Weight loss mini series
Part 3 – Food cravings and addictions
Many people struggle to maintain a healthy weight, despite following various diet and exercise plans. In this three part mini-series, we will take a look at the hormones involved in weight control, why cutting calories doesn’t work, and how cravings and addiction fit into the picture.
In this section we take a look at the causes of food cravings and some strategies to stop them from ruining your good intentions.
One thing that is sure to make it difficult to follow a nutritional programme is intense cravings or even addiction to certain foods. When it feels like you’re denying yourself a food it can make the cravings even more powerful and difficult to ignore. Food cravings are extremely common but there are ways to manage them, which we will explore below.
Causes of food cravings
Food cravings can be caused by a variety of factors – both physical and mental. Physical causes can result in imbalances in hormones that control appetite and hunger, as well as hormonal changes during pregnancy and menstruation. Emotional factors can cause comfort eating, and social factors can simply lead to habitual eating patterns that we may mistake for cravings.
In part 1, we discussed the hormones ghrelin and leptin which control appetite and hunger. Any imbalance in these hormones can result in food cravings, so if you are suffering then make sure you are following the guidance to keep these hormones in check. Additionally, imbalances in insulin will cause sugar cravings, changes in cortisol have been linked to binge eating, and changes in the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone around menstruation are linked to cravings for carbohydrate rich foods. Hormonal changes during pregnancy can alter the smell and taste receptors which can cause cravings for unusual foods, as well as aversion to foods that you usually enjoy. All of this makes following a healthy diet very difficult. A good, hormone balancing diet can help to regulate the hormones and smooth these natural changes which should in turn reduce the intensity of any cravings.
A popular theory around food cravings is that something is lacking in the diet. It is thought that the body craves certain foods when it detects a deficiency – for example someone low in calcium might crave dairy products, while someone low in iron might crave red meat. These craving occur regardless of how many calories you’ve eaten that day, and therefore can lead to overeating when you finally give in. This theory is not fully proven and there are common cravings that do not indicate deficiency – sugar cravings are more likely to be due to a hormonal imbalance than a lack of sugar, and salt cravings could be due to stress or adrenal fatigue rather than a sodium deficiency. A naturopath or nutritional therapist can help you explore these areas further.
Most people are familiar with the concept of ‘comfort foods’ – the foods we turn to when we feel upset, anxious or depressed. There are physical links to cravings for these foods – such as stress and blood sugar imbalance discussed previously. But these cravings can become a habit, as the brain starts to associate consumption of certain foods with comfort. Sometimes cravings stem from childhood – maybe you had a favourite childhood meal which you turn to now to make you feel safe and nurtured, or perhaps you were given chocolate as a child to cheer you up when you were crying. It can be hard as an adult not to turn to these same foods when you feel similar emotions.
In addition to cravings, some people become physically addicted to certain foods making them almost impossible to give up. The most common culprits are coffee (caffeine) and sugar. The word addiction is often used loosely, however in medicine it is used to indicate changes in the brain chemistry, usually resulting in repeated risky or unwanted behaviour.
- Sugar: There is growing evidence that sugar is addictive in a similar way to opioid drugs, as sugar prompts the brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine which in turn results in a sense of pleasure and a desire to repeat the same behaviour. Every time sugar is eaten it reinforces this reward pathway in the brain, until eventually the brain becomes hardwired to crave sugar. Research has indicated the addictive properties of sugar may be even stronger than the addictive properties of cocaine.
- Caffeine: Coffee is one of the strongest food sources of caffeine, with smaller amounts in tea, soft drinks and chocolate. Higher levels may be present in painkillers and energy tablets / drinks. Caffeine makes us feel more alert by triggering the release of natural stimulants and blocking the action of adenosine in the brain, a neurotransmitter which has a relaxing effect on the body. As with sugar, regular consumption of caffeine leads to chemical changes as the body tries to compensate by releasing more adenosine, and the person responds by drinking more coffee. Over time an addiction cycle is established.
Withdrawal of addictive substances like caffeine and sugar usually results in unpleasant symptoms, such as overwhelming fatigue and severe headaches, which makes the desire to consume them even greater.
Strategies for success
In order to follow a healthful diet successfully, curbing cravings is essential. Otherwise you will always feel like you are denying yourself and risk falling off the wagon any time life presents a challenge. If cravings are ruling your diet try following the 8-point plan below:
1. Aim to reduce the frequency and amount of the food that you crave. Research shows that the less often certain foods are eaten, the less often a person craves them
2. In the case of sugar or caffeine addiction, slow withdrawal over an extended period is essential to avoid withdrawal effects such as extreme headaches
3. Work towards eating a hormone-balancing diet, as discussed in part 1, especially aiming to improve blood sugar control
4. Reduce stress with yoga, breathing and relaxation
5. Improve mental health with fresh air, sunlight and moderate exercise, and seek professional help if needed
6. Improve sleep by keeping a regular routine and switching off any blue light emitting devices 2 hours before bed
7. Look out for bad habits such as eating mindlessly in front of the TV or in the cinema, or eating when you are not hungry
8. Eat more slowly, learn to listen to your body’s signals that tell you when to stop eating
The bottom line
In this 3 part series we have learnt why weight control isn’t as simple as just cutting back on calories. Exploring the way that food affects the body on a biochemical level helps us understand why so many diets fail, and also gives us clues as to the diet and lifestyle changes that will lead to success. If this has sparked you interest in the way food interacts in the body, you might consider enrolling on one of the School of Health’s distance learning courses in Diet and Nutrition, where you will learn more fascinating details about these mechanisms and more!