Food cravings are tricky business. Years ago, I decided to eat better and was doing an admirable job of avoiding sugar and controlling my food cravings. Then Valentine’s Day rolled around and I found myself at a 5-course meal that included dessert. It wasn’t pretty — I recall wallowing in that raspberry cheesecake.

For the next few weeks, all I could think about was sugar — I felt crazed and out of control. What happened? Where did my self-discipline go? This was my first clue that there is more to food cravings than self-discipline — my biochemistry had simply gone haywire.

While cravings are a frustrating distraction, they also contribute to weight gain, depression, and a tendency to beat yourself up. Of course changing eating habits does require some self-discipline, but food ‘addiction’ also has a very physical basis. That means that you CAN regain control of what you eat, as well as your weight and self-esteem.

cheesecake

Physical factors that contribute to food cravings

It may feel as if your cravings are all in your head, but science paints a very different picture. Understanding what causes killer cravings will make you less helpless when they hit so you can finally gain the upper hand.

1. Peptides and hormones

Our bodies produce numerous peptides (molecules with 2 or more amino acids) that naturally suppress hunger when we’ve eaten enough. We also make hunger-stimulating peptides, but these are far-outnumbered by the ones that inspire us to put our fork down. Eating protein puts the strongest brakes on your appetite, whereas fat has hardly any effect. So when you eat more fat and less protein, you’ll be driven to keep eating.

You also have two powerful hormones controlling hunger — leptin and ghrelin, both of which are strongly influenced by sleep. Leptin, which is produced during sleep, curbs your hunger throughout the day. Ghrelin is inhibited by sleep and it makes you hungry, especially for salty, sweet and high-fat foods — the ones that can get you into trouble. A 2014 study showed that when overweight people got 90 more minutes of nightly sleep, it reduced cravings for sweet and salty foods by 62%!

2. Blood sugar

Your body, especially your brain, needs glucose for energy, and carbohydrates boost blood sugar in a flash. But eating sweets and refined carbs can backfire — when blood sugar spikes, insulin can overshoot the mark, causing a blood sugar crash. Suddenly, the only clear message from your brain is, “Bring on more sugar!” As your body adjusts to these swings, you get out-of-control sugar cravings. So the more you eat carbs that break down quickly, like those with white-flour and/or sugar, the stronger your drive will be to consume them.

3. Drug-like effects of sugar and salt

The near-universal love of chocolate has been attributed to various physiologic effects of its 300+ chemicals. Chocolate’s biggest lure, though, may simply be its high fat and sugar content. Brain studies show that high-fat–high-sugar foods can act on your brain in the same way as addictive opiates like cocaine and heroin. The ‘reward’ areas in your brain light up when you eat highly palatable foods. These same foods stimulate dopamine, the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter that drives us to seek out pleasure. Binge eaters who are injected with a drug that blocks the effects of opiates are suddenly less interested in foods rich in sugar and fat.

High-fat foods and those that raise blood glucose quickly are typically the ones that your brain wants most. Fast foods, including processed snacks, are designed with this in mind — you’ve been trained to want them! When you succumb, you end up returning for more… and more. When given the choice of a salmon salad or a cheesy pizza, your brain knows what it wants, even if your conscience might argue the point.

Psychological factors can fuel cravings

While these physical factors are at play in all of us, psychological factors are having a strong influence too. Our taste buds make eating pleasurable and the oral satisfaction of eating is primal. Eating is an important means of social connection. We use it for reward, distraction and of course, comfort. After all, you can’t not eat.

Note: If you’re prone to binging or purging, you may have more than just intense cravings. You may have an eating disorder that could be endangering your health. Seek out psychological support because it can be very difficult to turn around by yourself.

Try these food-craving swaps French fries

If you’re craving French fries:
Choose a serving of sweet potato fries drizzled in olive oil and baked for 30 minutes at 425°.

If you’re craving ice cream:
Scoop ½ cup of “slow-churned” ice cream into a pretty dish and enjoy.

If you’re craving candy:
Munch on a handful of trail mix with nuts, dried fruit and some dark chocolate chips.

If you’re craving steak:
Enjoy two baked, lean pork chops — they have ½ the fatty calories of one whole flank steak.

How to stop food cravings

No matter where you are on the continuum of food cravings, taking steps that help balance your body chemistry and subdue cravings will make a huge difference in your cravings. Be patient, but also be encouraged: research has shown that even the physiology of overweight binge-eaters can change in a way that eliminates the uncontrollable cravings for the wrong foods.

  • Include protein in every meal, especially the most important one of the day: breakfast. Simply eating something healthy in the morning will help crush cravings for the rest of the day. Play around with different recipes and experiment with the array of colorful spices.
  • Ramp up dietary fiber to feel fuller and more satisfied throughout the day. The most effective way to increase fiber in your diet is to eat a few more servings of fruits and vegetables. This tip really works against cravings and as a bonus it helps with weight loss, too.
  • Watch out for “setting-induced” cravings, like the urge to gulp down a large order of hot, buttered popcorn when you go to the movies. You can have a small bag of popcorn — just skip the butter.
  • Let yourself get 7-8 hours of sleep each night by heading to bed at least an hour earlier than normal.

When you notice the beginnings of a craving, pause and tune inward. That 3:00pm cookie may briefly distract you from uncomfortable feelings but they’ll swoop back in with the last bite. Then you’ll also have a heaping helping of guilt to deal with.

Your feelings have something to tell you: maybe you need a hug, or simply to be nicer to yourself. You may also need to express important feelings that keep getting buried by eating.

cookie or salad

Letting go of your cravings

Slow down when you eat so you can really taste the individual flavors in each food. When you fill your plate with quality proteins, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruit for dessert, I promise your cravings will begin to fade.

Ask yourself what kind of “reward” matters most in your life. Truly nourish yourself by taking a yoga class, joining a hiking club, or going on a bike ride with a friend. As you feel stronger and better about yourself, junk foods will not seem nearly as alluring.

References

Spiegel K, Tasali E, Penev P, Van Cauter E. Brief communication: Sleep curtailment in healthy young men is associated with decreased leptin levels, elevated ghrelin levels, and increased hunger and appetite. Ann Intern Med. 2004 Dec 7;141(11):846-850.

Gilhooly CH, Das SK, Golden JK, et al. Food cravings and energy regulation: the characteristics of craved foods and their relationship with eating behaviors and weight change during 6 months of dietary energy restriction. Int J Obes (Lond). 2007 Dec;31(12):1849-1858.

Deckersbach T, Das SK, Urban LE, et al. Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention. Nutr Diabetes. 2014 Sep 1;4:e129.

Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, et al. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Sep;98(3):641-647.

Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN. Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PLoS One. 2015 Feb 18;10(2):e0117959.

Drewnowski A, Krahn DD, Demitrack MA, et al. Taste responses and preferences for sweet high-fat foods: evidence for opioid involvement. Physiol Behav. 1992 Feb;51(2):371-379.

Tasali E., Chapotot F., Wroblewski K. & Schoeller D. (2014). The effects of extended bedtimes on sleep duration and food desire in overweight young adults: A home-based intervention., Appetite, PMID: 24858836