The Science of Cravings


Photo by: Vasko


Whether your movie routine always involves hot buttered popcorn or you go weak anytime someone brings donuts to the office, you likely have a go-to craving. But what's behind the hankering? Cravings are hard to predict, but recent studies highlight how everything from genetics to our emotions to the environment can play a role in determining our food cravings.

Cravings start in our brain — not our body. For a long time, it was commonly thought that if you were craving a steak, it meant you were low in iron or needed magnesium if you couldn't get enough chocolate. Instead, research suggests that most cravings are based in our mind instead of nutritional needs. Sugar especially releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, which in turn makes us want to eat more of those foods. Besides the fact that a chocolate chip cookie tastes good, it literally helps us feel good by triggering our brain's pleasure centers.

If you've ever tried to ignore your cravings, you know it can be easier said than done. That's especially true this time of year when an estimated 80% of us will stop whatever healthy resolutions we set in January. Now that you know why cravings happen, here are three ways to deal with them when they do.

1. Just Say Yes

It may sound counterintuitive, but giving into a craving now may help reduce that craving long-term. Like most things, we want what we can't have. When we tell ourselves that we cannot have a certain food, or turn to it's healthier counterpoint, we don't allow the craving to actually go away.

Instead, give yourself permission to enjoy all foods.

Popular diet advice often advises swapping in better choices for the foods you crave. Enjoying kale chips in place of French fries, cauliflower crust pizza for deep-dish pie, and yogurt instead of ice cream. While these swaps can work in certain instances, it also makes the crave-able food even more taboo, until we eventually give in and more than likely, overeat.

Instead, give yourself permission to enjoy all foods. This subtle mindset shift takes away the power of a food craving. Your thought will then become, “If I want to eat it, then I can. If I don't want to eat it, then I won't.” Research shows this type of thinking and the if-then scenario can reduce cravings all-together.

2. Get Enough Shut-Eye

Exhausted? Then you're more likely to crave carbohydrates and sugar to help give yourself an energy boost. In addition, you likely feel hungrier because the hunger-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin can be off-balance without enough sleep. A 2012 Mayo Clinic study found that those who slept 80 minutes less per day wound up eating an additional 550 calories the next day.

That's not to say you need to turn into Sleeping Beauty, but it does make the case for ensuring you get a solid 8-hours of sleep.

3. Ditch the Label

Cravings are often associated with guilt; feeling bad because we gave into willpower and shaming ourselves for eating the foods we want. This is especially true when we assign good and bad labels to food; we then take on these characteristics when we eat them. Enjoying a salad for lunch makes us feel ‘good' while having a brownie for dessert is ‘bad.' Removing food labels completely allows the craving to be a neutral experience.

Consider a sharp knife. Two people can look at the same exact knife, with one of them seeing a weapon, something to be feared, and the other person sees it as a tool to cut food with. The knife itself is neutral, but we attach a moral value to it based on what we perceive its effects to be. The same is true with food.

To help make peace with cravings, start by removing the way you view certain foods. That way, when you do eat them, you won't feel bad about yourself as well.

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