Understanding Food Cravings

 Sugar cravings and Junk food cravings are a dieters worst enemy. Nearly everyone has felt food cravings at some point.

Given the advertising industry and the current abundance of cheap, unhealthy food, we are constantly battling in our heads, against eating junk food and are tempted repeatedly. People find comfort and celebration in food. You have to have fairly good self-control to not be overweight in today’s society.

The whole food industry is kind of based on putting sugars and fats and salts in the right combination to trigger the human bliss point which is human addictive behaviour towards food. Sugar, salt and fatty foods cause the brain to pump out excessive dopamine ( the feel-good hormone), which makes us feel good and increases cravings for these foods.

Food cravings are a challenge, but they can be managed. An important step toward doing that is understanding why we have them in the first place.

Hunger and Satiety are controlled by the same part of the brain called the Hypothalamus. Various factors govern our Physiological and Psychological need for food which sends signals to the Hypothalamus in the brain.

There are two systems in action in the brain: one that exists in places like the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), where our conscious, rational, and enlightened thinking takes place (e.g., eat more salads, less fries and cookies), and one that operates from areas including the Basal Ganglia, where our calorie-craving instincts reside and makes us salivate with the mere thought of a particular food. The frontal lobes are critical to making decisions which includes food choices.

In the addicted brain, by contrast, the prefrontal cortex is diminished and the basal ganglia take control. An under-active prefrontal cortex creates an imbalance in the reward system, causing a loss of control over behaviour. Brain imaging of “Reward from Substance” whether from drugs/ alcohol or unhealthy food for compulsive overeaters, appears to be the same.
Anything that decreases activity in the brain negatively hinders good judgment and makes a person more likely to give in to cravings. Pushing too hard or too often on the brain’s pleasure buttons and indulging in junk food frequently, decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex and can cause the brain’s “brake” to fail.

Understanding factors that cause hunger:

Physiological Causes:

  • Need for energy (body depleted of its energy resources)
  • Unbalanced hormones (signalling of the Hunger hormones – Ghrelin and Satiety hormones – Leptin gets messed up)
  • Genetic causes (mutation in the human leptin receptor gene causes food-related disorders)
  • Dysfunctional Hypothalamus (due to an injury/surgery/ tumour, etc)

When your stomach is empty, blood sugar levels start to deplete, and the body starts to secrete the hunger hormone called Ghrelin. It tells your brain that you need to eat. It triggers a chain reaction that revs up your appetite and gets your digestive system ready to receive food. Once you have eaten enough to stretch your stomach the Ghrelin production stops and Leptin is released which is the satiety hormone. It kills hunger and makes you feel satiated.

When we eat a meal (assuming our meal contains Carbs, Proteins &/or fats), our digestive system breaks down the food into nutrients that are absorbed into the bloodstream.
Carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are digested in the intestine, where they are broken down into their basic units:

  • Carbohydrates into sugars
  • Proteins into amino acid
  • Fats into fatty acids and glycerol

Carbohydrates are broken down by the human body to produce a type of sugar called glucose. Glucose is the main energy source used by the cells in our body. Glucose is absorbed from our gut into the bloodstream, raising blood glucose levels. This rise in blood glucose causes insulin( hormone) to be released from the pancreas so glucose can move inside the cells and be used. Insulin allows cells in the muscles, liver and fat tissues (adipose tissue) to take up this glucose and use it as a source of energy so they can function properly. Insulin is secreted by the pancreas to allow your cells to take in glucose (blood sugar) for energy or storage. Insulin helps fat storage and prevents fat cells from being broken down.

Psychological  Causes:

  • Emotional state (stress, anxiety, depression, etc)
  • The memory of the taste of the food (brain remembers how good the taste makes you feel)
  • An otherwise boring diet ( very rigid diet with too many restrictions)
  • Environmental causes ( giving into pressures during social events, gatherings, etc)

Hunger comes from your mind and not just your stomach. Psychological hunger is caused by a desire to eat either out of habit, because you see good food around you, because you are emotional or upset, or because it tastes good and is “fun.”

Sometimes even when our body gives us the internal cues of fullness, the external cues overpower them and we crave more food. External sensory cues defy the simple concept that we eat only when we are hungry and stop when we are fairly full. Obese individuals are more responsive to external cues and less responsive to internal cues than others, and therefore are more likely to eat even when their bodies are not sending them the physiological signals to do so.

When people overeat and consume more food than they need at the time, the body stores the required energy within cells (as glycogen) and converts the rest to fat.
Carbohydrates are the quickest and easiest way for the body to correct that drop because they hit the bloodstream almost instantly and you feel better right away.

 The downside, though, is that when glucose spikes really high, with High Glycemic Carbs like sugars and refined carbs, it also tends to fall really low—which sets up a cycle where you keep having the same craving throughout the day. For more info on Carbs and their GI click here:

When we eat sugary foods our brain secretes the feel-good hormones Serotonin and Dopamine. So when we are stressed and need a little pick me up, we turn to these foods.
If your frontal-lobe activity is low, it’s difficult for you to say no.

For all the ladies there, during menopause, menstrual cycle or pregnancy there can be some intense cravings because of the imbalance of estrogen and testosterone hormones. PCOS can also lead to urgent cravings for carbs and sweet foods because of insulin influence.

It seems a woman needs more energy in the time between ovulation and the first day of her period. Part of this might be because their “feel good” hormone (serotonin) levels also fall post-ovulation, making women feel low and depressed. Eating carbohydrates help raise serotonin levels, and thus, these cravings may be due to a biological urge to self-medicate the feelings of depression.

While we’re talking about hormones, when we blame our “hormones” for our food cravings, we shouldn’t discount another critical hormone: Cortisol. Cortisol is produced when we’re stressed, and it’s been blamed for everything from heart attacks to belly fat.

When you don’t eat for a while, Insulin level falls and you simply take that food energy stored and you burn it. It is important to allow this to happen, simply because, it is only when this happens that your body gets a chance to burn fat. The body switches its fuel source from glycogen to fat. Only then fat burning happens.

Physiological cravings wane and eventually disappear over time. Possibly more challenging are the psychological cravings many people deal with.

To eliminate cravings and over­eating try the following techniques:

  • Avoid foods that present highly palatable combinations of salt, sugar, and fat.
  • Eat Low Glycemic Index Carbs. They produce a steadier rise in blood sugar, and the fibre in these foods helps you feel more full to keep you satisfied longer. For Low GI benefits and examples click here:
  • Keep yourself well hydrated throughout the day. Body is majorly composed of water and inadequate water intake will lead to dehydration which manifests itself as hunger and thus the cravings.
  • Try keeping unhealthy foods out of your sight.
  • Shop for grocery after eating your meal. Shopping on a full stomach can drastically cut down on the food impulse buys and we avoid buying junk foods.
  • Don’t beat all your cravings. Once in awhile eat a cheat meal with small portions of your favourite foods, but mind your bites.
  • Surround yourself with a community of like-minded, healthy way of life individuals who see the value in eating well every day.
  • Try experimenting with the 21-day rule. It takes a minimum of 21 days to make or break a habit. Take this challenge and eat healthy food for 21 days. You will eventually opt for healthy foods and automatically avoid the junk.

Eat Healthy Food for a Wealthy Mood!

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