The definitive guide to cravings

If I asked you what you needed to do to beat food cravings what would your response be? Hell, if I asked you to fight any craving or addiction what would your response be?

Be more disciplined and display more willpower are by far the most common response I hear. But as we’ve covered here before your willpower is depleted day in and day out, there is a limited supply or switch you can just flick that turns it on, and it must be restored and practiced in order to get the most out of it.

Aside from that cravings are not as simple as just eating this and not eating that, cravings are regulated by hormones that send signals throughout the body that can either intensify or dull cravings or addictions.

So what exactly are addictions and cravings and what sort of real world strategies can you apply to overcome them in order to improve your nutritional habits, lifestyle choices, and start to achieve the things you truly want to achieve?

The addiction cycle

To understand cravings it’s important to understand how the addiction cycle works. Now, you might not be addicted to sugar, food, sex, smoking, or alcohol but you may experience brief moments of cravings for it and this should help to explain why.

For the sake of this article I’ll be referring mostly to food so that it does not get to confusing but the principles can be applied for almost any craving or addiction. Before we dive in it should be known that certain foods do contain addictive properties similar to cocaine and heroin. Sugar and grains for example produce a reaction in the orbit frontal cortex of the brain (decision-making area) that releases a surge of the hormone dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for reward-driven learning, pleasure, and produces an emotional response that affect the way you make decisions. This process is similar to the reaction that goes on when drug users or cigarette smokers participate in those activities (1).

The addiction cycle

  • You eat a food (sugar, grains, etc…), you like it, it already has addictive properties = you crave it.
  • Your blood sugar rises which causes dopamine to be released into the brain signaling how happy it makes you
  • Blood sugar drops + The high insulin levels you experienced from the food cause fat storage.
  • Your body craves the lost high that you experienced from the release of dopamine
  • Now your low blood sugar increases your appetite.

What follows is a cycle of misuse, abuse, and finally addiction or cravings.

  • Misuse: Food and specifically sugar are used to eleviate emotional, physical (fatigue, mental fog, etc..), mental, and social distress. Food is now not being used for its original intention – survival and energy.
  • Abuse: Consumption is increased to maintain the desired effect or euphoric feeling and release of dopamine.
  • Addiction: More and more time is spent trying to acquire or consume the stimulant.

is flickr an addiction? CRASH:candy via Compfight

What are cravings?

There are some that say you naturally crave certain food or sugars as a means to diversify the diet or provide different nutrients that the body may need. Cravings may be a natural process but the problem now is that manufactured foods are produced to make you crave them by adding unnecessary amounts of sugar, salt, fat, and other additives. In his book Salt, sugar, fat: How the food giants hooked us, author Michael Moss discusses how crap producers (I can not bring myself to call it food) have hired food scientists to formulate certain ingredients in order to create a craving for them. Foods like yogurt and spaghetti sauce have been laced with sugars and salt, in order to “preserve” them when it is entirely unnecessary.

Our appetites evolved when food was hard to come by and unprocessed, if you wanted to eat you had to catch, kill, or forage for it and it required a lot of energy to do so. Food now has become prepared, processed, and easily accessible, requiring little to no energy to acquire, hell you can drive somewhere, eat in your car, and drive somewhere else.

You already have to ability to eat exactly what your body needs, requires, and in the exact amounts necessary. As nutritionist John Berardi has mentioned on several occasions, “97% of prescribed patient on opioid painkillers don’t become addicts and most of you us won’t rob a 7-11 for a candy bar.” So then what exactly is it that sometimes causes you to almost unbearably crave certain foods? It goes back to those social, motivational, physical, and genetic (hormonal) factors.

Some factors to consider when considering why you have cravings

  • You need food to survive, although you can last a month and in some cases longer without any at all. Your body has been wired with a starvation defense mechanism.
  • When we are served more we naturally tend to eat more. This is because out bodies are wired to believe that food is scarce so when you can consume you better.
  • The less nutrients you eat the more you will crave. Your bodies need vitamins and minerals. Processed foods are inferior to real and whole food when it comes to this. When you’re not getting enough your body will search for it and crave.
  • Food is easily accessible which leads to the ease of eating
  • Societal norms or the status quo can lead to cravings or pressures to eat a particular way. I can not begin to tell you how many times I been asked how long I will be on my “diet.” Not eating processed junk does not mean you are on a diet.
  • Lack of sleep, an increase in stress like a baby on the way, job change, or marriage, dehydration, omega-3 fatty acid imbalances, and caffeine crashes can contribute to cravings.
  • Smell, sight, sound, people, and location can all contribute to cravings
  • Typical meal times like breakfast, lunch, and dinner force you to eat or make you think you need to eat at these specific times every day. The truth is it is acceptable to eat anytime you are hungry regardless of time of day.
  • You eat or crave in order to satisfy the human tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory

All of the factors above, plus many many more contribute to specific food cravings. On more of a science-y tip, cravings are a signal to the brain that sugar and fat are not being released into the blood stream as fast as your brain would prefer. This is one reason many of us get sugar cravings, sugar gets their super duper fast.

Cravings trick you into thinking you are hungry when you are actually not and could probably do without food. Hunger and satiety occur when good, nutrient dense foods are coming in that supply the body with adequate energy, vitamins, and minerals. The more real and nutrient dense food that is eaten the easier it is for your body to regulate your appetite and to really allow you to feel when it is time to eat or not to eat based upon the concepts of food being solely for survival and energy. When processed foods that like nutrient density are being consumed satiety or feelings of fullness are jeopardized and your body begins to crave that which it is missing.

The role of insulin and blood sugar management also play an important role in the dynamic between hunger and cravings. Insulin has an effect on your blood sugar and when blood sugar decreases your energy will dip and then the hypothalamus will send a message to the stomach and intestine to release specific acids and digestive juices that trigger appetite. So essentially, an increase in insulin prevents fats and sugars from being released into the blood stream and when insulin goes up + no real food comes in + blood sugar drops = cravings.

What can cause the insulin spike?

There are a number of factors that can cause a rise in insulin levels.

  1. Meal size: Typically the larger the meal the larger the secretion
  2. Digestibility: The body’s ability to digest what you have eaten. How fast you eat can affect this as well so slow down a bit.
  3. Current body composition: The leaner you are the better your body will respond to certain foods especially carbohydrates. The more body fat you carry the easier it is to cause a rise in insulin. If fat loss is a goal a Paleo approach in which animal protein, healthy fats, and veggies as all meals is a most. Limit fruits and starchy carbs as much as possible until you achieve the body fat percentage you prefer.
  4. Time between last meal: Complex carbs will typically keep insulin levels higher for longer so an emphasis on healthy fats and animal protein is important for maintaining healthy insulin levels. The longer you go between meals the lower your insulin levels will usually be. There is no real sweet spot for meal timing, the best approach is to listen to your own body and if you are consistently real food over processed junk your body will thank you and let you know exactly when the next meal needs to come in.
  5. Meal composition: The only nutrient (protein, carbohydrate, fat) that insulin does not respond to are fats. So yes, protein actually does cause an insulin spike, albeit fairly insignificant. When I work with clients whose main goal is fat loss I emphasize 3-4 meals per day and if and only if they feel the need to snack we try to stay with healthy fats like 1-2 baby handfuls of macadamia nuts, spoonfuls of coconut oil, or raw and grass-fed cheeses if they do well with dairy.
  6. Appetite cues: I would actually say this is a pretty significant influence for most of us, much bigger than you probably would like to think. insulin release can be caused by psychological cues like the smell, sight, flavor, or even thought of certain foods.

uh ohCreative Commons License bark via Compfight

I’m itching for a fix man! I can beat this damn thing

So to beat a craving what exactly are you trying to do? You’re trying to change the way that your body responds to food, whoa! That seems difficult, and I’m not going to bullish*t you… it definitely is but in order to not only beat cravings five minutes from now but also tomorrow, a week, and five years from now you need to physiologically need to change the way you respond to food.

One of the biggest problems with diets is that they lead to feeling deprived, leaving you moody, hungry, and miserable. “Diets” focus on short-term gains that offer little to no long-term success and more often than not have detrimental affects on metabolism.

Personally I believe that highly motivated, disciplined, intrinsically motivated, and individuals that understand the importance of sleep and stress management should and will do very well with strict “30 day challenge” type approaches to nutrition. Diane over at Balanced bites has a terrific resource you can take advantage of to help you kick sugar cravings to the curb. The rules of what to do and not to do are clearly laid out and there is often a very specific plan to follow that makes it easy to apply the concepts and achieve success. However, for those of you that might be under higher stress, lack sufficient rest, have trouble with self-discipline, or motivation a more gradual approach may be the right fit for you.

One approach I have been researching the last few years and even apply with clients is known as a de-conditioning plan. I first came across this approach after reading an article by Todd Becker regarding the topic. For an in-depth analysis of the approach visit his site getting stronger. The idea is to gradually reduce insulin levels and control blood sugar in order to better understand how appetite and cravings work for you, not anyone else, but for you.

A few tips before trying this approach are as follows:

  • Change the physical environment: This means your home, work place, etc… You may want to perform a kitchen makeover or avoid particular rooms at work that may contain crave able foods, you may even have to change the route you take to work so that you don’t pass that wonderfully smelling Cinn-a-bon and get tempted.
  • Find social support: Ask family members, friends, and coworkers how important this is to you and that you’ll need their help in order to succeed. It may be that they participate with you, keep certain foods away from you, or just respect your wishes and to keep from peer pressuring you.
  • Stress management: Get to sleep, meditate, take hot baths, participate in leisurely activities that you enjoy, whatever you have to do to keep stress as low as possible. Here are some great tips for de-stressing at work in an instant.
  • Get comfortable with the uncomfortable: Change is tough, respect the fact that it will be. Admit it and move forward.

Step 1:

I suggest staying with step one for 2-4 weeks. You’ll have to be your own best judge here as it will vary depending on how you are feeling and the results you are getting. You are also more than welcome to stay with it much longer it you’d like as it is a completely healthy and safe way to eat.

Lower carbohydrate intake to under 100 grams per day. This will mean that most if not all of your carbohydrates will come from vegetable sources and more than likely green leafy ones. You may be able to get away with a handful of berries per day as well or one medium sweet potato, preferably after exercise only.

Pick specific times to eat. I love this because it lets you work with your own schedule. I always hated trying to eat 5-6 meals per day. Not only was it convenient but I was also rushing to eat and constantly full. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all made up, the truth is you can eat whenever you want. Take a good look at your schedule and pick 3-4 times per day that you will be eating a meal regardless of whether you are hungry or not. A good rule of thumb is to separate meals by 3-5 hours, with 4 being a sweet spot.

You will also not be snacking because that will cause more insulin spikes throughout the day; the idea is to not let hunger be the guiding force to what drives you to eat. If you absolutely feel the need for a snack what 15-20 minutes and drink a glass of water to see if it subsides and if it does not focus on eating only healthy fats for that snack such as a handful of macadamia nuts, 1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil, or a few olives; emphasize fats and limit protein and carbohydrate.

Start a journal: This is probably the most important thing you can do for yourself, it is unreal how much awareness that it creates. Pick up a journal and start to log your cravings.

  • Time of day
  • Who you are with
  • What you are doing
  • How you felt physically and mentally
  • Where you are

Get as specific as possible, the more details the better. It will really help you to recognize the who, what, and why behind any cravings. Your body is a creature of habit and odds are you will start to see patterns emerge.

Step 2:

Step 2 has less to do with food and more about your physical and psychological responses to food.

1. Continue only eating at specifics times (it’s ok to have a small window in order to be more social), don’t skip dinner with friends just because you’re only suppose to eat at 7:00PM and they want to go out to eat at 7:30. Eating every tie you get hungry reinforces your appetite and makes it stronger which will make it more difficult to beat cravings.

2. When you get a craving instead of eating practice something else instead. So if you get hungry go on a walk, read for a few minutes, or participate in some other enjoyable experience. This will help to establish a new routine when ever you get cravings.

3. When you get comfortable enough gradually start to expose yourself to the foods that you are craving. For the most part you may have been avoiding them but now I want you to start to embrace it but do so slowly. At first when you get a craving maybe just look at a picture of it, after a week or so maybe go walk past it on display somewhere, after another week actually pick it up and look at it, and maybe after another week actually prepare or serve it but don’t eat it. You’ll slowly build strength and immunity to the craving. Sounds weird I know but this type of approach is often used with patients dealing with extreme fears.

Cravings be gone!

You eat because you’re motivated to eat and the ideas here are to promote the right sort of motivation so that you can develop healthy eating habits that lead to success and last a lifetime. There’s no sense in feeling deprived and not enjoying food, although its main purpose is for survival and fuel it also has very important powerful social, emotional, and psychological effects on you and those around you. Learn to control your response to food cravings and start to really love and enjoy your meals again.

How do you deal with cravings?

What are some ways you have beat other addictions, cravings, etc…?

Live limitless,