Obesity stigma may lead many of us to believe that giving in to cravings is just a problem with overweight people and that it is solely the result of a lack of willpower and self-control. But the truth is we all experience food cravings that range from mildly annoying to completely distracting. But what makes us crave foods, particularly foods with the most fat and sugar and the least nutrition? Many studies suggest the answer lies in our brain.
Most of us have food cravings. In fact, 97 percent of women and 68 percent of men who participated in a study published in the journal Appetite reported experiencing them. Cravings are motivational states that give us the urge to seek out and consume a particular food.
Some theories suggest that cravings signal areas that are nutritionally deficient in our diets; for instance, if you are deficient in sodium, you may crave salty foods. However, that is not always the full picture. Other theories suggest that cravings for high-fat, high-calorie foods are linked to hard-wired survival mechanisms in our brains because our instinctual hunter-gatherer origins connect this type of energy dense food with our ability to sustain our bodies till the next meal.
Another reason we may crave fatty foods? Opioids. Fatty, sugary foods release chemicals called opioids into our bloodstream. Opioids bind to receptors in our brains and give us feelings of pleasure and even mild euphoria. Similarly, in a 2004 study, participants were asked to think about a favorite food. This triggered various areas in the brain and ultimately the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone also produced during sex, compulsive gambling and drug activity. That’s right… you can get high on chocolate.
Psychological factors can also influence the intensity and timing of cravings. Studies on mood have found that our emotional state normally has a greater impact on cravings than hunger. Diet influences our levels of the hormone serotonin, which regulates our disposition. Read more about whether or not you are an emotional eater here.
So what can you do about cravings? Well, first off, be gentle with yourself. Acknowledging that there is a physiological and mental component to why you crave unhealthy foods can be the first step in letting go of the shame that can contribute to overeating and giving in to cravings. Then, you can start to use various tools and tricks to control them, such as our 5 Tips to Control Your Worst Food Cravings.
Interested in learning more about how the brain and hormones influence appetite? Join us for a free webcast, “Brain Systems Underlying the Munchies,” at 3:00 p.m. (ET) on Wednesday, April 12, 2017. Dr. Alfonso Abizaid will discuss the problems associated with dieting, as well as identify hormonal mechanisms associated with the generation of appetite, and how the motivation to eat may change under normal and during stressful situations. Register now!
Sources: Lifehacker, How Stuff Works: Science, Tufts University
Blog written by Vanessa Ramalho/Robard Corporation