Constant hunger is the worst. It’s distracting, uncomfortable, and when we give into our cravings, it often leads to soul-gnawing guilt.
So what are food cravings about and how can you make them a thing of the past?
This article will discuss the science behind food cravings and give you five real-life ways to outsmart your hungry brain.
Cause #1: Problems With Blood Sugar
At their most basic level, food cravings are about uneven blood sugar levels. What happens is that when you haven’t eaten recently and then eat a meal that is high in carbs, the carbs will be digested and released into your blood stream as sugar. The sugar is very stimulating and makes you feel good.
Then, insulin is released by the pancreas in order to get the sugar out of the blood to be burned for energy or stored as fat. In response to high-carb foods, it’s common for the body to release too much insulin, which leads blood sugar levels to plummet, energy levels to drop, and, boom, you’re insatiably hungry again.
Cause #2: Inability To Burn Fat
The ideal state is to be metabolically flexible, which means your body is able to burn both fat and carbs for energy. It works like this: Anytime blood sugar is low because you haven’t eaten recently, your body will switch from burning glucose over to burning ketones, which are a byproduct of fat burning.
However, if you eat carbs every 2 to 3 hours as is common, your body will never have the chance to develop the metabolic machinery necessary for burning fat. Without the ability to burn body fat, your energy and mood will plummet if you don’t eat every 3 hours on the clock. Fat gain is likely because you’re continually getting cues from your body to eat more to raise your blood sugar since your body isn’t able to readily switch over to burn its own fat stores.
Cause #3: Excessive Stress/High Cortisol
Have you ever experienced the uncontrollable hunger that hits right after a highly stressful situation? During the stress, hunger was the last thing on your mind, but once you’re through it—look out—here come the carb cravings. It’s all due to the effect of cortisol.
During acute stress, hunger is suppressed due to the effects of corticotropin-releasing hormone, which precedes cortisol release. Once the acute stress passes, cortisol triggers extreme hunger as a mechanism to increase blood sugar and supply energy in preparation for more stress.
Another effect of high cortisol is that it triggers cravings for highly pleasurable foods high in carbs and fat. This is partly due to the fact that carbohydrates provide the raw materials for cortisol production and they trigger an insulin release, which can help to lower cortisol.
In addition, stress activates energizing neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which is associated with reward-driven eating. It makes us seek out highly palatable foods that make us feel good, and it’s very hard to stop eating because we want that shot of dopamine. It’s the same reason that you feel compelled to check your phone when a new message comes in—it leads to release of dopamine.
Cause #4: Food Addiction
The bad news about the reward/dopamine mechanism that gets triggered when we treat stress-induced cravings by chowing down is that it can actually lead to a full-on food addiction, which involves changes in the same areas of the brain as alcohol and drug addiction.
Typically, people feel addicted to junk foods that contain sugar, wheat, processed fats, or most often, all three. Eating these foods leads to the release of substances called endocannabinoids in the gut. They affect dopamine and opioid receptors in the brain, improving mood in the same way that drugs or alcohol are pleasurable.
There’s even evidence that if we eat highly palatable junk foods over time, the opioid receptors will become hypersensitive, which often leads to a withdrawal symptom when we stop eating these foods.
Cravings associated with food addiction have nothing to do with homeostasis or energy balance. They just make us feel good and over time, we learn to associate them with relief from stress.
Cause #5: Anxiety
The brain transmitter serotonin is an important regulator of appetite, mood, and preference for certain foods. It conveys a calming sensation and low levels are often associated with high anxiety.
Low serotonin stimulates appetite and a preference for carbs because carbs provide tryptophan, which is an amino acid that is necessary for serotonin production. The increase in serotonin leads to a boost in mood and a reduction of anxiety. Naturally, once you get relief once from high-carb junk foods, you’ll be conditioned to do it again.
There are both quick fixes for food cravings and more complex solutions that require the development of healthy lifestyle habits. Both will be covered below.
#1: Work Out
Exercise is actually a godsend for reducing food cravings because it has the power to solve all five causes mentioned above. First, strength training improves insulin sensitivity so that the body is better able to manage blood sugar. Second, both anaerobic (strength training and sprints) and aerobic exercise improve fat burning.
Third, strength training helps to overcome high cortisol levels and can reset the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that governs the stress response and is involved in anxiety management. Forth, strenuous exercise triggers endorphins that bind with opioid receptors, which may help people overcome food addiction.
Finally, going out for a walk or doing some other form of easy exercise is a great tool to distract you from food cravings.
#2: Eat To Balance Blood Sugar
There are two surefire ways to improve blood sugar management and improve your body’s ability to burn fat.
First, low-carb diets will restore insulin sensitivity and increase metabolic flexibility. This is important because insulin is a hunger-reducing hormone when you are insulin sensitive. But if you are insulin resistant, as overweight people often are, insulin doesn’t blunt appetite and you still feel hungry after eating a carb-filled meal. Best results will come from planning meals around protein, healthy fat, and vegetables. Restrict carbs to low-glycemic sources such as low-carb veggies and fruit.
Second, if you’re not overweight and/or you work out frequently, a higher carb intake may be possible for balancing blood sugar. The key is to choose whole complex carbs such as starchy vegetables, fruit, beans, or boiled grains and always eat them as part of a mixed meal with protein and healthy fat to reduce the insulin response.
#3: Eat Carbs At Night
Eating lower carb foods during the day and saving higher carb foods for the evening meal will have the following positive effects on reducing food cravings:
First, it requires the body to tap into body fat stores and improves insulin for better metabolic flexibility and steadier blood sugar.
Second, it helps to lower cortisol while raising serotonin for a restful and relaxed evening. Third, it provides structure to your nutrition, helping to avoid reward-driven eating and anxiety associated with food.
#4: Use Glutamine
Glutamine is an amino acid that can treat food craving because it is an energy source for the brain. It reduces the desire to eat that is associated with low mood or addiction for sweets. In fact, glutamine is so effective for calming obsessive thoughts that it is a primary treatment for alcohol and drug addiction.
High glutamine foods include beef, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, dairy products, and some green vegetables like cabbage, parsley, and spinach. You can also take a glutamine supplement with water any time a food craving comes on. Another trick is to mix glutamine into a protein shake with coconut oil or cream to eliminate temptations.
#5: Deal With Your Stress
Besides blood sugar problems and insulin resistance, stress appears to be the most important factor when it comes to food craving. Therefore, if you want to get rid of food cravings for the long run, you’ve got to manage stress in real time as it’s happening. Here are a few strategies for doing this:
Meditation or some other form of mindfulness has been found to decrease cortisol and reduce reward-based activity in the brain that triggers food cravings.
Prioritize sleep—adequate sleep is essential because lack of sleep automatically reduces inulin sensitivity and fat burning, while jacking up cortisol so that food cravings become overwhelming.
Be cautious with caffeine. It’s common to turn to coffee to help with fatigue and get you through high-stress times. But this approach can backfire if you’re suffering from sky high cortisol levels or anxiety. Best to avoid it altogether, or if that’s not possible, have a cup midmorning to give you a lift, because this better coincides with your body’s circadian rhythm than having a coffee first thing in the morning.