Food Cravings & What They Really Say

CRAVINGS

Once the clock strikes 3 o’clock, my entire office heads for the candy cabinet. What causes this sugar craving? I’ve always wanted to get to the bottom of it and be able to say no to my afternoon fix.

Most often it’s chocolate. It’s like my body has a chocolate meter and when my levels are too low, an alarm sounds. Other times, it’s chips or popcorn. That salty crunchiness calls to me and no other food will do. I know I’m not hungry so why is my body asking for these empty calories?

Food cravings send us mixed signals so we have to carefully listen and evaluate what our body truly needs. They can be physical or psychological.


Physical Cravings

►Lack of nutrients. Your body is not receiving adequate vitamins and minerals it needs for optimal performance.

►Hormone levels. For women, premenstrual cravings are common and the number 1 food we want is chocolate. Chocolate increases serotonin levels, which drop during this stage in the cycle and need a boost.

►Low blood sugar. Skipping meals and becoming famished will cause your blood sugar to dive and lead to intense cravings.

►Restrictive diet. When you restrict, your body feels deprived and fixates on the things you’ve banished. All you think about is the cake you can’t have so you crave it constantly.

►Brain development. The part of your brain that helps you control your behaviors, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, may be underdeveloped or damaged. Reduced activity in this portion of your brain can lead to overindulgence of junk food.

►Lack of good but bacteria. Your gut creates satiation hormones but when the good and bad bacteria are out of balance, the hormones are suppressed.


Psychological Cravings

According to medical professionals, cravings are rarely linked to a shortage of nutrients so I’ll focus more on the emotional connection. We have a biological reaction when we crave foods. Lack of willpower has nothing to do with it. Cravings are your body’s way of telling you it needs something, whether it’s comfort, love, distraction, etc. Our brains remember how certain foods make us feel and when one makes us feel good, we keep going back.

Cravings lie in the pleasure, emotion and memory centers of the brain.

►Ancestors. As humans, we are programmed to seek out fat and sugar as a survival mechanism. Our ancestors were not as fortunate as us to be surrounded by prepackaged foods. They didn’t know the time of their next meal so the body developed eating high caloric foods that would sustain them. The world of industrialized food is working against us now. Temptation lies on every block.

►Endorphins. Indulging in food cravings releases endorphins, which make us feel calm. So when we give in and eat the brownie or potato chips, our body tells us we feel better.

►Over producing hormones. Brain chemicals actually trigger cravings for certain foods. The chemical galanin signals a hankering for sweet, salty and fatty foods. When we eat more of the foods, our body produces more galanin and we want these foods more often.

►Mood changer
. Sweet and starchy foods raise levels of neurochemical serotonin, which help stabilize mood. If you eat a steak and all you really want is a hot fudge sundae, you probably feel full but you still want the sundae. The steak did not impact your serotonin level. Only sugar will change your mood and satisfy you.

►Stress. Food is the most common thing we reach for when stressed or feeling anxiety. If I have a crappy day, all I want is ice cream to soothe my sorrows. The goal is to find other means of stress relief.

►Nostalgia. Deep rooted memories of childhood lead to certain cravings. My grandmother would bring me frozen yogurt when I was sick and I want exactly that when I’m under the weather now. Environmental associates cause cravings as well. It’s impossible not to think of s’mores when you’re around a bonfire.

►Emotional eating
. This is my biggest struggle. For those of us with eating disorders, we use food to control our emotions. It’s a psychological need that typically requires professional help to learn how to accept and feel our true emotions rather than suppressing them with food.

►See and Smell. We are easily tempted by smells and delicious looking foods. Walk into a bakery and take in the delicious aromas and gorgeous pastry case. How can you say no?


Solutions:

►Wait 20 minutes. Cravings are said to only last 15 to 20 minutes.

►Stay away from restrictive diets. Give yourself freedom to enjoy pizza or french fries once in a while.

►Eat a nutrient dense diet and avoid skipping meals. Plan out your food so you eat a combination of fat, carbs and protein at each meal and eat every 4 or so hours. Staying on a regular eating pattern also helps to avoid abrupt brain chemical changes and keeps your blood sugar steady throughout the day.

►Have a healthy gut. When your gut flora is balanced, you create more satiation hormones. Try eating something fermented everyday to get more good bacteria, like bifidobacteria, in your gut. You don’t need much, just a bite of sauerkraut or 4oz of kombucha.

►Exercise. – Aerobic exercise, the kind that leaves you dripping in sweat, builds new cells in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex part of your brain which drives your behavior controls. These new cells also improve your memory, focus and concentration, training your mind to focus away from cravings. Once these cells are created they require their own exercise, so make sure to keep your brain in shape. Learning a new instrument is one of the best ways to do this.

►De-stress. Stress tells the brain that we need to be soothed. What better to soothe us than a bag of Cheetos and a chocolate chip cookie? Instead of using food to cope with stress, take your focus away from food and take a walk, do a quick meditation (this helps me SO much!) or watch funny cat video. Even corny jokes help. Why did the hormone go to the gym? To do some serotonin. Haha!

►Keep a cravings journal
. Each time you have a craving write down the food, what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. After a week analyze the findings to determine ways to change your behavior.

►Seek professional help. If you have an eating disorder, find a therapist you trust and begin the healing process.


Step away from your craving and ask your body what it really needs.


Resources

Junk Food Cravings Linked to Brain Lapse, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_148581.html

Think Better: Exercise, http://www.karenpostal.com/exercise-think-better/

Conquering Cravings, http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201409/food-affects-your-mood-health/conquering-cravings

Emotional Eating, Part 2: What Your Food Cravings Say About You, http://kennedybakernutrition.com/2012/08/29/emotional-eating-series-part-2-what-your-food-cravings-say-about-you/

How Probiotics Helped Reduce My Sugar Cravings, http://paleoforwomen.com/how-probiotics-put-an-end-to-my-sugar-cravings/

A Novel Strategy for Beating Food Cravings, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/real-healing/201312/novel-strategy-beating-food-cravings

Help! I Can’t Stop These Cravings! Part 2, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/diet-is-4-letter-word/201306/help-i-can-t-stop-these-cravings-part-2

4 Tips for a Guilt-Free Holiday (Eat the Pie!)

Photo by sheckys.com
Photo by sheckys.com

It’s Thanksgiving week. Let the overeating begin! Are you already worried about the excess food you’ll consume and how you’ll burn off those extra calories? I am. Or at least that’s my old brain talking. In the past I would strategically prepare for the big meal. Practically starve myself the week before and work out like crazy to burn as many calories as possible. Then wake up early Thanksgiving morning to work out for an hour and get in a walk post meal. After all that, I’d still beat myself up for eating that extra piece of pie. This year that old me is gone. No more holiday food guilt.

This year I faced my eating disorder and vowed to get healthy. I have a new perspective focused on eating to live. The days of overindulging are over. Having to recover from a meal is not how I want to live my life. I gave up alcohol years ago for that same reason. Food is intended to nourish, not make us feel guilty. Over-exercising and restricting before a big meal leads to disastrous results. It gives me permission to eat all 12 desserts. And then I have a legitimate sugar handover for three days. All that pie isn’t worth the crappy feeling and strain on my body.

Don’t get me wrong though, I still LOVE food. Portion size is my main concern. I can still have the dessert if I keep the servings in check. I want to be free to eat what I want without the burden of extra exercise hanging over me. This year the destructive thoughts will be replaced with acceptance. I’m doing my best to keep guilt out of the equation, which turns food from a fun, delicious thing that nourishes me into a big, bad monster.

Why we Eat More on Holidays

All we think about during the holidays is how we don’t want to gain weight. We’re fixated on food and trying to exhibit our best willpower efforts. “I can only have 1 cookie at the party!” Or trying to compromise with ourselves. “Tomorrow I’ll take two spinning classes and do yoga to burn off the sweet potato casserole and pecan pie.” We also starve ourselves before the big meal and overeat as a result. Since food is top of mind, we can’t help but obsess and all that obsessing leads to overeating. If food is on your brain then it’s on your plate. It’s called the Resist-Binge Cycle.


Guilt-Free Guide

1. Go in with a Plan

Write down a set of reasonable rules for yourself. Position your seat farthest from the buffet table, serve tiny portions of all foods and then determine what foods are worth seconds, have an extra serving of mashed potatoes and eat less dessert, etc. I know I can’t sit next to the dessert table since it will taunt me until I give in and eat three slices of each. So I have to sit as far from it as possible. I also have to limit myself to one plate of dessert. One plate and it’s over. My sweet tooth is screaming “NO!!!” right now. But it has to be done.

2. Practice Saying “No, thanks”

This one always gets me. I hate saying “no.” I’m a people pleaser by nature so when I’m offered an extra helping of turkey that my grandmother cooked for six hours, how can I say no? But then my health suffers.

I have to remind myself that I’m the one who has to live with the consequences of eating the extra slice that’s going to put me over the edge. It’s not possible to please everyone at the holidays. Saying no takes a lot of practice. Have a line ready to go so you don’t have to think about it. Begin by thanking the person that offers so they know you appreciate them and then go in for the rejection. “Thank you, it was really delicious but I”m just too full.” Bob Burg has a great insight on this. He advises that your response should to be in line with your values and come from a place of kindness. A kind “no, thank you” goes a long way.

3. Focus on the People, not the Food

When it comes down to it, the food is a far off second. Thanksgiving is about speeding time with loved ones. Forget the food. You could make turkey and dressing any night of the week but your grandmother is only sitting next to you twice a year. Instead of stuffing my face with more pie, I’ll catch up with my cousins and play games with my nephew.

4. Eat the Foods you Love

Remember the Restrict-Binge Cycle. Depriving yourself only makes it worse. Eat the damn dessert and enjoy it. My life is better with chocolate pie once a year than never at all.