You’ve had a rough day and head straight for the fridge, you see the fruits and vegetables, but right next to them you see left overs from last nights dinner, a cheesy fully loaded slice of pizza. Move aside, you think to yourself, pizza I’m coming straight for you! You take a bite and then another and then all of a sudden, feelings of comfort and relief fill your crappy day.
Or how bout this, you’re eating something absolutely delicious and you’ve reached to the point where your now feeling overly satisfied. You know you should put down your cutlery, but there’s this gnawing feeling at the back of your mind saying, “Just finish everything on your plate, you know it tastes so damn good!”
I’m sure you’ve experienced at least one of these scenarios. Heck, maybe even both! Have you ever wondered WHY we get these intense cravings? Sure, the body has natural cues to tell us when to stop eating, but what it REALLY comes down to is whether we listen to it or not.
Let's walk through some of the main causes and then I'll share some helpful tips for overcoming them.
Low Serotonin Levels
Serotonin is a "feel-good" neurotransmitter that plays a huge part in our mood, appetite and digestion. Eating carbohydrates and sugar increases the release of serotonin making us feel fabulous (temporarily). So, when our levels are low, our brains think, "Oh! That big bowl of ice cream is going to fix this!" A low serotonin level can be due to a variety of things, including poor gut health (90% of serotonin is made in the gut), alcohol consumption, and feelings of depression and anxiety. I don't know about you, but I'm definitely more vulnerable to sugar and carbs when I'm down in the dumps.
The "Feel-Good" Endorphins
Eating carbs, sugar, salt, and chocolate increase the production of endorphins in the body. Endorphins are human-produced opiates that make us feel relaxed. They're also produced during sleep and exercise (aka runners high). So when we eat these foods and experience this feeling, we want more. Similar to the way drug users become addicted to narcotics. One study found that at the chemical level, sugar consumption resulted in an even MORE intense feeling of reward than cocaine. Crazy.
I can't count the amount of people who I've spoken with that have a hard time giving up cheese, let alone reducing their consumption. Cheese is addicting period. The digestion of casein (a protein found in cheese) results in the production of opiates called casomorphins in the body. Casomorphins make you feel fantastic, just like morphine does - hello brie addiction!
Bad Gut Health
As I mentioned earlier, low serotonin levels are linked to cravings and your gut is the central point of serotonin production. In order to maintain feel-good levels of serotonin, your gut needs to be in tip-top shape, so that it can absorb nutrients from your food and pump out the right amount of serotonin through your gastrointestinal tract. This process is greatly dependent on healthy levels of digestive enzymes and the proper balance of good bacteria. So when the bad bacteria overpower the good, there's a strong chance that your cravings may overpower you. Cultivating a healthy balance of good bacteria by eating fermented foods and taking probiotics may foster the intestinal peace necessary to calm your cravings.
What prompts you to check out what's in your pantry and fridge? Maybe it's feelings of sadness, boredom, stress, or poor self-esteem. Maybe it's when you go through a bad breakup. Or maybe you're just having a bad day. Suddenly, that pint of Ben and Jerry's seems VERY irresistible. But have no fear, food cravings are often fleeting and disappear within the hour. Keep yourself busy by opting for a mood-boosting activity or simply choose a healthier alternative. These simple steps may give you enough satisfaction in the moment while the craving passes.
Now, how bout some strategies for becoming boss when those cravings creep in.
Keep Your Fridge and Pantry Health Friendly
Simple logic. If you only have healthy food choices, you’re more likely to eat well. So get rid of anything that doesn't serve your health in the long run. I get it, there maybe days where you think to yourself, I NEED CHOCOLATE!! I've been there! But chances are you'll just be as satisfied with a healthier alternative, such as hummus, nuts, fresh berries, or even a cup of tea. Having better choices on hand to munch on can help distract those cravings until they pass.
Oftentimes, our bodies have trouble differentiating between dehydration and hunger. Your body can trick you into thinking you will be satisfied with food, when all you REALLY need is a tall glass of water. So the next time you feel like snacking, drink a glass of water and wait a few minutes. Often, food cravings will disappear.
Get 8 Hours of Sleep
Not getting enough zzz's drives sugar and carb cravings by messing with your appetite hormones. By sleeping eight hours every night, you'll hit your "reset" button AND help eliminate food addiction.
Keep Your Stress in Check
Chronic stress can trigger the hormones that activate cravings, which is why it is important to find ways to de-stress by doing more of what nourishes your body, mind, and soul. Remember, stress is not created by exterior factors, but by the way we perceive situations in life.
Create an Exercise Plan
Among its many benefits, exercise also helps control your appetite by boosting your serotonin levels. Some people may benefit from a 30-minute brisk walk. Others will want to add burst training, weight resistance, or other more rigorous exercises. Whatever it may be, find a program that works for you.
Go 21 Days Without That Food
Believe it or not, your taste buds have a great memory. If you really want to break a food craving, one of the best ways is to avoid eating "that" food for 21 days. That's right, all it takes is 21 days! Find something new to munch on that is relatively healthy, like a green smoothie, fresh berries, rice crackers, or raw nuts. Grab ANYTHING to distract you from that bowl of Ben and Jerry's or bag of Lays.
Does this mean you should say bye bye to birthday cake, french fries and bagels? No! But if you feel like your cravings are running your life, I hope understanding them better and trying some of these tips will put you back in the driver's seat when it come to your chow choices.
Remember, eating healthy doesn’t happen over night, it’s a process, and you certainly don’t have to change all at once, because lets be honest, learning to eat in a whole new way takes time and effort. Your habits will be much more likely to shift if you change gradually.