Do you always reach for the popcorn bowl before a movie or a pack of peanut M&M’s before studying for a test? Do you raid your pantry for some chips when you’ve had a bad day? Whether you crave something sweet, salty or just plain comforting, it turns out that those cravings come from your brain and your body.
“Certain foods light up different centers in our brain, and these tend to be highly palatable foods such as those high in sugar, fat and salt. They are the foods that just taste good; they hit those taste buds on our tongue and light up reward centers in our brain,” says UNC Health licensed psychologist Christine M. Peat, PhD.
For example, sugar in particular releases the feel-good neurotransmitter in our brain called dopamine. When dopamine is released in large amounts, it creates feelings of pleasure and reward, which makes you want to repeat a specific behavior.
“When your brain has a memory of those things, it’s what it wants to return to,” Dr. Peat says.
And that may be why big emotions, including stress, make you want to finish the whole container of ice cream, even if you’re full.
Cravings also can be environmental.
“If you’re living in a time when things are very stressful, like the majority of the past year has been, or if you are living under challenging circumstances, like so many of us have been, your brain is looking for a way to soothe itself and bring itself back down,” Dr. Peat says.
For many people, turning to food is a way to dial down stress and feel less on edge. And sometimes, food is a good tool for self-care and giving yourself a nice moment; other times, eating too much food that isn’t nutritious can lead to health consequences, including changes in blood sugar or even sleep.
So how should you address cravings when they occur? Dr. Peat offers these three tips.
1. Allow yourself a variety of foods.
It may sound counterintuitive, but eating a variety of foods (including the tasty, highly palatable ones) can actually help reduce cravings in the long term.
“We need to think about how we frame our relationship with food,” Dr. Peat says. “So if, for example, we have learned to demonize certain foods or label them as ‘bad,’ oftentimes when we eat them, we feel like we’ve ‘given in,’ or done something wrong.”
Instead, if we simply frame those foods as things that taste really good and that we will eat sometimes, the guilt that goes along with eating those foods lessens, Dr. Peat says.
“Oftentimes, when you feel like you’ve broken a rule or you feel guilty about eating a certain thing, it actually sets you up to eat more of that food,” Dr. Peat says. For example, after you’ve eaten a slice of cake (after swearing off all sweets) you might think to yourself, “Well, I’ve already broken my rule for the day, so I might as well eat this entire cake.” The result is that you end up eating far more cake than you might have if you’d allowed a variety of foods from the start.
Instead, give yourself permission to enjoy all foods—in moderation.
“If we were to frame our foods as part of a balanced plan, it actually paradoxically gives us a more balanced relationship with food than if we demonize it,” Dr. Peat says.
2. Distract yourself.
We are creatures of habit, and our cravings often follow a pattern. If you always grab a sugary latte on your drive to work, try to eliminate the trigger. For example, take a different route to work or bring your own tea in a travel mug from home.
If you find yourself craving something salty while watching your favorite Netflix drama, turn it off and call a friend instead. This can help distract you until the craving subsides. Or, keep watching your show but paint your toenails or ask your spouse for a back rub instead.
3. Find a way to relieve stress that doesn’t involve food.
Try to engage in some mindfulness activities if you feel stressed. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, the founder of a popular, evidence-based mindfulness training program, defines it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”
This can be as simple as pausing to take a deep breath, which can help you become more aware of any heightened stress that you may be feeling. That awareness can help you observe your stress, rather than getting lost in it, and can help you achieve calm.
Self-care is identifying and tending to your needs and includes practices that promote your general well-being. This means getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising and taking prescribed medications.
Self-care also can be engaging in activities that bring you joy and relieve stress, such as taking a bubble bath, going for a long walk or even dancing to your favorite song. Make a list of things that make you happy and refer back to it when you’re feeling stressed out.
If you find that you cannot control your stress, seek help from a mental health professional.
Need help for an eating disorder for yourself or a loved one? Contact the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at (984) 974-3834.
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