Posted on 6 April 2017
Most of us often experience an intense urge for a certain food – but the danger is that sudden food cravings can play a major role in weight gain, food addiction and binge eating.
Mind over matter
As it turns out, food cravings are all in our heads. Our brains, in fact. The region of the brain associated with regulating emotions, the prefrontal cortex, is involved in creating cravings. The prefrontal cortex has been linked to complex cognitive behaviors, including personality expression, decision making, and social behaviors. Researchers also found that decreases in cravings correlated with decreases in a region of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is associated with reward-seeking behavior.
A craving is not the same as hunger, explains Jandri Barnard, a dietician at Mediclinic Newcastle. ‘It’s not your body calling for food for survival, but rather the brain calling for something that releases a lot of dopamine in the reward system and gives us a short-lived feel-good feeling.’
Sugar and spice
The most common food craving is sugar, which Jandri says indicates the need for a quick boost. ‘The body absorbs refined sugar faster than other food types, giving you immediate fuel even if it’s only for a short time.’
Some research also suggests that people become addicted to the rush of spicy foods, which includes spiked blood pressure, accelerated heart rate and rapid breathing.
Aside from boosting our mood, food cravings can also be a sign of deficiency. For example, if we’re not getting enough iron (red meat, egg yolks and liver), folic acid (green veg, nuts and wholewheat bread) or omega-3 (oily fish), we could feel low on energy or depressed. That’s when your body will automatically crave something sweet or salty to help you feel normal, instead of the food it really needs such as protein and vegetables.
Hunger or craving?
A craving combined with hunger is a powerful drive that even will power may not overcome. ‘If you get a craving and you are hungry, start cooking immediately or make a plan to eat a healthy meal,’ Jandri advises. ‘Eating real food may not see very appetising when you have a craving for ice cream or chocolates, but do it anyway.’ She says when you are fuller and your hunger is satisfied, you will be less likely to crave unhealthy alternatives. Quality proteins like beans, lentils, eggs, nuts, chicken and lean red meats can reduce cravings by up to 60%.
If you want to be healthy, it’s best to prevent the intense uncontrollable desire for processed or junk food. Remember cravings are usually driven by the brain’s need for ‘reward’, not the body’s need for food. ‘If you only had one bite of your craving it would be fine, but few of us can stop there,’ says Jandri. ‘We tend to overeat.’ Being aware of your cravings and their triggers makes them easier to avoid.
Jandri’s tips to control cravings
- Don’t banish foods. Very restrictive diets just don’t work and only lead to more binge eating. The trick is to keep your favourite foods in your diet, but reduce how much of them you eat.
- Rewire your own reward system. Pair healthy foods with positive events. Instead of celebrating with a huge cake, rather have a healthy dinner with family or visit a special place like the mountains or the beach.
- Be active. Even going for a walk can distance you from food – and exercise releases endorphins (the ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your brain), which help to curb cravings.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Don’t buy the unhealthy foods you crave.
- Plan your meals. Planning ahead leaves little scope for unhealthy foods or cravings to appear suddenly.
- Drink enough water. Thirst is often confused with hunger or food cravings. If you feel a sudden urge for a specific food, drink a large glass of water and wait a few minutes before indulging.
- Eat more protein. Eating lean protein may reduce cravings by making you feel full and satisfied for longer.
- Reduce stress. Stress may induce food cravings and influence eating behaviours. Women who are stressed have been shown to eat significantly more kilojoules and experience more cravings than relaxed women.
- Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation may lead to poor appetite regulation and increase strong cravings.
- Practise mindful eating. Be present while you eat, slow down and chew thoroughly, and avoid distractions like the TV.
In the mood
Jandri highlights that the amount we eat can also be affected by our mood: ‘Researchers showed a study group a happy or sad movie and served them both buttered popcorn. People ate much more popcorn during the sad movie than they did during the happy movie.’ Food has become the easiest way to fix a bad mood, she says. ‘These foods act on the pleasure centres of the brain, but the effect doesn’t last and can even cause more negative emotions after the pleasure effect of the food subsides.’