Are you struggling with food cravings? Well, you're not alone. At least 50% of people experience food cravings on a regular basis. If you have binge eating, emotional eating or food addiction, these cravings come from your brain. If you crave chocolate, your brain will light up at the taste of chocolate, or even seeing a picture of chocolate. This response is not as strong in those who do not have food and body image issues.
Binge eating behaviors stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain.
If you are obsessed with food, if you see, smell, or crave comfort foods, dopamine is released in your brain cells, making you want to eat more of this pleasure-giving food. This dopamine hit perpetuates compulsive overeating, binging, obsessing about food, and food addiction.
Once dopamine is released, it may be much more difficult to interrupt your desire to eat these highly palatable foods.
While there have been many books and media reports written about how addictive certain foods (especially sugar) are, it’s important to recognize that the addiction isn’t caused specifically by the food but by your brain's need for that spike in dopamine. If your brain is not getting enough dopamine it may be from your genetics or from the effects of trauma on the brain and this is what makes your brain more likely to react to foods in an addictive way—causing cravings, obsessive thoughts, and loss of control.
Your need for dopamine may be genetic or may result from the effects of childhood trauma on the brain.
If you have a history of childhood trauma, the changes in your brain may also make it more difficult for you to manage your emotions. You may use food as a way to "self-medicate" your emotions. Essentially, the stress or unpleasant feelings are the "problem," and eating is the "medicine" that makes you feel better. Are you someone who uses food to control your mood? Take the self-test below:
EXERCISE: Do You Use Food to Help You with Your Mood?
Check off the statements below that apply to you.
I crave my food fix when I’m anxious or depressed or upset and angry..
I find food very soothing.
Sometimes I eat so much of my food fix that I become drowsy or fall asleep.
I can actually feel myself calming down when I eat my food fix.
Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m upset about something until I realize I’ve over- eaten my food fix.
I eat sometimes because I can’t sleep.
When I am sad, weepy, or down in the dumps, eating certain foods helps met get through the bad times.
If you checked off 3 or more, you are definitely using food for emotional reasons.
Depriving yourself of foods you crave just sets you up for more cravings.
Research has shown that if you restrict foods you crave, this causes stress and then sets you up for the next binge. When you have a bad day and the first thing you think about is wanting to eat something, you are reacting to your emotions and when you are motivated by powerful emotional urges or cravings, without awareness, and your response will be automatic: eat, eat, eat.
The only way to break the vicious cycle of cravings and binges is through awareness.
Below is a list of things you can do to increase your awareness and help reduce cravings:
1. Journal about your feelings. See if you can identify patterns associated with your cravings. If your journaling shows that you’re always hungry (emotionally) after stressful days at work, change your routine. Don’t go straight home and binge on peanut butter; stop at a local park and take a short walk, or call a friend to meet you for tea.
2. Here are some integrative medicine tips to help with cravings:
- Eat bitter foods (ex. arugula, olives) to reduce sweet cravings
- For salt cravings, look at how you're managing your stress and use "adaptogens" which are herbs that help your body deal with stress (ex. drink ginseng tea) or take a yoga class or take a nap.
- Take a chromium supplement to help keep your blood sugar stable to reduce cravings.
3. Even if you give in to the cravings, eat mindfully and pay attention to how your body is feeling and don't judge yourself.
4. Get a good night's sleep (7-9 hours of sleep). Studies show that cravings are worse when we are tired.
Cravings can be conquered! But take it one step at a time and don't beat yourself up when you give in to a craving. If you feel you'd like to get some expert help with binge eating, food addiction or emotional eating, schedule a free consult.