What’s Causing Your Cravings?

The Meaning Behind Food Cravings


What Do Your Cravings Mean?

  • Craving sweet foods may mean you need more sweetness in your life or that you do not feel sweet enough.
  • Craving smooth or creamy foods could mean that you are feeling like life is very rough and turbulent or there is an area in your life that you wish was easier.
  • Craving crunchy, salty foods may mean that you are angry or frustrated at something or someone. Kind of like the “stew and chew.”
  • Craving warm foods could mean you are longing for some emotional warmth from someone.
  • Craving spicy foods may mean you want more excitement in your life.

The Science Behind Food Cravings

Three regions of the brain – the hippocampus, insula, and caudate – appear to be activated during food-craving episodes, according to new research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center. Their brain tests suggest that memory areas of the brain (which are responsible for associating a specific food with a reward) are actually more important to food cravings than the brain’s reward center.
Further, blocking the opiate receptors in the brain (the pleasure sensors) can blunt a person’s desire to eat foods rich in fat and sugar, according to new research by Adam Drewnowski, PhD of the University of Washington, whose research includes issues of taste and food preferences.

How Stress Leads to Cravings

Beyond the physiological reasons, food cravings often have something to do with emotion and desire. “Food cravings arise to satisfy emotional needs, such as calming stress and reducing anxiety,” says Drewnowski. For many of us, our cravings peak and become hard to control when we are stressed or anxious. Research suggests that carbohydrates boost our levels of the hormone serotonin, and it appears that the combination of fat and sugar may also have a calming effect.

Researchers from University of California at San Francisco put rats in a high-stress environment and discovered two key points: the stressed-out rats preferred to eat sugar and fat, and when the rats ate fat and sugar their brains produced less of the stress-related hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, which help to regulate our fight-or-flight response. Also, the stress hormone known as cortisol makes us crave fats and salt, which help to keep us full of fluid and energy in times of stress, but also leads to weight gain because of the high calorie content in most of these foods.

An excessive supply of energy in our body is stored as fat and is an evolutionary advantage embedded in our genes, according to an article in the American Psychological Society Observer. Humans have been able to survive times of famine and hardship throughout history due largely to our ability to store excess calories as fat. Thus, because of this evolutionary advantage, our bodies may be programmed to crave high-calorie foods. Also, several studies have suggested that eating a diet that lacks variety can lead to more food cravings. Let’s be honest though, as the truth of the matter is that the foods we crave during times of stress really do taste great, which makes us want even more of them! The favorites such as cookies, mac and cheese, chocolate, ice cream, French Fries and chips seem to satisfy our needs for salt sugar and fat— all at once! Yum!

Tips for Curbing Food Cravings

So here are some tips to help curb those cravings—or at least be mindful of them so you can make better choices.

1. Help yourself by knowing yourself

If you find you can’t just stop at one then know that about yourself and plan for success.
If this describes you, your best bet may be to have only portion-controlled amounts of your desired food on hand. Buy a single slice of pie or cake instead of a whole one; buy one chocolate-chip cookie instead of baking a batch; or treat yourself to a scoop of ice cream instead of a pint or half-gallon.

2. Make lower-calorie choices when possible

Will lower-calorie craving choices be as satisfying as the real deal? This depends on how great tasting the alternate food or beverages are. If you make lower-calorie, lower-fat brownies that taste just as yummy as regular brownies, they’ll probably satisfy your fudge brownie craving. If you crave soda and you drink a glass of half diet soda and half real soda, chances are it will do the trick.
When Barbara Rolls, PhD, at Pennsylvania State University watched 24 young women in their food lab, she observed that the women’s hunger could be satisfied with lower calorie, smaller dishes and the taste was satisfying as well.

3. Be aware of food triggers

Fast food is everywhere… it’s plentiful, cheap and on every corner. If you wanted to engineer a good food environment, you’d have the reverse of all that,” says Kelly D. Brownell, PhD, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders.

4. Don’t let yourself get too hungry

What happens when you skip a meal, or refrain from eating when you’re truly hungry? Sooner or later, you get SO hungry that you end up overeating to compensate. It’s in this state of extreme hunger that we tend to crave quick-fix foods like candy bars. Eating several meals throughout the day may help to control cravings and binge-type eating.

5. Start a cravings journal

If you have a real problem with food cravings, keep a cravings journal for a month. List the times of day you have cravings, the emotions you’re feeling at the time, the foods you crave, and what and how much you ate. When you look back through your journal, ask yourself if there are any patterns, such as certain times of day when you tend to experience food cravings. Are there certain emotions or situations that tend to bring them on? What can you do to avoid the trigger or to manage the emotion better, such as taking a brisk walk or calling a friend to chat or go work out?

6. Smart carbs to the rescue

We’ve established that our bodies often crave high-fat and high-sugar (or high-refined-carb) foods. And we know that when we feed our stressed-out bodies carbohydrates, it helps calm them down. So the best way to calm our bodies and yet nourish them is to choose “smart carbs” like whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. These foods give your body the carbs it craves along with lasting nutritional power from fiber, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. Craving a grilled cheese sandwich? Make it with whole-wheat bread and choose a low-fat cheese. Are you craving a pastry or sweet treat? Use a natural sweetener such as stevia or honey and limit the amount. Add in some fresh fruit for additional fiber on something like pancakes. Modifying recipes can help you find success.

7. Take care of yourself

Most of us could use a good dose of nurturing. If we take good care of ourselves day to day, we may be less likely to feel stressed, angry, unhappy, etc., and therefore less likely to crave comfort foods. If the voice inside you seems to be telling you to indulge in junk food every time you turn around, it may be a red flag that you need some nurturing. Maybe you need some support, time to yourself, or time to play a little. Read, get a massage, meet friends for a walk, head to the gym… feel free to be a little self-indulgent. Your mind and spirit probably need the boost, and your body will thank you for taking better care of it.

Finally, remember about the health benefits of REGULAR EXERCISE! It has profound effects on your hormonal balance that lasts for hours. Exercise helps to shift the balance of hormones from the production of stress hormones (like cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine), to the feel good hormones of serotonin and endorphins, which boost your mood, relieve pain and end suffering. There is nothing better than natural opiates to end your cravings. Your mind, body and spirit will thank you!

So here is to a healthy, happy and craving-controlled 2015.

Elizabeth Salada, MD
Internal Medicine and Wellness

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