Cravings often arise because of our appetites. Appetite is different to hungry in that whilst hunger is a physiological need for food when our blood sugar levels fall, appetite is a psychological drive to satisfy an emotion or desire. In essence, appetite is hunger of the mind. You can have an appetite even when you know you are not hungry. This appetite is usually for foods or drinks that you crave as a way of emotional soothing. They are often sugary foods, carbohydrates, salty foods, caffeine, or alcohol.
All these foods are therefore ‘addictive’ because they act as a form of analgesic, easing your stress or emotional pains. Because these types of foods release certain amounts of happy hormones in your brain, as well as reset your tastebuds, they can then become addictive in their own right, too, as a food source. This means that you can start to crave them frequently and as you give in to this craving you will develop a habit of eating them at certain times of the day.
The struggle most people therefore have is not with hunger but with the appetite they have developed through the years of poor dietary choices and as a coping strategy to overcome stress. A lot of people are no longer responding to true hunger but instead are attuned to satisfying their appetites.
As an aside, appetites can also be triggered by positive emotions and not just negative ones. Childhood memories associated with love, care, connection and food can be a trigger for some people. It is important therefore not to use food as a reward for children.
So although managing hunger involves purely physical solutions as we discussed in the previous chapter, cravings cannot be controlled without balancing brain chemistry.
How to Overcome Your Cravings by Balancing Brain Chemistry
Brain chemistry involves three main brain chemicals that can lead to a runaway appetite – noradrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. These brain chemicals can become imbalanced because of stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression and, to some degree, our innate genetic and personality tendencies.
Noradrenaline deficiency – this is our motivation brain chemical that is typically low in depression. It helps us to stay alert and focussed. When we are low in noradrenaline we can feel sluggish, tired, exhausted and have trouble concentrating. We will tend to binge-eat and crave starchy food.
Serotonin deficiency – this is our feel-good brain chemical and is typically low in depression and anxiety. Imbalance of this chemical is associated with sleep problems, cravings for sweets and carbohydrates especially in the afternoon and evening, binge eating, panic attacks, compulsive eating and mental fixation on foods. Interestingly, the female brain synthesises 50 per cent less serotonin than the male brain, which is thought to be a main reason why women crave sugars and starches more than men.
Dopamine deficiency – this is our pleasure brain chemical. When you are low in dopamine you can become prone to developing addictions, including addictions to food. You will lack motivation, become irritable and moody and will crave caffeine to keep you going. You will likely have episodes of light-headedness, cloudy thinking and extreme hunger and will look for salty starchy foods like chips.
Aside from reducing stress levels and dealing with depression and anxiety through techniques mentioned in chapters to follow, supplements such as 5–hydroxytryptophan (5–HTP) can be used to raise serotonin levels and help control carbohydrate and sugar cravings. The typical dose is 100 mg three times per day on an empty stomach; although if you are taking anti-depressant medications do seek advice from your healthcare practitioner before taking 5–HTP. Similarly the supplements L-tyrosine, S-adenosyl methionine, and N-acetyl L-tyrosine can be used to boost dopamine and noradrenaline levels, which helps to decrease appetite and cravings. The doses of these natural medications varies depending on the supplement so it is best to consult with your healthcare practitioner before taking these.
Other Practical Strategies to Overcoming Your Food Cravings
There are a number of strategies that you may find helpful in overcoming food cravings including:
- Eat every 3–31⁄2 hours with good quality foods e.g. fruits and vegetables, proteins, and good fats contained in nuts for example.
- Understand why and when you tend to crave foods (called ‘trigger times’) by writing a four-day food diary – three weekdays and one weekend day. Write down your thoughts throughout the day around eating. The most common appetite trigger times are between 3–6pm and 8–11pm. Most people give in to these craving and then will skip a meal to make up for it, which will set them up for another failure by lowering blood sugar to very low levels. It is important to maintain blood sugar levels by fuelling the body with the right type and amount of fuel i.e. healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner with morning tea and afternoon tea and an evening snack if you eat dinner early.
- Keep water with you at all times as many times the body confuses hunger with thirst. Take the edge off your craving by having a drink of water when you feel the desire to eat a less healthy option. Keep handy snacks on you that you can eat that will not only satisfy your hunger but also keep you on the right path toward healthy living.
- Alter your environment to remove tempting foods from your home, office, car etc. Do not keep these snacks in the house for your kids. You can choose to give them these snack foods once or twice a week outside of the home if you wish.
- Avoid mindless eating – eating when you are doing something else e.g. watching TV, on the computer. It only sets you up to eat more than you should and to associate the activity with food. The true pleasure of most foods is in the first few bites.
- Retrain your tastebuds. What you continually practise will eventually become a habit. Your body only wants what you normally give it. Retrain your tastebuds by not indulging on foods that are designed to get you hooked but learn to choose better options.
- Change your behaviour by being prepared for a craving when hunger sets in. You could try adopting the ‘Five Ds’ for when a craving sets in when you are not actually hungry i.e. emotional eating rather than hunger:
Delay Eating – avoid eating by 10–15mins (cravings come and go in waves).
Drink Water – this can curb cravings.
Deep Breathe – take ten slow deep breaths to switch off the stress nervous system.
Develop an Ability to Say ‘No’ – visualise yourself saying no to comfort foods.
Distract yourself – develop a list of non-food related activities (short activities that take no longer than 10–20 mins to complete) that you can do to take your mind off the craving e.g. warm bath, walk around the block, paint your nails, check your emails, read a book etc.
These practical strategies to overcoming food cravings tend to work best if practised regularly. Keep in mind that everyone at some point has food cravings and so. to a certain extent, they are a normal part of our everyday hectic lives. Cravings can, however, come under some level of personal redirection so that we do not have to succumb to them every time and therefore jeopardise our health.
Holistic Medical Doctor, Author ‘Healthy Habits, 52 Ways to Better Health‘