Why We Crave
You’ve heard time and time again that the work of being healthy, happy, and slim is to make positive lifestyle changes and shifts. That the most important shift is to choose the “good” foods and leave behind the “bad” foods. But it’s the “bad’ ones that we crave. They taste so good, and for a few minutes, make us feel so good, too! Although we try and try to resist, we fail.
One reason we crave is that we have been sabotaged. Scientists employed by the food industry have been formulating packaged and processed foods to be completely irresistible. For the millions of years that humans have been eating, we have never had such an onslaught of sugar, fat, and salt. Since this has only been occurring for about 50 years, our bodies simply have not evolved enough to be able to process it all in a healthy way. Our bodies and brains are on overload. While we are in “crave-mode,” it is overwhelmingly difficult to make the healthy choice and resist the unhealthy one.
But we continue to white-knuckle through the cocktail or tailgating party. We try to use willpower to get through the Christmas cookie swap or Thanksgiving dinner. How often are we successful? How long does it take for that table of cookies, donuts, or pastries to call our name and for us to just throw up our hands and give in? It happens to all of us, especially me! Then we begin the self-bullying and the feelings of guilt and shame for not being able resist the cravings. We feel like we’ve failed.
Unfortunately, we can’t blame everything on the food industry. And, cravings don’t have anything to do with willpower or being weak- or strong-willed. Hormones and neurotransmitter imbalances account for many of the cravings that we experience. These brain chemicals dictate the strong combination of emotions plus physiology and can override the third component: intellect. It’s always important to be as strong-willed as possible when making food choices, but hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances can impact the best of intentions for all of us.
INSULIN. We may be familiar with insulin but tend to think of it solely for its effect on Type 1 and 2 diabetes. But this powerful hormone is partially responsible for the majority of food cravings—particularly sugar and carbohydrates. A meal of pasta and garlic bread, or a bagel and fruit, or a bowl of cereal and skim milk, can trigger a cascade of hormones that include insulin. These foods are high in sugar and carbohydrates and cause a quick dump of the sugar into the blood stream. This causes the pancreas to make a large amount of insulin to try and get all of that sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells. Often there’s “leftover” insulin without any sugar to work with. This causes blood sugar levels to take a dive, and your body is left in a state of hypoglycemia.
The brain runs on sugar/glucose, so when sugar levels fall, the brain and body panic. This panic causes an increase in cortisol, which is one of the hormones associated with the “flight or fight” response. The sudden increase of cortisol makes us crave foods that turn into sugar fast, such as bread, pasta, cereal, crackers, or sweets, so that the brain’s supply of glucose can be replenished quickly. Continuing to eat this way fuels the blood sugar and insulin roller coaster, increasing cravings for sugar and carbohydrates.
SEROTONIN. This feel-good hormone keeps us relaxed and feeling positive. When we are stressed, overworked, sleep-deprived or depressed, the brain will crave the foods it knows can boost our serotonin levels for a little while. Chocolate, dairy, foods high in sugar, and simple carbohydrates get the job done quickly. Think comfort foods like mac and cheese and Hershey bars. But relying on these foods—literally self-medicating—only gets you so far, for so long. Too much for too long will lower the serotonin levels in the brain. This will lead to a vicious cycle that ends up with you feeling more depressed and stressed.
SEX HORMONES. Fluctuating estrogen and progesterone levels also have a big impact on food cravings. Women: think about how you feel right before your period and what your cravings are like. With erratic hormones at play, my bet is that you’re not craving vegetables, right?
Estrogen is key here, as its levels are directly linked to serotonin levels in the brain. When estrogen levels decrease right before menstruation or after pregnancy, the brain’s ability to utilize serotonin is also decreased. There goes that positive attitude. There goes that willpower to avoid sugary, chocolaty, and cheesy foods. It also can make us feel sad, anxious, irritable, angry, and interfere with sleep. And what happens when we don’t sleep? The brain doesn’t get its glucose “recharging time,” which means you’ll wake up craving sugary and starchy comfort foods.
Often having the understanding of WHY you are craving can be the first step in making healthier choices. You can begin to stop feeling guilty and not rely totally on willpower. You can use this knowledge, along with real foods like clean protein, leafy green veggies, and healthy fats which can help you avoid the spikes and dips and naturally boost your serotonin levels for the long haul. There are excellent supplements I use in my practice to help balance hormones so you can cut those hormonal roller coaster rides off at the pass.
With this bit of information, you can begin to put cravings into perspective. Be patient with yourself, be respectful to your body, and take control of your health one step at a time.