you crave, when you want it, and what you felt when the craving hit (tired, stressed, lonely, angry, etc.)
You’ll see patterns in your behavior and may realize that you need to make some changes to your lifestyle or routine. For example, if you frequently eat in front of the TV, you need to break that habit. One place to start is to eliminate junk foods from your home. Another is to stop eating in front of the TV, where we tend to eat continuously without even realizing it.
When you gain more insight into those triggers, you’ll be better prepared to stop yourself from indulging and do something else. If you find, for example, that you reach for a lot of sweets when you feel stressed out, exercising can help a lot. Cardiovascular exercise reduces stress and decreases the cortisol that, as I mentioned above, makes you reach for those sweet comfort foods.
Food cravings are not easy to deal with and eliminate. But, if you persevere, you can control both the physical and psychological sides of food cravings.
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Disclaimer: The information on this site is for information purposes only. It is not intended to replace your healthcare professional or provide diagnosis or treatment.