Conquer those cravings
Food cravings can derail our healthy intentions, but we can overcome them when we understand the physical and emotional drivers behind them. What are your cravings telling you?
Whether it’s the siren song of chocolate or a desperate need for salty chips, the foods we crave can be a reflection of what’s going on for us, either physically, mentally, or emotionally. There are many drivers behind food cravings and when you understand what they are, you can move beyond those midnight snack attacks and towards a healthier relationship with food.
THE EVOLUTIONARY TRAP
Our bodies rely on food for energy, and particularly carbohydrates – the best source for our brain and the cells of our body. Our bodies store glycogen in the liver for a quick energy hit and excess fat for emergencies, such as having to go for longer periods without food. Remember, once upon a time, food wasn’t so readily available, and certainly not the varieties we can access today. Evolutionary psychologist Dr Doug Lisle explains that, over time, we learned to seek out the richest foods in our environment that required the least effort to ensure our survival. Then we cram it in, just in case we won’t have access to more for a while. Dr Malcolm Mackay, a medical practitioner and qualified nutritionist, jokes that the broccoli gatherers of our ancestry weren’t the survivors – it was those who found the rich foods that made it through periods of famine.
On top of our evolutionary development, we also have an inbuilt reward system involving dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters. When we consume foods that we enjoy, we get a hit of dopamine. This feedback system is also part of our biological survival setup. For example, human breastmilk is naturally high in both fat and sugar. Breastfeeding is also known to help with bonding and a sense of safety for the infant, so this triggers the brain to connect the food with that emotional state. As adults, we cling onto this biological conditioning, perhaps using foods such as ice cream, chocolate, cake, or peanut butter on toast for a similar sense of comfort, safety, and reassurance.
Given the food excess we live in today, it’s easy to see how our evolutionary survival mechanisms have turned into a trap of constant craving.
CONDITIONED TO CRAVE
Dr Lisle explains in his presentation The Cram Circuit that we also have a Pavlovian-like response to the routines we create around food. If we’re conditioned to eat a particular food, our body begins to expect it. Often, the trigger for the craving isn’t the food itself, but rather the conditions around it. For example, a biscuit with your morning coffee or popcorn with your Netflix show. The types of food we crave can be a type of cultural conditioning, too. “No one’s going to crave chocolate if they’ve never seen it,” says Dr Mackay. “Cravings tend to be culturally specific and related to previous experience.” This may explain why some of us go for cheese and crackers while others prefer sweeter, calorie-dense snacks.
Our food cravings can also be related to how we feel in our emotional lives, according to Dr Deanna Minich in her book Chakra Foods for Optimum Health. For instance, the principle of osmosis describes the flow of salt and water. So, a craving for salty foods, such as potato chips or popcorn, might relate to feeling a lack of flow or control in your life. Giving in to our food cravings gives us a feeling of temporary happiness because of our reward systems we’re wired with. But we might be just masking an underlying need for love, calmness, creativity, or passion.
Our mind and body respond to our emotional needs, our environmental triggers, and our biological urge to eat rich foods. While this wouldn’t have been a problem in the Stone Age, we now have super easy access to these rich foods every day. Our cravings have become a conditioned response rather than a survival response. Dr Mackay explains that the craving and the hunger are still very real, especially when we try and give those foods or habits up. But, over time, our conditioning can be overcome.
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FEED YOUR CRAVINGS
Cravings can be difficult to ignore and if you are trying to overcome one, it might be helpful to feed that craving in a more healthful way.
Sugar is the fastest source of energy for the brain and body. Sweet foods also enhance our hunger drive, which would have helped our ancestors to consume more to ensure access to energy when food might be scarce. But our ancestors didn’t have access to cane sugar and white bread. Instead, they sought out fruit, starchy vegetables, and grains for energy – which are also packed with beneficial fibre and vitamins.
Feed your sugar craving with plenty of water, root vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fresh fruit.
Humans evolved in an environment of salt scarcity and it’s important for proper hydration, so we tend to seek it out. It’s also an appetite enhancer and makes food taste better (read: easy to overindulge in). We only need salt in small quantities, but these days we can get far too much thanks to the ubiquitous availability of processed foods and hot chips.
Feed your salt craving with a diet of whole foods. Allow your taste buds to adjust to a reduced-salt diet over time, and you’ll appreciate it more as a seasoning.
The desire for rich, fatty food is part of our genetic evolution, and our biology drives us towards calorie-dense food that is high in fat. Dairy can be particularly enticing, with dairy milk containing both fat and sugar (lactose) while cheese contains both fat and salt – tempting combinations! Dr Mackay explains that the protein in dairy breaks down into fragments called casomorphins, which attach to the same receptors as opiate drugs. While this is great for helping infant cows continue to nurse, it also explains why dairy is so addictive for humans.
Feed your fat craving with healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, and avocado. Also, make sure you’re consuming enough calories, as hunger can drive this craving.
It was once thought that the magnesium or caffeine in chocolate made it rather addictive. Dr Minchin believes it’s more likely cultural conditioning, as chocolate is coveted in the west, but less so in other countries. She also says chocolate is connected with the third eye chakra, and craving it may indicate we are overthinking things.
Feed your chocolate craving by filling up on healthy main meals. Unprocessed cacao (powder or nibs) can be added to foods like porridge or smoothies for a guilt-free choccie hit.
While coffee (and other caffeinated drinks) might give us a much-needed energy boost, it can also deplete our B vitamins and interrupt our sleep patterns. Plus, like most food conditioning, our body responds by developing a higher tolerance to caffeine. This leaves us feeling like we need more of it, more often.
Feed your caffeine craving with leafy greens, lentils, and nutritional yeast – all high in B vitamins. Drink plenty of water and ensure good quality sleep so you’re not chasing that wake-me-up fix.
Alcohol has been prescribed throughout history in various forms for ‘medicinal’ purposes, and many people use it to relax and unwind on the regular. Dr Mackay says, these days, alcohol isn’t prescribed for a very good reason – it doesn’t work. “For some people it writes-off anxiety and reduces suffering, but it’s really just fooling us into our reward system.”
Feed your alcohol craving with health-promoting emotional supports, such as therapy, creative outlets, healthy relationships, and complementary therapies that help with stress and anxiety.
WHAT ARE YOU REALLY CRAVING?
The next time you get a craving, ask yourself if there is an unmet emotional need underneath it.
Sugar – Fun, joy, comfort, security
Salt – Flow, relaxation, letting go of control
Fat – Freedom, peace of mind, flexibility in lifestyle
Chocolate – Love, openness, self-expression
Caffeine – Stimulation, creativity, focus, clarity
Alcohol – Reassurance, confidence, calmness
Lead image: Pavel Danilyuk on Pexels