How To Reduce Food Cravings: 6 Effective Techniques
A food craving can be described as an intense desire for a particular food of which is much stronger than that of normal hunger. The type of food an individual craves can vary greatly, however, most commonly, it is for a food that is high in sugar or fat (Yanovski, 2003). This is primarily due to the fact that foods that are high in sugar and fat are addictive in nature, since they stimulate the pleasure center of the brain.
When a high-fat or high-sugar food is consumed, the neurotransmitter dopamine, the hormone that is responsible for creating feelings of pleasure and reward, is released from the brain (DiDeliceantonio and Small, 2019). When dopamine is released in immense amounts, the feelings of pleasure and reward are so high that it motivates an individual to repeat the specific behaviour that caused the release again and again, until a habit is formed. Once the habit is formed, the brain responds by reducing the amount of dopamine it usually releases. This results in the individual having to consume more of the specific food to get to that same level of reward and pleasure. This can cause an individual to enter into cycles of overeating/bingeing (Bello and Hajnal, 2010).
You might be wondering why is it foods that are high in fat and sugar that cause such a surge in dopamine release, and why not vegetables? Afterall, the body thrives on vegetables.
This is down to evolution. In prehistoric times, vegetables were the most abundant food, and foods that were high in sugar and fat, such as fruit and nuts, were scare in comparison. While our ancestors may have already had the capability to store fat for later use, overtime they evolved so that they would also be able to turn sugar into body fat, to also be stored for later use (Johnson et. al, 2020). Thus, eating as much food that was high in fat or sugar at this time was beneficial for survival, and it is why the brain releases dopamine in order to provide the body with feelings of reward, in hopes that it will continue to seek high-fat or high-sugar food (Wiss et. al, 2018).
While it was approximately 11,000-12,000 years ago that we followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, our body still reacts the same way. Nevertheless, not all hope is lost. If you currently are currently experiencing a food craving that is so intense that it almost resembles an addiction, I have listed 6 effective techniques that can help you manage this craving, and ultimately break the habit.
Thirst can often be confused with hunger. This is due to the fact that the same part of the
brain (the hypothalamus) is responsible for interpreting both hunger and thirst signals,
which can often result in mixed messages. Studies suggest that that 37% of individuals mistake hunger for thirst, as a result of weak signals (PKD Foundation, 2021).
If you feel a sudden craving for a specific food, try drinking a large glass of water and waiting a few minutes. If the craving goes away, you may have just been thirsty.
Increase Protein Intake
Out of the three macronutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, protein has been found to reduce cravings the most. A study carried out in a group of overweight men distinguished that increasing their protein intake to 25% of their net calories reduced their cravings by 60%. Moreover, their desire to snack in the evening was decreased by 50% (Leidy et. al, 2011). Consuming protein earlier on in the day, particularly at breakfast, has been found to be particularly effective in reducing cravings throughout the rest day (Johnstone et. al, 1996).
Avoid Getting Extremely Hungry
Extreme hunger is one of the main causes of intense cravings. It’s in this state of extreme hunger that we tend to crave “quick-fix” foods, or foods that are high in fat or sugar, since they will cause a surge in dopamine release. Consuming several meals throughout the day may help to counteract this feeling and avoid overeating at the next mealtime.
Consume Complex Carbohydrates
The body breaks down carbohydrates by converting sugar molecules into glucose so it can be absorbed by the blood stream and used for energy. Complex carbohydrates (beans, oats, whole-wheat bread, quinoa, potatoes) contain a long chain of sugar molecules, and as a result it takes some time to them break down in the body. Since it takes some time to break down complex carbohydrates, they provide a slow release of energy. Simple carbohydrates (table sugar, syrups, fruit juice concentrate, fructose, sucrose, glucose) have shorter chains of sugar molecules, and thereby are quickly broken down by the body. This causes a fast release of energy, or a spike in blood sugar, followed by a crash, or a drop in blood sugar. Low blood sugar can mimic feelings of hunger, along with other symptoms such as nervousness, dizziness, trembling, sweating, weakness, and palpitations.
Consuming complex carbohydrates can help avoid issues associated with blood sugar regulation. Try consuming some form of complex carbohydrates at every meal, such as oats for breakfast, whole-grain bread at lunch, and rice at dinner.
Ensure You Are Getting Adequate Sleep
Studies suggest that lack of sleep is associated with increased feelings of hunger and cravings for foods that are high in fat and sugar as a result hormone shifts (Commun, 2013). This is due to the fact that sleep deprivation can heighten levels the appetite stimulating hormone ghrelin and decrease levels of the appetite suppressing hormone leptin. Sleep deprivation can also increase levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which has also been found to increase appetite (Chao et. al, 2017). Moreover, sleep deprivation has also been found to lower dopamine levels, which can heighten cravings for high dopamine releasing foods (Vaolkow et. al, 2012).
Consume a Balanced Diet
A lack of key vitamins and minerals also has the potential to enhance certain cravings. Consuming a healthy balanced diet, that of which consists of a variety of fruits and vegetables, wholegrain, beans, nuts and seeds, and lean protein, could thereby help manage food cravings.
If you find you are continually craving the same type of food, it may be your body’s way of signalling that it requires a particular nutrient. Below, I have listed some common food cravings, the particular nutrient which the body may require, as well as some foods that can could help satisfy this requirement.
- High-sugar foods = chromium, sulfur, tryptophan. Try broccoli, cabbage, beans, turkey, or eggs.
- High-fat foods = calcium. Try dairy products, fish where you eat the bones such as sardines and pilchards, kale, spinach, okra.
- Salty foods = chloride. Try tomatoes, lettuce, seaweed, rye, celery, or olives.
- Bread = nitrogen. Try lean meat, poultry, fish, tofu and soy-based products, beans, lentils or nuts.
- Chocolate = magnesium. Try dark chocolate, nuts, seeds, spinach, avocados, legumes.
- Coffee = phosphate, sulfur, iron. Try lean meat, nuts, beans, black cherries, legumes, onions, red peppers, garlic.
- Alcohol = protein, calcium, potassium. Try lean meat, poultry, eggs, broccoli, kale, legumes, bananas, oatmeal.
It is important to note that food cravings are completely normal, and more than half of us experience cravings on a regular basis (Gendall et. al, 1997). However, if you feel like your food cravings are causing you bother, try to implement some of the techniques I have discussed above.
In rare cases, a food craving can be a sign of an underlying health condition. Consult your doctor if you think this could be a possibility.
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