Friday, 26 August 2016 12:20

Get Yourself Ready for your Next Craving: 11 Tricks to Challenge Food Addiction and End Emotional Eating

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You know the triggers. The pint of Ben and Jerry ice cream screaming your name. The Oreo cookies tormenting your self-control.  The nacho tray and the pint-sized cold beer melting your willpower during happy hour.

No matter how much you try to muffle the image of the food you are craving out of your mind, the picture grows bigger and more insistent. Within minutes, your stomach feels empty even though you just ate an hour ago.  In fact, everyone suffers under the spell of food cravings at one time, or another, with some feeling it more often and more profoundly than others.

But do we really understand why? You probably already know that food cravings can have little to do with hunger pangs, but you may not be aware of how they work. Cravings have both natural and emotional mechanism.

The most frequent foods we crave are sugar, carbohydrates (hello, chocolate covered pretzels!), chocolate, salt and, for some, cheese. First, let’s address the main reasons for these cravings, and then I’ll share a few useful tips for defeating them.

Studies have proven that junk food can be just as addicting as heavy recreational drugs.  In fact, the same part of the brain that is stimulated by these drugs is triggered by the sight, smell, and taste of those appetizing foods you crave. To make the problem even trickier, food marketing companies take advantage of our obsessions by mingling fats and sugar in ways that intentionally fire-up our brains, which activates the release of natural opioids and give us a sense of pleasure—a kind of mini-high.  Indeed, areas of the brain linked with drug craving light up when people crave a specific food. 

If cravings have a spell on you, let’s look at some causes for food cravings...

The facts of Food Cravings

Leptin Resistance

Meet leptin - the "master hormone" that regulates body weight, is a hormone your body manufactures in your fat cells.  Its main job is to arouse your appetite and tell you when you’re full. It is often referenced as the “satiety hormone” or the “starvation hormone.”

Leptin’s main target is in the brain, predominantly an area called the hypothalamus.

Leptin is supposed to tell the brain that we have enough fat stored, that we don’t need to eat, and that we can burn calories at a normal rate. However, leptin’s main role is long-term regulation of energy balance…determines how many calories we need to eat and expend, and how much fat we store on our bodies. This system evolved to keep us from starving or overeating.

The problem starts when continuous surges of leptin trick your brain into feeling hungry, even when you’re not. What causes this? One offender is having too much body fat— more fat means more leptin is produced. Another reason is eating a diet high in sugary foods and processed carbs. Whatever the reason, continuous surges of leptin can lead to leptin resistance. Regularly consuming a healthy, unprocessed diet is the optimum way to keep a normal balance of leptin in your body and, therefore, reducing your chances of succumbing to your cravings.

Another hormone that plays a role in cravings is ghrelin - the hunger hormone which yo-yo's up and down before and after a meal.  Evolutionarily, ghrelin is still living from our hunting and gathering days—we still prefer sugar which explains our likelihood of giving in to cravings for comfort foods. 

Ghrelin may also keep us from stopping at just one serving of Haagen Daz rich and creamy ice cream bar. Studies found that ghrelin levels followed a usual rise-and-fall pattern after eating a moderately boring meal, but shoot off the charts after eating yummy deliciousness (specifically, cake with rum syrup, custard, and Nutella) even after the participants were full.  This suggests that ghrelin drives what researchers call “hedonic food consumption,” which is what’s happening when your chocolate croissant feels suspiciously like pastry-wrapped crack.  In a hormonal double whammy, eating for pleasure also went along with decreased levels of the hormone that influences satiety.  This might have been helpful in past millennia, but is not helpful when you work across the street from Krispy Kreme.

Low levels of serotonin

Serotonin is a “feel-good” neurotransmitter produced mainly in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It’s directly linked to our mood, appetite, and digestion. Eating carbs and sugar raises the levels of serotonin, making us feel great, for the short term. So, when our levels are low, that littlie voice in your head thinks, “Oh! That chocolate bar or that bagel smothered in cream cheese is going to fix this!” A low serotonin level can be caused by an array of issues, including poor gut health (90% of serotonin is produced in the gut), alcohol use, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I don’t know about you, but I’m much more attracted to sugar and crappy junk food when I’m feeling down in the dumps.

Endorphins and Food Addiction

Wolfing down sugary foods, and even salt (hello chips!), amplifies the production of endorphins in your body. Endorphins are in essence, opiates that make us simmer down. So when we feast upon these foods and experience this feeling, we want more––similar to the way drug users get addicted to narcotics. In fact, latest studies suggest that sugar can actually produce the same powerful reaction of gratification as cocaine. Another interesting study examined the addictive qualities of highly processed foods filled with trans- fats and sugar which can set off addictive eating patterns because of their speedy rate of absorption. So the more you can stay away from packaged and processed foods, you will be less likely to have food cravings.

A wonky gut

As previously pointed out, low serotonin levels are associated with cravings, and your gut is the headquarters of serotonin production. With regards to sustaining your warm and fuzzy levels of serotonin, your gut needs to be in tip-top condition so it can soak up nutrients and pump out serotonin through your gastrointestinal tract. This process is significantly dependent on the proper balance of good bacteria. Nourishing your body with vegetables, fruits, fermented foods and taking probiotics can create intestinal "zen" required to calm your cravings.

Emotional Triggers

This is a biggie. Sadness, boredom, stress, poor self-esteem, negative body image (and the list goes on) can set you off scurrying to the pantry. Who doesn’t want a bag of Oreos when you look back on the fight with their partner, a bad, stressful day at work or a painful breakup?   But since food cravings are often short-lived and fade away within 10 minutes, recognizing your mood and emotional triggers and distracting yourself by choosing a better food choice or deciding on a mood-boosting activity will give you enough time while the craving passes.

Better Ways to Outsmart your Cravings

Cravings spell trouble for the most committed of healthy eaters and that’s why you need a more effective strategy than “willpower.”

Take a look at this list of 8 better ways to tackle a craving:

1. Stay hydrated

Make sure you’re drinking at least 8 cups of water a day. Drink water throughout the day to help you stay hydrated and control your hunger.

2. Avoid sugary foods and processed carbs

To avoid leptin surges and blood sugar crashes that increase your appetite, it is important to stay away from very addicting processed carbs and sweets. You can still enjoy yummy treats; just whip them up with lower sugar, higher fiber and higher protein ingredients, like dark chocolate, almond flour, and bean flours. These ingredients won’t spike your blood sugars, trigger a craving and you won't need to fight your appetite. My Super Charged Chocolate Nut Bars and Cocoa Bliss Smoothie recipes are great examples of this strategy.

3. Exercise and stay rested

Rather than relying on French fries and cookies to help you feel relax, energized and happy, go for an invigorating walk and get into bed a little earlier in the evening. These practices create endorphins just like the best tasting caramel corn on the planet!  And exercise will boost your serotonin levels—something that should help you pass over sugar and extra carbs more easily, too.

4. Practice meditation and get your sunshine vitamin

Taking a few minutes every day to meditate and getting 10-15 minutes a day of sunshine or light therapy will spike up your serotonin levels so you’re not reaching for Coffee Crisp bar to turn your mood around.

5. Avoid your food addition trigger for 21 days

 Your brain has an incredible memory! If you aspire to break-off your relationship with food cravings, one of the best behaviors to adopt is to steer clear of eating those foods for a while. Find healthier alternatives to grab when you’re craving candy, cheese or chips— choose healthy fares like low-glycemic smoothies and desserts, fresh berries, guacamole or hummus with veggies or rice crackers and nuts.

6.  Distract Yourself 

A study showed that playing Tetris helped decrease food cravings. But even though it sounds silly, it’s true: if you get a craving out of your head for just a few minutes, you can break its hold on you.  Once you forget about your craving, they rarely come back. So, read a book, watch your favourite television series, look through old photos that make you smile, chat with a friend – and talk about anything but food, do some stretches or yoga, write down your health goals in your success journal, knit, crochet, sew, paint, draw, or do something else to keep your hands busy, clean your house or car, organize a folder on your computer (you know it needs it!), find someone who needs your help and make their day, take a nap.

Any activities will work; the goal is to distract yourself for a while. You will eventually lose the edge of that craving.

7. Make Yourself Happy

One study authored by AJ Hill titled - The psychology of food cravings, discovered that food cravings were not linked with hunger but with depressing moods. People crave sugar when they’re bored, anxious, lonely, or stressed, and it’s not just in your head: munching on junk food does actually make you feel less bad, but just momentarily. Get into the habit of recognizing your negative funk and discover a healthier frame of mind.  Again, don't concentrate on filling the void with food but do something fun just because you want it.

8. Sit With It

This one isn’t easy to do, but can be very liberating. It helps sometimes to just sit quietly and let yourself feel the craving without cutting yourself down or feeling shame. Often, being upset and feeling guilty about the craving is more disappointing than the craving itself; if you can stay calm and accept that it’s happening, suddenly it becomes much more manageable.

Look at the craving with indifference, and repeat to yourself that the craving isn’t you; it’s just a fleeting emotion that you happen to be experiencing right now. It doesn’t make you a bad person or inadequate; it just makes you awesome human being.  Embrace it, don’t try to fight it, and then let it go.

9. Visualize

Visualizing is the well-kept secret of all times. One of the tricks that athletes utilize to gear up for an event is to visualize themselves winning. You can use the same technique to give yourself a little boost: just play a video in your head of yourself the way you would like to be in the face of this craving (strong and committed, completely capable of resisting, confidently walking on the beach in your swimsuit), and focus on what that version of you would be. How would the "perfect-you" cope with this?

Write yourself into a "superstar" role, and you will find that you do have control and the power to choose.

10. Remove Yourself

Sometimes, it helps to just get up and physically remove yourself.  Go somewhere else – preferably somewhere where there is no unhealthy food to prey on you, and then sit down to do something else.

This helps by removing the need to keep fighting that “I-want-to/I-shouldn’t” battle. It’s not even a concern anymore since the food you’re craving is physically unavailable anyway. Now you can use your spiritual energy on other things, and re-examine the situation from a calmer point of view. It’s amazing how much easier it is to turn down pizza when you don’t have to smell it!

11.Work it Out

A surprisingly helpful trick is to promise yourself that you don’t have to make a decision about whether or not you’re going to eat this food right now – you’ll do it when you get back from your walk. Don’t worry about giving in forever; just make an agreement that you’ll put it off for an hour or so while you work out.  While you're exercising, you're releasing those feel-good endorphins.


Bear in mind that these recommendations will not help everyone: we’re all individuals, and each person experiences cravings differently. You might have to test a few different tactics before you discover the one that works for you. But even if you struggle the first few times, just take it as an opportunity to learn from that experience - dust yourself off and get right back on the horse!

What’s your favorite tip for busting a junk-food craving? Let me know.

Last modified on Friday, 26 August 2016 13:26
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