Food Cravings: Managing the Beasts
Cravings are a phenomena which are both behavioral and biochemical in nature, and cravings result from the brain’s desire to have a specific food or taste experience. Cravings can occur independent of hunger as well, which is why you can eat a huge meal, be stuffed, and still be just dying for that dessert!
From a scientific perspective, the hormonal drive behind cravings is triggered by a combination of dopamine (which triggers the pleasure centers of the brain, and is released when searching for and when experiencing pleasure) and stress hormones, which create a sense of urgency to do this right away! This potent combination acts as a strong motivator which is tough to overcome!
Behaviorally, cravings tend to also be triggered by environment and habit. Look at smokers- most smokers tend to smoke at similar times each day, in similar locations, or with similar people. When trying to quit, people note that there can be triggers that make them want to smoke (like getting up in the am, drinking coffee, or being in a specific location where they used to smoke). Food cravings are no different- for me the true tell is to try to resist the popcorn when I go to a movie theatre!
To beat food cravings, it’s vital to first pay attention to when they’re coming on- what are the environmental triggers that have reminded you that you must have that something? Is it sitting at the TV? Finishing dinner? Smelling bacon? An emotional day? Next, stop. Try to think about what it is you’re really after. What is it that you want to FEEL after you fulfill that craving- is it happiness? Relaxation? Forgetting your day? Finally, test out other strategies to reach that state, apart from putting food in your mouth. Replace your beer with a cup of herbal tea, or the sweets with a 20 minute walk with your dog. Try to break the pattern that has led you to that craving.
From a biochemical perspective, there are nutrients which have been shown to lower food cravings which can also be supplemented, including branched chain amino acids (BCAA), tyrosine, and 5-HTP.
Tackling food cravings can be TOUGH, and takes not willpower, but attention to the biochemistry and the behavior that leads to them in the first place. Good luck!
Dr. Jaclyn Chasse, ND