As the last post about Cravings received positive feedback, I decided to elaborate some points and give more tips on how to deal with cravings.
One thing I would like address first:
However, the difference between human beings and animals is our ability to learn and consciously make an effort to take control over our body’s reactions.
To take control of your actions, the prefrontal and frontal cortex of your brain need to be activated (the front part of the brain). Those are directly linked to the mesolimbic pathway (the reward system) and are able to release inhibitory neurotransmitters to decrease Dopamine secretion.
Imagine you are riding on a horse.
Now, the question is: Are you riding the horse or are you just existing and the horse is going wherever it wants?
Another extreme is when the jockey pays no attention to the horse’s needs and forces it to run faster, although it is injured or has no energy.
This metaphor applies to you and your body too.
10 Tips to Fight Food Cravings
1. Stress and Mood:
This is probably the most important tip of all. Not because it is the most effective but because most people crave certain foods because they are constantly stressed. In today’s society everyone suffers work pressure. You come home from work and unless you love your work so much you find pleasure in it, your brain lacks Dopamine and Endorphins.
You have a meal and then you relax on the couch. Somehow that healthy meal did not make you feel satiated and your brain is telling you to have a bit of wine. You have a glass and it feels so good. “Why not have another? You have worked hard all day, you should reward yourself”, your brain says.
But you know that you are not hungry and the additional calories from the wine will sabotage your fitness goals. This is what you do instead:
- Relax: Take a relaxing bath, take a nap, meditate
- Distract: Write in your diary, read a book, paint something, playing the piano
Find ways to work off stress that do not involve food.
As a matter of fact, negative emotional states such as anxiety or depression, and those related to food stimuli that cause negative affective reactions can stimulate the dopaminergic system and reduce the inhibitory control of the prefrontal and frontal cortex. This increases the vulnerability to food craving.
2. Find something that gives you just as much pleasure as food
Everyone has hobbies. Things you enjoy doing so much you forget what time it is.
I enjoy reading. Reading about Fitness or Nutrition related articles or new blog posts on WordPress.
And I enjoy watching photos. I am always searching for new wallpapers for my desktop or iPhone. When I open my laptop I want the picture to be bright and cheer me up. If I have time, I can search for pictures for hours. I love to do that in the evening and when I go to bed, my dreams are filled with those beautiful pictures.
I am sure you have plenty of hobbies you would like to do but never find the time to. Instead of lying in front of the TV, make time for those hobbies! You will only benefit from that.
Sleep is a natural boost of Endorphins.
How do you feel after a good nights of sleep? Most people wake up and feel refreshed and full of energy and motivation to start the day. The reason for this lies in the release of Endorphins while you sleep.
Sleeping is the perfect state of recovery for your body. Muscles that have been teared are repaired, hormonal balance is restored and oftentimes, fat burning is increased.
Thus, lack of sleep will automatically leave you weak, miserable and you will have trouble losing those last pounds of weight. If you are doing everything else right – training, nutrition – wise, it might be quality sleep that is stalling your progress.
4. Deal with Triggers
Triggers are specific stimuli that increase your cravings, the desire to eat that food, no matter how unhealthy it might be. To find your trigger, you need to watch your behaviour closely. For example, for some people it is the smell of certain foods or even just the view of them that triggers cravings.
As I explained in the last post, memory cells in your brain remember which foods caused the most release of Dopamine and Endorphins. The smell, the taste, everything you need to remember those foods is saved.
When you see that food, those memory cells activate and tell your reward system that this food lead to a high secretion of Dopamine and the feeling of pleasure. As a result, you crave that food.
I am sure that by now you know which types of foods trigger that feeling for you.
For me, it is nut butter. I love peanut butter, almond butter, hazelnut … all kinds. If it didn’t have as many calories, I’d eat spoons of that.
When I discovered that I was overeating on nut butters, I cut it out for 1 month. That was tough for me but it helped. As I had no nut butters at home, I could not have it when I was craving it. After a while, the cravings decreased.
I bought a jar of peanut butter and this time, I measured my portion size. Since I have been doing that, I am having my nut butter every day but I never overeat, so the problem is solved!
5. Portion control instead of Deprivation
As I have explained in my post about “Cheat Meals”, I encourage you to allow yourself small treats every day. They do not have to be healthy. As long as the portion size is small (just enough for you to feel satiated), there is no need to deprive yourself.
The reason why I practice this is that in today’s society, you are confronted with food every day, everywhere you go. Some day, you will be invited you to a party and everyone will be drinking and eating cake. Many people lose all control in those situations and go overboard. This is also called binge eating.
In fact, scientific theories that attempt to explain food craving emphasize the role of food deprivation (with the consequent psychological and physical discomfort) or the role of the relationship between dietary restraint and negative moods (eg, Polivy & Herman, 2002 ; Stice & Fairburn, 2003).
Prevent binge eating by allowing yourself everything in moderation. Portion control is all that matters.
6. Prepare healthy snacks
This is why I always have clean snacks on hand. Fruit with some yoghurt, self-made cookies, nuts, a serving of raw vegetables and avocado dip … there are so many ways to snack on healthy food.
You can even prepare your own Chips, made out of sweet potatoes or vegetables. Use spices you like and have a delicious snack to enjoy when watching TV. Your brain will not notice these aren’t regular Chips.
After reducing stress, this is another powerful method to depress food cravings. I will elaborate the effects of exercise on the brain in the upcoming posts, so today I will only point out its importance for the reward system.
It has been shown in various studies (Farrell, 1985; Goldfarb et al., 1987; Goldfarb et al., 1998 Langenfeld et al., 1987, Pierce et al., 1993) that exercise increases the release of endorphins. In fact, exercise-induced euphoria is often related to as the “runner’s high”.
Another study, also by Goldfarb and Farrell, indicates that exercise reduces pain sensitivity. This is again caused by the increase of endogen opiates that depress the feeling of pain and sensitivity.
As I explained in the last post, the mesolimbic pathway or reward system also play a role in the learning process. Exercise has in general an effect that is called “neurogenesis”. This means that it enhances the building of new neurons, new neuronal networks, new neurotransmitters.
Thus, it helps to balance the activating and depressing neurotransmitters in your brain and prevents cravings tat might occur as a result of low levels of endorphins.
If you have not been active at all, start with walking for half an hour five days per week. If you would like to work out, start with 3 workouts per week (Guide for Beginners), until your body adapts to the new stimulus.
Once your memory cells have saved the increase in endorphins induced by exercise, you will crave it. And I definitely recommend you not to fight this kind of craving!
8. Track your food
Many times, your body is craving food because it is malnourished.
Unfortunately, our body cannot tell us exactly what is lacking. So, we crave food in general. Instead of eating an unhealthy meal, you should eat real food. A meal that consists of Protein, healthy Fat and complex Carbohydrates, lots of vegetables and maybe a serving of fruit.
People trying to lose weight often make the mistake to lower their calorie intake so much that the body can hardly function properly. How can you lose weight or fat if your body cannot even supply your organs with enough energy? Also, there is no possibility of building muscle in such a low caloric intake. And you need muscle to speed up your metabolism.
Thus, I recommend tracking food for a couple of days to make sure you are getting enough macronutrients. You do not need to track your food forever but this is necessary to prevent metabolism damage and risking health.
(If you have never tracked your food before, check out my Guide on that)
9. Eat more
Let’s assume you are eating enough and don’t want to track your food. Still, you are experiencing sugar cravings that make it impossible to become healthy.
Protein increases your metabolism, as it takes a lot of energy to break it down into amino acids.
Those amino acids help your body to recover after training sessions or illnesses and keep you healthy. Also, they increase the release of hunger depressing hormones, such as Leptin. This will make you feel full and satiated longer and you will experience less cravings.
As I have explained in the last posts, foods triggering Dopamine secretion the most are sugary and fatty foods. Now, your brain does not know if you ate a healthy fat source or not. Fats increase the release of Leptin as well, thus the brain thinks you ate enough and depresses the release of hunger hormones. Also, endorphins and Dopamine are secreted, thus you feel happy and relaxed.
Read more about healthy fats and their benefits in this article.
The high content of fiber fills your stomach fast and this signalizes your brain that you have eaten a good meal.
Thus, hunger hormones are decreased. Also, especially green vegetables contain a lot of micronutrients (vitamins), such as iron and vitamin C.
Especially the lack of iron can slow down the metabolism and make you feel hungry. Lack of iron means that your red blood cells cannot transports as much oxygen to your body’s cells. Without oxygen, metabolic pathways to generate ATP (the energy equivalent in the body) cannot function. As a result, you feel weak and hungry all the time.
10. Drink delicious Tea
Find some brands you like and drink those in the evening or whenever you experience cravings.
I recently discovered a tea with raw cacao pieces in it and all kinds of spices like cinnamon. I put in a little bit of stevia (I have the natural plant) and this tea is delicious, it contains antioxidants and simply makes me feel happy. Other flavors I like are cherry and banana, mango, cinnamon. I am sure you will find something you enjoy.
I hope you enjoyed reading this and found the tips useful.
Are there any other tricks you apply when you are craving certain foods?
Which foods do you crave the most?
Wish you all a wonderful day!
“Physiologie des Menschen (Human Physiology)” – Schmidt, Lang, Heckmann – 31. edition1