This week we are going to continue our series on why you’re craving unhealthy foods. Last week in Part 1 of this series last week we covered the different kinds of cravings that people experience.
These kinds of food cravings include supportive cravings which is a deficiency of a nutrient the body needs being manifested as a food craving to fulfill that deficiency.
An emotional food craving in which food is used as a way to alleviate stress, anxiety or using a certain food as kind of reward.
This can be dangerous because over time it requires a larger volume of high reward foods to achieve this feeling due to dopamine receptors getting worn out and developing resistance.
The third kind of food craving is known as an associative craving that originates from a association with our past, commonly an experience or a fond memory.
The food that a person has a craving for is deeply rooted in a positive emotional experience or memory around that food, and is less about the actual food and more about the positive association the food has with the memory.
This week in Part 2 of our series we’re going to be covering what the common triggers for these cravings are and what you can do to beat these cravings, or give the body what it is asking for in a healthy fashion.
Common Food Craving Triggers
“Earned Treat” AKA Moral Licensing
Very few things throw people off their nutrition plan like thinking they deserve or should be rewarded with an “unhealthy behavior” because they followed through on a healthy one.
These earned treats or rewards for following through on a healthy behavior are really nothing more than a self imposed loophole for not sticking to the plan fully.
In the case of losing body fat people need to realize that you burn far fewer calories than you think at the gym and those cookies and ice cream contain more than you think.
The Solution: I encourage you to create a piggy bank that rewards your healthy behavior in a more constructive manner.
Decide on something you want to do for yourself that requires a little planning like getting a massage, taking a day hike or getting a manicure and pedicure done with a friend.
Set a habit you want to work on and decide how many consecutive days you need to do this habit to earn the reward. Maybe eating a salad for lunch 14 days in a row or shopping for and cooking 90% of your meals for two weeks. Once you’ve hit the goal cash in on your reward!
The interesting link between stress and food cravings, is that in the short term stress does suppress the appetite due to the release of the stress hormone epinephrine which puts anything not involved in the fight or flight response on hold.
When stress becomes chronic through there is a large volume of the stress hormone cortisol that is secreted increases appetite and motivation. This motivation is regularly directed towards seeking out calorically dense high reward foods.
With constant stress there is more cortisol present in the body which only further exacerbates this false food craving that the brain has.
Higher carb foods do play a role in blunting cortisol and helping to relieve stress momentarily, but with a high stress lifestyle another bout of stress is right around the corner, and so is another food craving.
The solution: Meditation is one of the best ways to help combat daily stress, and it comes in many different shapes and forms such as walks, meditation, listening to music or podcasts, reading or writing.
Exercise is another great way to deal with stress in a healthy manner and serves as an outlet. For many people healthy habits snowball so going to the gym can translate into eating better and getting enough sleep as well.
Spending time with people you love and care about is another great form of stress relief to get you out of the habit of stress eating. The only caveat is people who are negative or will only make you more stressed.
Poor Quality Sleep
Poor quality sleep is a very significant source of stress for the body to manage for a couple different reasons. One of the largest reasons is the body has a harder time regulating blood sugar and energy levels leading to more intense food cravings.
When the body has a more difficult time regulating this blood sugar the brain will seek out dense sources of calories to prevent getting too low of blood sugar levels.
The problem is that most junk foods are very dense in calories and tend to have the flavors we naturally crave such as salty, fatty, sweet and the texture crunchy.
With increased levels of cortisol due to sleep deprivation study after study has shown that people act more impulsive with their foods choices, and will end up eating a much larger volume of food with preferences for more calorically dense junk food.
The solution: Get between 7-9 hours of sleep a night which for some people can be really difficult. If you have a hard time getting a good night of sleep check out my blog post of tips for getting better sleep!
Too Restrictive With Nutrition
As a society we like to vilify specific macronutrients, and blame them for all of the health problems we suffer from as a society.
Unfortunately the health predicament our society is in today is much more complicated that just the consumption of fats or carbohydrates.
When people go on a very restrictive diet that’s built on deprivation it can elicit some short term results, but for many people this can trigger food cravings for the very foods they are trying to avoid.
There are definitely certain situations when someone needs to be on a restrictive diet to help restore function in the body or allow it heal, but that isn’t the main topic of discussion here.
When someone has restricted a certain macronutrient or calories for a long enough period of time nutrient deficiencies can begin to manifest in the body as extreme food cravings.
The Solution: First and foremost don’t starve yourself for the purpose of losing fat this is a losing battle that your body will win. Eat plenty of whole foods, and don’t overly restrict one specific macronutrient in your diet they all serve a purpose in our health and well being.
These health promoting foods include vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, protein and enough starches to fuel your performance and keep your hormones and metabolism revving along.
In our brain we develop habits and routines without even thinking about them, in a lot of regard these become automatic and don’t require thought.
A lot of these habits and routines have to do with how we react to our environment. Let’s take for example you have the habit of coming home from work and eating corn chips while watching news and waiting for your partner to cook dinner.
By the time dinner is ready you snacked so much on the corn chips that you don’t have much of an appetite for dinner. You set the goal to eat better and know that those corn chips cravings are getting in the way.
There are three ways right off the bat that this person could change their environment to help them with these corn chips cravings.
First would be not to buy them so the chips aren’t even in the house to begin with. Second this person could decide to go for a walk and listen to music or a podcast instead of sitting in front of the TV while dinner is being cooked. Lastly he could go into the kitchen and help his partner cook dinner.
The role that the environment plays in our food choices and cravings is the reason that I always tell people to remove foods from the house that they are trying to avoid. If the foods aren’t out of the house eventually they will get eaten.
The Solution: Identify the habits that you want to change and examine how the environment around you plays a role in them. Getting that sugary drink from starbucks on the way home ? Drive a different route home. Find yourself eating cookies or ice cream too frequently ? don’t buy them and remove them from the house. Trying to avoid the doughnuts in the break room ? Don’t go into the break room until they’re gone. Trying to avoid the candy on a co-worker’s desk on a break ? Ask them to go for a walk outside on your break instead.
These may seem unconventional but when people realize they can make small changes to alter their environment, and help remove temptation and cravings they feel more in control and empowered to make better decisions. Many times with less willpower too!
Common food craving triggers include:
Moral licensing AKA “earned treats”
Poor quality sleep
Being too restrictive with calories or macronutrients
How To Beat The Cravings:
Develop a healthy habits piggy bank to reward yourself
Consume enough calories
Eat more whole foods
Eat plenty of fiber from fruits and vegetables
Eat quality sources of fat, protein and dense carbohydrates
Use stress reduction techniques like meditation, exercise or spending time with loved ones
Get 7-9 hours of rock solid sleep a night
Recognize how your environment is contributing to your food craving triggers, and think of how to change that environment.
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These habits are based on getting you to your goal in a sustainable fashion that can be maintained, while keeping you accountable along the way.