The most common foods we crave are sugar, carbohydrates, chocolate, salt, and for some, cheese. First, let’s walk through the main causes of these cravings and then I’ll share some helpful tips for overcoming them.
Low levels of Serotonin
Serotonin is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter produced mainly in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It’s thought to have a strong influence on mood, appetite, and digestion. Eating carbohydrates and sugar increases the release of serotonin making us feel fabulous (temporarily). So, when our levels are low, our brains think, “Oh! That candy bar or bagel is going to fix this!” A low serotonin level can be due to a variety of things, including poor gut health (90% of serotonin is made in the gut—more on that later), alcohol consumption, feelings of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I don’t know about you, but I’m much more vulnerable to sugar and carbohydrate cravings when feeling down in the dumps.
Eating carbs, sugar, chocolate, and maybe even salt increases the production of endorphins in the body. Endorphins are human-produced opiates that make us feel relaxed. They’re also produced during sleep and exercise (aka “runner’s high”). So when we eat these foods and experience this feeling, we want more—similar to the way drug users become addicted to narcotics. One recent review study found that at the chemical level, sugar consumption resulted in an even more intense feeling of reward than cocaine! This is why the drug Naloxone (an opiate-blocker given to stop heroin and other narcotics from affecting the brain) also blocks the appeal and overeating tendencies for sugar, fat, and chocolate.
Not as well studied but well worth mentioning is the protein casein found in cow’s milk, which is especially rich in cheese. I can’t count the number of readers who have a hard time giving up cheese, or even reducing their consumption. Well, there’s actually a very good reason for that. The digestion of casein (found in cheese) results in the production of opiates called casomorphins in the body. Casomorphins make you feel fantastic just like morphine does—hello, brie addiction!
A Wonky Gut
As mentioned earlier, low serotonin levels are linked to cravings and your gut is the epicenter of serotonin production. In order to maintain feel-good levels of serotonin, your gut needs to be in tip-top shape so that it can absorb nutrients from your food and pump out the right amount of serotonin through your gastrointestinal tract. This process is greatly dependent on healthy levels of digestive enzymes and the proper balance of good bacteria. So when the bad bacteria overpower the good guys, there’s a strong chance that your cravings may overpower you. Cultivating a healthy balance of good bacteria by eating fermented foods, taking probiotics, and embracing other gut-happy habits may foster the intestinal peace necessary to calm your cravings.
This is a biggie. Sadness, boredom, stress, poor self-esteem, negative body image (and the list goes on) may prompt you to check out what’s in the pantry. Who doesn’t want a sleeve of Oreos when they look back on a painful breakup, losing a job or just having a bad day? But since food cravings are often fleeting and disappear within an hour, choosing to eat a healthier food for the time being or opting for a mood-boosting activity may give you enough satisfaction in the moment while the craving passes.
Now let’s chew on some more strategies for becoming the boss when cravings creep in…
5 Tips for Tackling Food Cravings
- Stay hydrated. Make sure you’re drinking about half your body weight (lbs) in ounces of water daily (if you’re 140 lbs, drink 70 oz water a day). Thirst and dehydration make you feel hungry, and may kick up your cravings. Drink water throughout the day to help you stay hydrated and control your hunger.
- Eat something else. Even though you feel like you “need” a chocolate bar, chances are you’ll be just as satisfied with a healthier alternative, such as hummus, nuts, fresh berries, low-glycemic whole food desserts, or even a cup of tea. Having better choices on hand to munch on can help distract those cravings until they pass.
- Exercise and stay rested. Rather than relying on french fries and cookies to help you feel relaxed and happy, go for a brisk walk during the day and get into bed with a good book a little earlier in the evening. These habits produce endorphins just like the best tasting truffles on the planet. Plus, the exercise may boost your serotonin levels—something that should help you skip sugar and extra carbs more easily too.
- Make meditation and sunshine a priority. Taking a few minutes every day to meditate and getting 10-15 minutes a day of sunshine or light therapy may boost serotonin levels so you’re not reaching for Snickerdoodles to turn your mood around.
- Avoid trigger foods for 21 days. Your taste buds have a great memory. If you really want to break a food craving, one of the best ways is to avoid eating those foods for a set period of time. Find a new food or drink—low-glycemic smoothies and desserts, fresh berries, guacamole and rice crackers, raw cashews, nut “cheese,”—to grab when you’re having a craving for candy, cheese, or chips.
Does this mean that you should say buh-bye to birthday cake, french fries and bagels—no sir! But if you feel like your cravings are running your life, I hope understanding them better and trying some of these tips will put you back in the driver’s seat when it comes to your chow choices.
Your turn: Do you have any tips for overcoming cravings?
Oh! Here’s one more. Brush your teeth, floss, gargle. Basically close up shop. I don’t know about you but I’m less likely to scarf stuff down after I’ve taken care of some chopper hygiene.