At this time of year unhealthy foods surround us and tempt us. Food cravings can kick in and continue into the new year. What might normally be a mild craving for a sweet food after a meal might escalate. In addition, it is often unhealthy, food we crave that are available at celebrations including Christmas. This gives us a choice of instant indulgence or a long-term perspective of healthy eating! So, what if it was possible to do both?
Food cravings are often sugar cravings and can be caused by the effects of certain foods in your diet or a bad habit that has reprogrammed your brain or even a nutrient deficiency. Our ancestors may even take some of the blame! For many people, this leads to over-consumption as seen in affluent nations today. In a nutshell, modern living and technology has made it easy for us to eat far more sweet and carbohydrate foods than our bodies are able to handle.
Are your ancestors to blame for food cravings?
One theory is that early man evolved to crave fruits as it was the only readily available form of quick energy! Fruit was widely available but in small healthy amounts. Hunting animals or catching fish which provided proteins and fats was sporadic. The feast and famine pattern meant our bodies learnt to store fat for survival. A great deal of activity and effort was needed to find fruit or hut animals, providing exercise which we now know supports stable blood sugar and subsequent cravings! An innate craving for sugar and fats was likely needed to drive early man to find food for survival.
In the modern age agriculture and mass production of food means high fat and carbohydrate processed food is widely and easily available very cheaply. Now such foods are not a rare treat, but staple foods easily accessed at any time. Unfortunately, we still have this innate craving for high carbohydrate and sweet foods, but the scarcity is no longer a problem for the western world.
Recognising this might help us accept the real challenge! It is not about deprivation which drives cravings, but delicious healthy foods that sustain us and that we can enjoy eating!! It is also linked to changes in brain chemistry these foods provide. Let look at the factors that influence food cravings both mental and physical.
What’s happening in your brain with food cravings?
The brain plays a significant role in the cravings. The hippocampus is responsible for making short-term and long-term memories and plays a major role in reward behaviour. It helps you to remember the taste of the foods you associate with your mood, emotions and circumstances.
Comfort foods tend to be high in carbohydrates and fats as they trigger a rush of dopamine. As a result, highly palatable foods activate the same brain regions of reward and pleasure that are active in drug addiction! Dopamine is a brain chemical that sends messages between the brain cells. It creates motivation, reward and pleasure, giving us a feel-good sensation. The brain remembers and makes a connection between the behaviour and the reward of the positive feeling.
This is how cravings and addiction may develop as our motivation to continue that behaviour is enhanced because of the feel-good reward. Even the thought of tasting certain foods generates dopamine. It follows why marketing plays on this!
What’s more sugar consumption increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, memory, and social behaviour. Because sugar boosts serotonin, you feel happier briefly, but then your brain craves this happy chemical again and again. This appears to affect women more than men, and we know that serotonin at menopause is often reduced and low serotonin triggers these cravings.
As a result, it is not just a physical but a mental struggle! But it doesn’t have to be because when we understand what’s going on we can break this cycle. Habits are like a learnt response, that are hard but not impossible, to break. Therefore, to change behaviour it helps to understand other factors that influence our cravings.
Why we crave carbohydrates!
Consequently, we can see a consistent connection between negative emotions and craving unhealthy foods, we call it emotional eating. The brain associates a low mood, with unhealthy sugary and fatty foods as a coping mechanism. In contrast, a positive mood will tend towards healthy food choices. Comfort foods do provide some respite from our low moods, but so do other foods or even receiving no food at all. Also comfort foods can put you in a negative state of mind for up to 2 days possibly due to guilt and or the sugar crash after a high-carb meal. Sugar consumption increases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, appetite, memory, and social behaviour. Because sugar boosts serotonin, you feel happier, temporarily, so your brain craves this happy chemical again and again.
Social connection and cravings
Food is a closely related with social interaction, we often eat with family and friends! Yet a sense of belonging is helpful for both our physical digestion and absorption of food. Not surprisingly it helps our mental health. Because families often eat separate meals, in our modern culture, we are more likely to rush our meals and resort to fast food. So, the downside is we turn to comfort foods during times when we feel low and isolated. No doubt quarantine and physical isolation has contributed to mental health problems and weight gain over the pandemic. It might also explain the baking and bread fad that took off at the start!
Good memories and routine affect cravings
Food can be linked to memories of a special person, our childhood, home, friends, or family. When we eat these certain foods, it brings back happy memories. Sometimes even the smell can trigger these positive memories. Psychology shows that smells are powerfully linked to areas in the brain that are associated with memory and emotional experiences. Consequently, if we feel lonely, we crave these foods to give us comfort and security. It follows that the power of comfort food may be in the secure associations it calls to mind.
In times of uncertainty as we are experiencing now, making, and eating comfort foods can offer us structure and the power we lack in these circumstances. Making and eating foods provides some control, what’s more it affects how we feel.
How to stop cravings!
Having compassion towards ourselves is the first step, as guilt will drive us further down the comfort food path. After that be mindful of how much and how frequently it happens, noting your triggers. We can retrain our brain to enjoy healthier options that give us more energy and better brain health.
Develop new healthy lifestyle habits when triggers of isolation and stress happen. Mindfulness deep breathing meditation, gentle movement, music or calling a friend. This can help shift the focus from unhealthy eating behaviours and establish new habits.
Poor sleep can decrease function of the part of the brain responsible for complex judgments and decisions leading to next-day junk food cravings. Additionally, the internal body clock which is disturbed by poor sleep, has a considerable role in controlling the hunger and fullness hormones. As such, ghrelin, the hunger-control hormone increases, causing you to eat more. Conversely, leptin, the appetite-suppressing hormone, decreases. Sleep deprivation causes an increase in overall hunger, which can lead to cravings of sugar, fat or both. Sleep Blog
Poor sleep also increases cortisol the stress hormone cortisol, stimulating your appetite. Any sort of stress will lead to elevated cortisol which raises glucose and insulin affecting blood sugar control. This is nature’s way of providing extra energy to escape danger, but in the modern world we often don’t have the physical exertion to counteract this. What’s more stress is often sustained over long periods of time meaning constantly high cortisol and fat storage particularly round the middle.
Dietary Factors and Food Cravings
Are carbohydrates bad?
In short no they are not but it depends on the type. Carbohydrates cover a vast array of foods from healthy whole grains like oats, barley, wheat and starchy vegetables squash, celeriac, carrots and parsnips to highly processed sweets, drinks, biscuits and cakes and alcohol. You likely know which I recommend! Refined carbohydrates enter the bloodstream fast, which quickly raises blood sugar, and insulin levels. Without fibre, protein, and fats in your meal these easily broken-down carbohydrates alone will leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied. Following this the body craves quick energy from sugar or high carbohydrate foods. Including protein and healthy fats at each meal and snack ensures slow the release of sugar into your bloodstream and less cravings. See my Blood Sugar Blog
These may seem like a good lower-calorie option, but research suggests they still cause cravings, and potentially higher food consumption resulting in weight gain possibly due to the guilt that accompanies overindulgence. However, many sweeteners are potentially harmful to the gut and have links to cancer. Safer ones include Stevia and Xylitol. What’s more having added sweeteners won’t train your brain away from the sweet taste and comfort eating.
Many think if you crave a particular food or taste, you must be deficient in it. It’s not completely wrong with sodium deficiency and craving salt. However, craving sweet and carbohydrate is better explained by mineral imbalances in the body. An iron deficiency will cause low energy and your body will crave quick energy to perk itself up. The crucial minerals Calcium, zinc, chromium, and magnesium help maintain hydration status. When you aren’t properly hydrated, our bodies can mistake it for low energy and make you crave carbohydrates when you might just be thirsty. They are also key for hundreds of processes in your body, from carbohydrate metabolism to making and regulating hormones and enzymes that support our hormones and brain. The Mineral Blog
Food for Neurotransmitters
Although unhealthy, sugary and fatty foods stimulate an increase in dopamine and serotonin eating more protein-rich foods may also have this effect due to the amino acids which are thought to deliver the same rewards as unhealthy options to balance our diet resulting in fewer cravings and less desire to overeat.
Tryptophan is a protein that can be converted in the body into 5-HTP, which then forms serotonin and melatonin. Furthermore, these molecules influence many functions in the body, including sleep, mood and behaviour and cognition. It’s impact on the brain is particularly important as low levels are associated with mood disorders. It is recommended to eat protein rich tryptophan foods alongside carbohydrates to ensure they can get passed the blood brain barrier. It’s sources include turkey, chicken, eggs cheese fish peanuts pumpkin and sesame seeds and soy!
Boosting dopamine also involves eating protein foods high in the amino acid tyrosine. Tyrosine is the chemical precursor to dopamine that prevents energy spikes and crashes that can cause irritability and tiredness. It is found in high quality protein foods like meat and fish, other sources that support it include dark chocolate, bananas, nuts, beetroot, and apples!
Quick Tips to Minimize Cravings:
- Be aware of comfort eating triggers and have another option available. For example, as soon as you get a craving drink a glass of water, run up and down the stairs or phone a friend!
- Get sufficient, better quality, and consistent sleep. Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Incorporate more proteins or fats into your diet. Avoid snacks or meals that are made up of all carbohydrates. And reduce artificial sweetener intake.
- Include high protein to stabilises blood sugar. Proteins in turkey, eggs, fish boost serotonin and dopamine. Others include dark chocolate, bananas, nuts and soy.
- Find foods with high levels of magnesium, zinc, iron, and calcium. See the blog
- Chromium is a mineral is often lacking in our modern diet, it helps support healthy blood sugar levels and may help lessen carbohydrate cravings. Supplements are useful but it is found in shellfish, broccoli and other vegetables, meat and brazil nuts.
This ranges from a Health Reboot with supplement review and dietary recommendations
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