Food cravings: where they come from, why we have them, and most importantly, how to fool them!
Food cravings…what a can of worms! So many people struggle with this, so I thought I’d tackle the problem head-on in a series of posts.
First I want to share with you where food cravings actually come from, because if you know why you’re having cravings, you’re one step closer to beating them.
Then I’ll mention briefly some suggestions on dealing with them, and I’ll expand upon this in another post…with how to enjoy the process!
Where do food cravings come from?
Let’s get clear then on what cravings actually are.
For me there are two types of cravings: emotional and physical.
We’ll talk about both, as well as the substances that are behind food cravings – and then how to get those same ‘feel good’ feelings, without giving in to junk food! Take that, greasy burger!
Emotional cravings: why we have them
Craving food as an energy boost
This is where we are feeling stressed, depressed or anxious and we want to reach for that hunk of bread or jelly donut.
But don’t feel guilty – it’s how we’re wired! Here’s why:
Many years ago when we were hunting and gathering food, stress was our body’s way of saying to us, “Hey there, you’ve used up your stored ‘food energy’, time to get some more!”
Nowadays, our body is sending us different messages
In the absence of man-eating beasts, droughts or other major catastrophes, the signals our body sends us tend to be different.
They tend to be messages like “hey I’m not happy with what’s going on in our job” or “hey you need to sort out this problem in our home life.”
Unless of course you have a real need for high-calorie energy to sustain hours of outdoor effort – which would be a physical craving (see below).
Craving food as comfort
We form associations with food as children that are often unconscious. That piece of cake that we used to get from our mom after school could have meant much more to us than a mouthful of sugar.
It could have meant comfort, love, support, a reward…all kinds of things. And these meanings are unconscious – we’ve made certain associations as children that stay with us our whole lives.
Unless of course you’re reading this – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
That piece of cake or biscuit could even have meant pain relief (we’re talking relief from emotional pain).
Many of us instinctively offer chocolate to a friend or child who is hurting. Chocolate is one of the supreme ‘pleasure foods’, and of course we want to alleviate their pain and put a smile on their face… we just need to use raw chocolate!
Why? Because chocolate is one of several foods that release endorphins (‘feel good’ neurotransmitters, see below).
Physical cravings: what they are
Physical cravings are basically our body telling us: “I like these great drugs we’re doing…I need another hit!”
Drugs? What drugs are we talking about?
Well, they’re called neurotransmitters – the ‘feel good’ stuff that our body releases when we eat certain foods.
They’re basically ‘in-house’ drugs that we produce ourselves.
Why do we produce them? Because neurotransmitters tell us “Hey, I like this stuff – it will help us survive!”
What this means to you
We literally need good feelings to survive.
So let me reassure you: we will NOT be talking about lack of will power.
Our bodies are ‘wired’ to crave good feelings for survival purposes. We were built this way!
So rather than fight against the ‘hardware’, we’ll be fulfilling these all-important needs, but in a healthier way.
Examples of neurotransmitters
The three neurotransmitters I’d like to talk about, all of which are very common in foods (thank goodness!), are dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins.
I’ll try to keep it simple – if you’ve been following me for a while, you’ll know that this is about as scientific as I’m ever going to get, so hang in there.
Understanding what’s going on in your body is super powerful if you want to stop being a victim of cravings, because then you can say to your body:
Aha! I know what you’re trying to do – but we’re going to do it a different way!”
Read on, and you’ll see what I mean.
Dopamine says to your brain, “Yes! You can meet your needs, go for it!”
An example would be finding some wild plants or berries that you know you can eat. If you’ve eaten them before, your brain remembers and releases dopamine as soon as you even see the bush, before you’ve even put any berries in your mouth!
This is why as soon as you see that slice of chocolate cake, your mouth starts salivating and you just want to go for it even though you haven’t even tasted it yet, because your previous experiences with cake have taught you that you’re going to get that satisfying ‘mmmm’ feeling when you bite into it (your brain conveniently ignores the fact that you’ve often felt guilty or frustrated afterwards. It just wants the ‘rush’).
Dopamine helps us learn what gives us pleasure, and it wants us to repeat the experience.
Dopamine also says, “Variety is the spice of life! Learn, experience, enjoy!”
The brain likes stimulation – no-one likes to be bored, right? – so the various textures, flavors and tastes of processed foods is simply more of a ‘hit’ than a fresh handful of greens from your garden.
This is because things like salty potato chips, chicken flavored snacks and cheesy dripping-with-grease tacos provide more variety.
Plus they’ve literally been engineered to be addictive. Want a scary read? Check out this article. You can’t say I didn’t warn you!
Any time you experience something new or different, wham, more dopamine is released.
No wonder restaurant buffets are so popular…we get hit after hit!
Here’s how you get more dopamine, without reaching for a burger
Many foods offer dopamine that are super healthy, such as:
- raw chocolate. Yeah baby!
- beets (plus they make everything purple)
- proteins: green leafy veg (yes these have protein!), nuts, seeds (including chia seeds), quinoa, buckwheat, hemp
As you can see, there are many food options for dopamine.
Just be conscious that your body is asking for reassurance that you are a) capable of meeting your needs and b) getting a variety of experience.
I’m not saying you won’t still feel the cravings, but if you know why you’re feeling like reaching for that plate of french fries, you can negotiate with your brain while you’re in the process of ‘rewiring’ it (see my post about how long you can expect for this to take here).
Other ways you can get a shot of dopamine
We don’t just release dopamine when we learn about or experience food.
We also release dopamine when we learn, full stop!
So each time we achieve a goal, or even if we achieve a step along the way, we get a shot of ‘good stuff’!
This explains why achieving and getting things done can feel so good!
Here are some ideas for you:
- have a good clear out! Who needs all that extra stuff hiding in the closet, anyway?
- write that email/letter/card you’ve been putting off. It will be a sure ‘hit!’ (no pun intended)
- do whatever task you’ve set for the day that you can tick off your list
Briefly put, anything you do to give yourself a sense of achievement, however small, is also giving you some dopamine.
This can range from completing a Sudoku puzzle…to finishing a recipe…to finding a place to park your car!
By the way, this is why so many of us like to travel, to eat different foods, watch films, read books etc.
We’re taking in new information, and our brain thrives on it!
How to get ‘repeated hits’, or ‘more dopamine for your efforts’
It therefore makes sense to reward yourself upon achieving each small step towards a goal, rather than just waiting until you’ve accomplished the goal itself.
You’ll get more ‘shots’ along the way!
In fact, this is much better than stressing out because you haven’t hit your target yet and then celebrating only upon completion of your goal – which is what most of us do, and which earns us only one ‘shot’.
Congratulating yourself for each step accomplished along your journey isn’t just ‘new age’ or ‘positive thought’ mumbo jumbo…you’re actually fulfilling a biological need!
(I can feel a need for my own celebration coming on, once I’ve finished writing this!)
Serotonin says to your brain, “Yes! You are important! You matter!”
Serotonin helps us to have a healthy sense of our position in the world, and in particular in relation to nature.
Basically, we need to know that we can rely upon ourselves to survive.
We may not think consciously that we need to feel important in order to survive, but our brain thinks we do!
This is why serotonin can play an important part in beating depression and anxiety. We all want to feel that we are seen and heard, that we ‘matter’.
How often have you reached for that piece of bread when feeling a bit down, stressed, lonely or ignored?
Your body wants serotonin and it doesn’t care in that moment how it gets it, because it knows you’re feeling down and it wants to pick you up fast so that you can continue to survive – so boom, the craving hits you!
How to get more serotonin
The good news is, we can make our own serotonin so that we’re not at the mercy of a ‘quick fix’ from breads and other starches.
How can I make my own seratonin?
You make more seratonin when you eat foods that contain tryptophan, which converts to serotonin in the brain.
So where do I find tryptophan?
Tryptophan can be found in lots of different foods, including proteins, good fats and other vegetables.
You can find a complete list here.
Note: Be sure you’re eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and seeds to be sure you’re getting your vitamin B6 which helps convert tryptophan into serotonin.
Vitamin B6 is found in several foods, such as:
- sunflower seeds
I hope some of those look familiar – they also contain protein, which gives you more dopamine as well!
Oxytocin says to your brain, “Yes! I can trust this! I feel loved!”
Oxytocin is known as ‘the cuddle hormone’. Sound good? I sure think so!
How it works
If you’re with someone you trust, that ‘feel good’ feeling that you get just from being in their company is a healthy shot of oxytocin!
Social ties have of course a clear link with survival – we can imagine the benefits of living in a group rather than on one’s own, and most of us tend to seek out the company of others, even if a lot of it takes place online these days.
The massive growth of social media is proof enough that we want to connect…and oxytocin tells us that we are actually meeting a biological need by doing so.
This is also one of the reasons why it feels so good to have pets (and is probably why I cuddle my kittens whenever I can!)
How to get more oxytocin
Oxytocin is all about connecting. So anything that connects you to positive feelings about yourself or about others will give you a good ‘shot’ of oxytocin.
- Help someone in need. This sounds cheesy, but have you ever helped someone who really needed it and felt really good afterwards? You got it, oxytocin.
- Connect with others. Whether it’s in person or through online social media, this will give you a feeling of connection…and hence your dose of ‘cuddle hormone’. Call someone up, reach out to the person you see daily at your local supermarket, whatever. Just connect!
- Get laughing. Go see a funny movie, a comedian, or do anything else that you know will get you laughing. Laughter is powerful stuff and is a proven rejuvenator. And it feels great! Even if you’re laughing on your own, you’re connecting with yourself
– more oxytocin!
- Go for a walk outside. We literally thrive on being outdoors, and if there’s a bit of sunshine, even better – you’re getting some Vitamin D at the same time!
- Go on a shared adventure. Nothing bonds people together like uniting against a common challenge, even if it doesn’t involve the full-out action of a spy movie. Go exploring, bungee jumping, camping, or just do something outrageous with someone else – it can be as simple as walking into an elevator and facing the people rather than the door. (Have you ever done that? I have, it’s really fun to watch people’s reactions! Just don’t tell them I told you)
- Meditate, do yoga or just listen to nice calming music. All of these release oxytocin, and they’re good for you physically anyway, plus you’re releasing endorphins too (see below).
Endorphins say to your brain, “Yes! This doesn’t hurt, it feels good, so keep going!”
What does this mean?
Think of what’s described as ‘runner’s high,’ when you go beyond the pain into what feels like a high and you can just keep on going. Endorphin release!
Odd as it seems, any exercise fan can tell you about the good feelings they get when they go beyond their limits and get that rush of what feels like super strength.
How does this help us survive?
Endorphin release helped our ancestors to keep running when injured so that they could live to fight another day.
Another example is when we laugh or cry! This is why we often feel much better after laughing – or crying.
How to get more endorphins
Any of these will work, and they are ALL good alternatives to reaching for that gooey cupcake (unless it’s raw of course):
- Watch a really funny or a really sad movie. Laughing and crying both work! (I know which one I’d rather do!)
- Eat some hot chili peppers. No I’m not joking! We fans of spicy food are probably popping off endorphins all the time. It’s no wonder some people go for that extra hot stuff!
- Eat some raw chocolate. I’ve got several recipes for you – raw chocolate pudding for example is quick, easy and guaranteed to give you an instant mood boost (which you can get here)
- Do some aerobic exercise or heavy weightlifting. You’ll get a sense of achievement as well as improved muscle tone, giving you a sense of accomplishment…and therefore releasing more dopamine! Two neurotransmitters for the price of one! (And apparently if you’re doing it to improve your overall well being and mood rather than get six pack abs, 10 minutes a day is said to be enough, so time is no excuse)
- Have acupuncture or a deep massage (now that’s more like it, I can hear some of you say!)
- Hop on a tanning bed. Ultraviolet light is said to release endorphins (just don’t overdo the tanning sessions, to keep your skin healthy.)
- Take up meditation or yoga. Many people think you have to strain and sweat to release endorphins, but while yoga usually doesn’t feel as intensive from a cardiac perspective, it combines stretching, breathing and relaxation, all of which help us to release stress, get the blood flowing and feel good all over. I’m a big fan of yoga, especially hot yoga…you sweat and expel toxins while getting endorphins, releasing the bad stuff and getting more good stuff in! Plus you’ll get some oxytocin too!
- Give birth. (OK well you can’t really do this one on command, but I had to include it for us mothers out there)
In the next post I’ll talk about how long you can expect this process to last, with some more tips.
In the meantime, for those of you wanting to read more about the origins of cravings, you can read this article.
And if you’d like a gorgeous recipe for some of that raw chocolate pudding, you can get it right here!
Here’s to rocking your world!