Picture this: it’s a Friday night, you’re at home with your family. You’re relaxing after a long week, perhaps choosing a movie to watch together. Suddenly, you are overwhelmed with a desire for pizza, so much so you can already smell it in your living room, almost taste it on your tongue.
Maybe instead it’s Saturday morning and you are dreaming of pancakes, or you’re on a summer weekend stroll wishing for an ice cream cone in hand. Sound at all familiar? Whichever circumstance it may be, intense food cravings are a challenge many of us face now and again.
The Real Root of Most Food Cravings
Recent studies on cravings have produced both logical and unexpected findings. As it turns out, food cravings don’t just arise out of a lack of willpower; rather, they are the result of normal physiological and psychological responses.
Studies show that when we eat foods that are high in both fat and carbohydrates, the brain’s reward pathways light up. Sugary foods have a similar effect, so much so that many health experts consider the sweet stuff an addictive substance. With these effects in mind, it becomes clear why we don’t often hear of people craving carrots or beans. Our brain wants those dopamine-inducing foods like ice-cream, mac n’ cheese, pastries, potato chips, French fries, pizza, cookies, and more.
The little known fact about cravings is that most food cravings are learned responses. Consider the scenarios presented earlier. Cravings are frequently associated with enjoyable, emotion-filled events or social experiences, perhaps even traditions that then ignite cravings.
Pizza: a Friday family tradition.
Pancakes: Saturday brunches with college buddies.
Ice-cream: a summer weekend treat with your significant other.
It seems like even the most mundane traditions can bring on food cravings. Luckily for us, we can take steps to unlearn these responses and replace them with healthier habits.
Strategies to Minimize Cravings
Knowing the physiological and psychological root of cravings, researchers are onto techniques for minimizing them. One effective way to diminish cravings is to stop eating the desired food, (thus removing the related dopamine release in the brain) and remove any reminders of it. The downside to this approach is that once a reminder or trigger pops up, cravings often return.
Two more realistic and sustainable approaches to minimizing cravings are to practice mindful eating, and to tackle the learned behavior associated with a particular craving.
Slowing down and paying attention to your cravings, hunger, fullness, the tastes, textures, and smells of food can strengthen your control and heighten your enjoyment of food. Additionally, replacing food-based habits or traditions for experience-centered ones (like going for a hike every Saturday morning rather than sitting down to a plate of syrup-soaked pancakes) can be helpful in both reducing food cravings and improving your health.
Two final notes to consider: first, we need to take ownership of our uncomfortable feelings, acknowledge their presence, and find ways to move on without them dictating our actions. Meditation, journaling, even exercise can all help support this. Second, a significant component of mindfulness is the enjoyment of food. Some days that may mean embracing your cravings, but in a way that fully appreciates them and where you remain in full control to say “yes,” “no,” or “that’s enough.” Be empowered going forward!