You know the triggers. The pint of ice cream calling you from the freezer. The chocolate chip cookies taunting you from the kitchen counter. The nachos gnawing away at your willpower during happy hour. But, is it the food that’s pestering you? Of course not—it’s cravings.
We all have them, but do we really understand why? And more importantly, do we know how to tame them? In the past, I’ve been so deeply under the spell of my cravings that I’ve sprayed Windex on my Ben & Jerry’s (after throwing it in the garbage, because it was the only way I’d stop myself from pulling the darn pint out of the trash so I could keep eating it!).
You probably already know that food cravings can have little to do with hunger, but you may not be aware of how they work. Cravings have both biological and psychological components. The most common foods we crave are sugar, carbohydrates, chocolate, salt and, for some, cheese. Let’s walk through the main causes of these cravings and a few helpful tips for overcoming them!
5 Causes of Food Cravings
Leptin is a hormone your body produces in your fat tissue. It’s primary job is to stimulate your appetite and tell you when you’re full. This all works fine when your stomach and your brain are in the same reality. But, the problem starts when constant surges of leptin trick your brain into feeling hungry, even when you’re not.
What causes this? One culprit is having too much body fat—more fat means more leptin is produced. Another cause is eating a diet high in sugary foods and processed carbs. The sugar triggers your fat cells to release surges of leptin. Whatever the reason, constant surges of leptin can lead to leptin resistance, which creates a feedback loop and further dulls your ability to perceive your real appetite. Eating a healthy, balanced diet is the best way to keep a normal balance of leptin in your body and, therefore, reduce your chances of being swept away by cravings (study).
Low levels of serotonin
Serotonin is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter produced mainly in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It’s directly tied to our mood, appetite and digestion. Eating carbs and sugar increases the release of serotonin (study), making us feel fabulous (temporarily). So, when our levels are low, our brains think, “Oh! That candy bar or bagel 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 (study), depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I don’t know about you, but I’m much more vulnerable to sugar and crappy carbohydrate cravings when I’m feeling down in the dumps.
Endorphins and Food Addiction
Eating sugary foods, and even salt (hello, chips!), increases the production of endorphins in your body (study). Endorphins are basically opiates that make us feel relaxed. So when we eat these foods and experience this feeling, we want more—similar to the way drug users get addicted to narcotics. In fact, a recent study shows that sugar can actually have a more intense feeling of reward than cocaine (study). It’s that powerful.
This is why the drug Naloxone (an opiate-blocker given to stop heroin and other narcotics from affecting the brain) also blocks the appeal and overeating tendencies for sugar, fat and chocolate (study). Another recent study looking at the addictive qualities of foods found that highly processed foods that are filled with fat and sugar can cause addictive eating because of their rapid rate of absorption (study). So the more you can avoid packaged and processed foods, the more control you’ll have over your food choices.
A wonky gut
As mentioned earlier, low serotonin levels are linked to cravings, and your gut is the epicenter of serotonin production. In order to maintain feel-good levels of serotonin, your gut needs to be in tip-top shape so it can absorb nutrients from your food and pump out serotonin through your gastrointestinal tract.
This process is greatly dependent on healthy levels and the proper balance of good bacteria. But when your diet isn’t very healthy, the bad bacteria can overpower the good guys, creating more food cravings! Cultivating a healthy balance of good bacteria by eating fermented foods, taking probiotics and embracing other gut-happy habits can create the intestinal peace necessary to calm your cravings.
This is a biggie. Sadness, boredom, stress, poor self-esteem, negative body image (and the list goes on) can prompt you to cruise the pantry. Who doesn’t want a sleeve of Oreos when they look back on a painful breakup, losing a job or just having a bad day?
I refer to this as phantom hunger. But since food cravings are often fleeting and disappear within an hour, choosing to eat a healthier food or opting for a mood-boosting activity can satisfy you till the craving passes.
Now, let’s discuss some more strategies for how to stop food cravings…