Picture this: You’re at the office diligently working on a project when suddenly you can’t get your mind off of a warm chocolate cookie. You try to concentrate and rid your head of those pesky thoughts but somehow that cookie keeps creeping back in, leaving you unable to focus on anything but running out to your nearest bakery.
We’ve all been there (practically 100% of women and 70% of men have admitted to having food cravings). When cravings strike, it’s hard to concentrate on much else. But what are cravings, where do they come from, and how do we conquer them?
Stomach vs. Mind
If you’ve ever gone too long without a meal and find yourself bothered by a grumbling pain in your stomach, you’re familiar with hunger. Serving a more utilitarian purpose than cravings, the stomach hunger cycle is triggered by the hormone ghrelin, which tells our brain that we’ve burned up the food in our stomachs and it needs to be refilled. The hypothalamus then triggers the release of neuropeptide Y, which stimulates our appetite, allowing us to refuel our bodies and keep it running efficiently.
Cravings, however, are a separate matter. While hunger is controlled by our stomach and serves to keep our bodies running like well-oiled machines, cravings’ purpose deals more with the brain.
Biological Basis: Then and Now
If you want to point the finger of blame at someone for your unhealthy cravings, look no further than our ancestors. “Our attraction to sweets — and salt, carbohydrates and fat — is hard-wired from the Stone Age,” Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, told the LA Times. In prehistoric times, calories were in intermittent supply and essential for survival. When our hunting and gathering ancestors ate something high in fat and calories their brains rewarded them with a flood of dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical, that can cause pleasure and even mild euphoria.
Although the food landscape has vastly changed since the days of the caveman, our brains have not. When we eat high-fat and high-calorie foods, our brains still release feel-good chemicals, delivering quick and easy feelings of pleasure. (This reaction has a similar effect to drugs on the brain’s reward system.) This positive feedback loop teaches us that when we eat these foods, we will receive a reward, leading to classic brain conditioning — certain foods get tagged in your memory center as a solution to an unpleasant experience or emotion.
Think of a time you were upset; it could’ve been because you had a stressful day at work, got in a fight with a friend, or broke up with a significant other. If your reaction was to reach for a cupcake/cookie/insert-unhealthy-food-here, you may have unwittingly conditioned your brain to crave junk food. If you face the same problem again, your brain will likely tell you to go grab those desserts.
Tackle Your Craving Cues
1. Reduce Stress Naturally: Now that we know we’re fighting biology, how do we overcome these urges and temptations? The first step is to identify why you’re craving something. When we’re stressed, our bodies release the hormone cortisol which tells our brains to seek out rewards. Comfort foods loaded with fat and sugar blunt the effects of this hormone, leaving you with less stress.
For example, if you have a sudden craving for a piece of chocolate cake, ask yourself, am I stressed? Unhappy? If the answer is yes, try to stimulate happiness in another way. Create an upbeat playlist that can provide a boost of energy as well as an emotional release. Go for a walk to clear your head (walking is known to boost your mood and reduce stress) or try talking it out with a friend.
2. Adjust Your Environment: Every craving begins with a cue — the smell of baking cookies, sight of a favorite bakery, or sound of an ice cream truck (emotions can be cues as well). Any cue that’s repeatedly associated with high-fat and sugary foods can trigger a craving. The cue activates your brain’s pleasure center which pushes you to seek out the thing you’re craving. Over time, your brain is conditioned to expect these feel-good chemicals, leading you to experience more cravings in the future.
What to do? If the cue is easily avoidable (i.e., a sweet smelling bakery you pass every night on your way home from work), avoid it. If the cue is something less easy to elude, like a daily lull in your schedule, find a suitable replacement. If you find yourself at the vending machine every day around 4pm, find another way to occupy yourself. Go for a walk, chat with a friend, watch a funny video online, or concentrate on your weight loss goals. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that participants who focused on their health goals while experiencing a craving showed increased activity in the prefrontal cortex (the rational, decision-making part of the brain) which is able to inhibit the brain’s reward system.
3. Give It Some Time: Many assume that cravings will grow stronger as time passes but the opposite is true. Cravings are like a wave: they start small, grow stronger, and eventually crest and subside. Chose something to distract yourself while the craving is at its strongest. Set a timer. Most cravings will pass within 20 minutes. Challenge yourself to last that long — if you still have a strong craving at the end of that time, allow yourself a bit of what you want.
4. If You Really Can’t Help It… :If you really can’t get your mind off of that chocolate cupcake, let yourself have a piece. Just be careful of your portion sizes. When you’re indulging a craving, measure a portion size. Make sure not to eat straight from the container. (If you’ve ever started with ‘just a bite’ and looked down to see the entire container is empty, you know why.) If you’re out to eat and really want that order of fries, try splitting them with a friend. Finally, be especially careful if your craving is stress related, as you could train your brain to seek food during difficult situations.