What are Food Cravings and Why Do We Have Them?
It might be something you associate with pregnancy, or just late night snack attacks. Innocuously called ‘cravings’, we laugh when we recall a particular binge associated with a craving and then we move on. But how many of us stop to consider—what are food cravings and why do we have them? Can we get rid of cravings? Do they mean something other than a desire to eat a particular food?
Cravings for food are much like a chemical addiction. The brain releases hormones from its reward center when it receives carbs and sweet stuff—mostly the stuff we aren’t supposed to have. The reaction is euphoric—and it keeps us wanting more.
We can actually, train our brains—but we’ll get to that in a minute.
What are Food Cravings: The Brain’s Reward Center
The reward center of the brain is responsible for your sweet, salty or simple carb cravings. In fact, this part of the brain releases the same chemicals drugs release, causing a euphoric state in the mind. Studies found carb ‘addicts’ have the same dopamine gene marker that alcoholics have.
We literally produce opioids like cocaine, heroin and other addictive drugs—as a result of consuming sugars and fats.
So, first and foremost—a food craving is a result of consuming a food that causes the brain to release chemicals to remind it—“Hey, that was some gooooood stuff, let’s do it again.”
This reaction by the brain is considered a behavior reinforcement –which is the beginning of your addiction and future food cravings.
What are Food Cravings: The Three Phases of Addiction
The smart people in white labs coats have identified three stages of addiction development.
- First: Binging. This is where you sit down and have a whole large pizza, or a dozen donuts instead of a normal serving. This usually occurs after depriving yourself of the type of food you’re binging on.
- Second: Sensitization. This is where you develop an increased responsiveness by your body to your chosen food/s.
- Third: Tolerance. This is where you need more of that food to be satisfied and produce the same euphoric effect.
In most studies the foods people craved the most were fatty, greasy, salty and sugary—aka high in calories.
Most people with these cravings deprive themselves from them while eating a bland diet—which sets one up for binging when the opportunity presents itself.
Not only is the brain involved in convincing you to stuff your gourd with sweet greasy empty calories until you’re popping at the seams—so do hormones.
It’s part of the tolerance development of the addiction—the hormone receptors that make us feel that joy when we put our lips to that glazed donut becomes less sensitive. And we need more.
The best part about all of this is that the most common trigger for cravings has been identified, the worst part is that it happens at the worst time—when you start a diet.
What are Food Cravings: How to Overcome Them
We know why we get cravings, we know the brain and hormones play a big role in addiction and cravings, so how can we use that information to tackle it?
Easy—use the same brain that’s getting us in the mess to get us out of it.
Total Recall: When we crave foods, we are recalling them with our brain—this ignites hunger and cravings. Simply thinking about something else with the same intensity can help stop the cravings because you’re utilizing the same part of the brain to imagine something else.
Pavlov’s Dogs: Another is to set up a new response to your cravings. If you recall Pavlov’s dogs, he trained them to salivate when they heard a bell. How? Every time they heard the bell, they were fed tasty food. He did this over and over until one day he rang the bell and didn’t deliver the food. The dogs still salivated in anticipation of the food, even though it wasn’t present—their brains were trained.
Retrain yours. When you start having a craving-do something you can do every time you have one. For instance, hit the treadmill, go for a walk, grab a specific drink—make it a gross one if you want, wear a rubber band on your wrist and snap it each time—whatever you do—do it consistently so you can train your brain to know that when it has cravings—it does not get what it wants.
It will come to expect whatever you replace the food with, so make it something you can do every time.
Over time, the less you give into your cravings, the less you’ll have them. It’s like with Pavlov’s dogs—if after the bell rang—no food came, they’d eventually stop salivating. Your brain will get there, too.
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