It's 3 AM. Want a cookie? You know you do...
Updated: Jun 14
Have you ever gotten that feeling that you have to eat something naughty right away? This isn't the hunger you feel if you haven't eaten for the whole day, this is an irrational, strong desire to eat chocolate, sugar, fat, or salt that has nothing to do with actual hunger. You may be doing great with your diet, but this strange sensation can throw you off a nutritional cliff and make you start hating yourself for being weak. What's going on? Why does this happen and what can we do about it?
Food cravings are similar to drug addiction. Your body wants a certain type of food, and it bypasses your rational brain to convince you to eat cookies by making them irresistible. People will go out at midnight to get a cheeseburger, drive to the store just for chocolate, or try to hide potato chips in the basement, all in a never ending fight of the logical brain versus the emotional brain.
What are some of the things that might trigger food cravings? Here is a partial list.
- Not getting enough sleep is a factor for many people. When the body is tired and sleep-deprived, it tells the brain to send some energy downstairs so it can get moving.
- For some reason marijuana consumption can trigger the munchies. Cannabis works on pleasure centers of the brain and strong desires to snack are a byproduct.
- Hormones can drive cravings for reasons not quite known. This is especially true during pregnancy, when expectant mothers get odd cravings at odd times. It's also true for pre-menstrual women who can experience strong desires for things like chocolate when hormones reach certain levels during their monthly cycles.
- Some believe that craving for certain foods are a signal from the body that it lacks critical vitamins or minerals. If this were true, why are the cravings so often for junk foods that have no nutritional value?
From what I can gather, there are three huge lifestyle factors besides the above that create food cravings out of the blue and cause the most damage. Solving them will take more work than getting a good night's sleep.
1- Many food cravings are created by external cues in our environment. If you recall the experiment with Pavlov's dogs, every time a bell rang, the dogs would salivate in anticipation of a food reward, even if the food never arrived. We have all been trained like the dogs to respond to cues subconsciously, and when we see them we hunger for the thing that was triggered.
If you have a good memory associated with a certain food and an event, they are forever linked in your brain. Baseball games and hot dogs. Thanksgiving and turkey, stuffing and pie. Mom's house and chocolate cake. Experiencing things that remind you of pleasant events trigger strong desires to repeat the foods you ate.
The advertising industry has figured out the Pavlovian triggers, and they are very good at hitting our buttons and igniting desires. Commercials show juicy pizzas on the television screen and all of a sudden you feel like pizza. Packaging in the grocery aisle can trigger a purchase with a mouth-watering photo. Food advertising is everywhere- on radio, billboards, the Internet, broadcast and streaming televisions- everywhere. Fast food restaurants have mouth-watering pictures both inside and outside, and sit-down restaurants make sure to hand you a menu with the guilty pleasures favorably showcased.
Cravings, in this instance, are a product of our environment. To control the cravings you have to control your environment.
2- Intense and prolonged stress can cause cravings as well. When you are in a state of stress your body creates cortisol, which puts you into a fight or flight mode of hyper-awareness. 50,000 years ago that might have meant that survival was at stake and you needed to run for your life. Today, it can just mean that you're worried or anxious, and that feeling can elevate your cortisol levels for long periods of time.
When you're in fight-or-flight mode, your body wants to eat- a lot. To meet the coming challenges your appetite increases, and if you're in a bad food environment full of unhealthy choices (like most of us these days), that's what you start craving.
3- And finally, your daily diet can lead to periods of strong cravings that keep you trapped in a cycle of binge eating. If you are used to eating high-fat and high-sugar foods all the time, (or smoking marijuana as well), you are medicating yourself with feel-good chemicals. Your body rewards all that fattening food with a release of opioids that make you feel good. Dopamine is the main chemical that our brain releases upon consuming a tasty treat, and if you get too much of it you can start having withdrawal pains like with any other strong drug.
Eventually, people get trapped on what's called a hedonic treadmill, where strong cravings must be satisfied, and once they are the body wants even stronger levels of salt, sugar, and fat to keep producing the needed "high". If misfortune happens, which it always does, people use fattening foods as medication to make them feel better, but it rarely lasts.
So what are the solutions to food cravings that would allow us to get through our days relatively easily without having to drive to the doughnut shop at midnight? Let's look at some of the solutions that have worked for others.
1- De-stress your life. Get a good night's sleep (7 to 9 hours) every night. Lighten your load of responsibilities when you can if you feel overburdened. Learn mindfulness meditation, which is an excellent way to put your rational brain back in charge and take some literal breaths while you relax. Take a vacation (once Covid-19 is over), go out in nature, exercise, get a massage, and talk with a good friend. Anything that can lower your cortisol levels will help control urges.
2- Control your environment. Get every tempting food that causes cravings out of your house. Try not to pay attention to food commercials and advertisements. (And baking shows!) Avoid recurring situations where you know there will be tempting foods available, or have an alternative healthy snack in hand to fill you up if you have no choice but to go. (Parties, meetings, holidays.) Find the foods that work best for you and keep them around your house after you eliminate all the bad ones. (Hint: you should never wake up with a craving for broccoli.)
3- Change your diet to include plenty of plant-rich, low-sugar items that won't raise your dopamine levels. Look for alternative ways to find pleasure- exercise, sex, wine (in moderation), friends, play, or whatever floats your boat. The high from food is temporary and addictive, and if you are craving it to feel better, you need to know there are plenty of healthy alternatives out there. And drink water- lots and lots of water. Water is mentioned all the time as a weapon against hunger and cravings, and it works.
4- In some instances, there are natural and pharmacological appetite-suppressants that can help those who are desperate. I'm no expert in this field, but I've read that there are prescription medications that have a record of working somewhat in controlling cravings. And then there are dozens of supplements and over-the-counter remedies that claim to help as well. My bullshit detector flashes red when I hear about unregulated supplements that don't have to prove to anybody that they work, but maybe some of them do.
Weight loss tip #15- Don't give in to the strong urges for unhealthy foods. Figure out what's causing them and stick to your plan.
I would recommend trying the first three methods before switching to option 4, because they're cheaper, more lasting, and make the most sense. The next time you just have to eat a bag of chocolate, stop, breathe, drink a glass of water, and ask yourself what he heck is going on. Then tell yourself and the cravings that you're in control and move on.