Talk to people who are trying to make significant health changes in their life, and one complaint is always about compelling food cravings. They call to you when you are feeling emotionally weak, and it is frustrating when you give in to them. Don’t berate yourself for giving in to them, take action by combating the food cravings with what your body needs!
Food Cravings Are All In Your Head?
Yes, you are right! Food cravings are all in your head! Well, to be specific they all start in your brain. There are three regions of the brain that studies by the Monell Chemical Senses Center (1) that are activated during food-craving. These areas include the hippocampus, insula, and caudate.
The study was the first of its kind because they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study to explicitly examine food craving. Food cravings were of particular interest to them because they felt it was a prime influence on nutrition choices and therefore to obesity.
A two-part approach was used to produce food cravings. Subjects’ diets were designed to be monotonous so as to create food cravings. Next, subjects were asked to imagine their favourite foods during the fMRI test. Craving-related changes in fMRI were identified in the three areas of the brain that were also reported as being involved in drug craving. Therefore, this supported the prevailing hypothesis for food and drug cravings.
It is important to remember that although there is a distinct physiological response in the body that creates cravings, there are also psychological reasons for these strong desires.
One of the first things to consider when you are trying to make dietary changes is the need to reduce stress. Many people use food as a means to calm anxiety or to boost mood when depressed.
Food cravings can often be triggered by stress or to satisfy emotional needs. Researchers have shown that food has a way of regulating serotonin. It is thought that serotonin can affect mood and social behaviour, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, sexual desire and function.
According to MIT scientist Judith Wurtman (5), when people stop eating carbohydrates during diets, their brains stop regulating serotonin. Serotonin, as mentioned, is a brain chemical that helps to elevate mood, and the research shows carbs naturally stimulate serotonin.
Serotonin is important for controlling cravings because when it becomes active in your brain, it is crucial in controlling appetite which will stop you from overeating and it helps to regulate your mood.
The Genetics of Feast or Famine
Through evolution, humans were able to survive by storing extra calories and retaining them as fat to get over times of famine. The human species has survived because our genetics force us to crave high-calorie foods. Historically when crops failed, or prey escaped, our ancestors needed their stored fat to make it through these lean times. Those that didn’t have stored fat died.
This evolutionary alteration could clarify why about 85% of us carry an alleged thrifty gene (6), which “helps” us to store fat and conserve energy. Back when we needed it, this gene was a blessing, but in today’s day and age of excess and easy accessibility to food, it has become a curse.
The study of obesity is ever evolving, and obesity as a consequence of our evolutionary history is still being explored. A better understanding of gene-by-environment communication will become key to understanding obesity and food craving in the future.
When You are Craving One Type of Food, Check to See What You Might Be Missing
Beyond all the science of genetics and brain chemicals, when your body is craving one type of food, you may actually be lacking something else. Explore what your body actually wants and where you can get it.
Fighting off the Sugar Bug
There are a lot of people who have a sweet tooth! Sugar has been linked to addictive behaviour because when sugar is consumed opioids and dopamine are released into the brain.
Sugar may be what you think you want, but your body could be craving carbon, chromium, phosphorus, sulfur or tryptophan.
Carbon is an elemental building block of many of the body’s cells. It aids in cellular respiration which is a system that releases energy stored within glucose. Glucose is composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Carbon makes up 18% of the human body. The body needs carbon to release the energy that your body has stored away as glucose. You can get more carbon by eating fresh fruit.
When blood sugar levels drop, the body will respond by craving chromium. Chromium is an essential micronutrient as it helps breaks down fat, carbs and protein. Chromium also aids in the transport of glucose to the cells.
Increase your chromium by getting it from foods such as whole grains, wheat germ, brewer’s yeast, bran cereal, orange juice, romaine lettuce, raw onions, broccoli, potatoes, green beans, raw tomatoes, black pepper, grape juice, and ham.
Phosphorous help your bones and muscle to get stronger and stay healthy. It aids in healing and tissue growth and also helps the kidneys to filter waste. An overabundance of phosphorus can be a problem including heart problems, decreased energy and joint pain.
Phosphorus can be found naturally in protein-rich foods like meats, poultry, fish, nuts, beans and dairy products. Phosphorus sources in animal foods are absorbed better than phosphorus found in plants.
Sulfur cleans up toxins that are expunged by the cells. The toxins can be harmful because they cause swelling in the cell. Sulfur also relieves pain in the body.
Foods containing sulfur include Arugula. Coconut milk, juice, oil, bokchoy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, kale, kohlrabi, mustard leaves, radish, turnips, watercress, dairy (except butter), dried fruits, eggs, garlic and legumes and dried beans.
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid your body can’t produce, and it is needed for the production of protein. Tryptophan is important for the development and function of several of the internal organs. After taking in L-tryptophan from food, it is converted into 5-HTP (5-hyrdoxytryptophan), and then to serotonin. Tryptophan rich foods include nuts, seeds, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs.
Bread and Bread Product Cravings
When you crave bread, the body is seeking out nitrogen. Nitrogen, an essential protein building block, is critical for the producing of new cells, which means it’s paramount for growth and healing. The body uses the protein that nitrogen produces for repair of the muscles, skin, blood, hair, and DNA.
Although there is sufficient nitrogen in the surroundings, people cannot use it from the air or soil. Instead, we depend on other sources to convert it into a form the body can use. Your body is constantly recycling nitrogen from amino acids. Nitrogen-rich foods include high protein foods like fish, meat, eggs, milk or other dairy products, nuts and legumes.
Craving Fatty Foods
There is a variety of reasons your body could be craving fatty foods. Some people crave fat or oily foods because they are not getting enough essential fatty acids in their diet, while others may be deficient in fat-soluble vitamins such as Vitamin A, E, D and K.
Depending on metabolism, people having fat cravings could also be seeking out sustained energy. Clean source fats and oils are high in calories which leave people feeling satiated. People’s activity level can vary from day to day, so it is not unusual to require differing calorie intake depending on how much you are burning.
Foods that contain healthy nutritious fat include Avocados, Cheese, Dark Chocolate, Whole Eggs, Fatty Fish, Nuts, Chia Seeds and Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Satisfying Salty Cravings
Salty food cravings usually point to your body wanting chloride. Salt cravings can signal your body is looking to help maintain healthy blood pressure or balance body fluids. Chloride binds to other chemical elements to form salts and is used by your body to keep its balance of fluids in check. Salt in the body also helps to transmit signals through your nervous system which relaxes the muscles.
Overuse of salt is easy to do in today’s day and age due to the fact many people are consuming a lot of processed foods. Avoid consuming too much salt. When adding it to food try using sea salt instead of table salt. Get more into your system by eating raw goat milk, fish and unrefined sea salt.
Cravings Equal Deficiencies
Keep in mind that several studies have suggested that eating a diet lacking in variety can lead to more food cravings while other studies state the opposite. Many scientists believe if you remove foods that you are craving then the cravings will disappear.
But let’s not overlook the obvious: It also doesn’t hurt that the foods we typically crave taste good and that we usually have pleasant memories associated with them which can be powerful.
What most cravings point to, is that the brain is often responding to something your body is not getting enough of. Cravings equal deficiencies and they are going to grow into problems, due to essential nutrients that are missing in our diets. Make sure you are eating a healthy diet filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, fats and proteins.
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Cathie Glennon – BCRPA/SFL
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