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How to Fight Cravings

Cravings are not hunger, and they aren’t good for you! Slay the crave dragon by giving new reactions to your stress, anxiety, and boredom triggers!

I recently saw a TV news report that said we are losing the war on drugs. How tragic. How can this be? What motivates a normally sensible person to consume a substance that is bad for them and against the law? Science has found that substances in certain drugs give intense, even if only momentary, feelings of euphoria, or bliss, by activating certain parts of the brain. With use, the body becomes sensitized requiring more and more of the substance to elicit the same response, thus an expensive, life altering addiction. This addiction takes control of every aspect of the individual involved. They no longer have any say in what happens in their lives because they have given all control to a substance.

Would it shock you to find out that certain food cravings have been compared to drug addiction? It has been discovered that food cravings and drug addictions impact the same neural pathways. Researchers at Duke University found that when obese people even looked at pictures of food, it activated the same regions of the brain as when addicted smokers viewed photos of people smoking.

Food cravings are different from real hunger. Hunger is controlled by the stomach and is the body signaling that it’s time to eat and provide the nutrition necessary for life and function. True hunger is not very specific, just about anything will do, and the hungrier, the less specific. It’s about survival.

Food cravings are far more complex and are controlled by the brain and hormones. It may have nothing to do with hunger and just be the mind signaling that it wants a fix of “Happy Substance.” This obsession is often stronger than normal hunger. Cravings are very particular and focused. Cravings usually narrow in on a specific flavor or type of food such as ice cream, Cheetos, pancakes with maple syrup, or some french fries. These are often called comfort foods because they have little to do with nutrition or hunger. They flood the brain with mood-elevating happy hormones. We all know many chocoholics and Big Gulpoholics, but you likely don’t know many broccolioholics or carrotoholics? I don’t know anyone who craves celery unless that celery is filled with peanut butter or cheese spread.

Cravings aren’t the same universally. They seem to be a function influenced by gender, culture, and past experiences. Research revealed that virtually 100% of females experienced cravings which may be accounted for by monthly hormones and even pregnancy. The majority of women are most enticed by sweets. Approximately 70% of males experience food cravings and desire savory and salty items. Experience is important because, of course, you are only going to crave what you have had before. Culture is also involved. As an example in Western culture, a comfort food may be a chocolate donut, whereas, in a distant third world country, it may be a fried, curry-covered caterpillar.

Food cravings are normally triggered by stress, anxiety, or boredom. It is further intensified by modern marketing techniques that create mental imagery meant to ignite the emotions. Have you ever found yourself mindlessly staring into an open refrigerator at every commercial break from a TV program you were watching? Not really hungry, but craving some comfort. Just looking for a little fix like any addict.

There is what I call a “Craving Cycle.” It starts off with a trigger, which leads to a desire for a “Happy Hormone” fix, which gives short term pleasure, which then leads to guilt and then to punishment, which looks for a trigger, and the cycle repeats. Each time requiring more of a fix to get the same pleasure but also compounding guilt. The cycle must be broken.

How can we deal with these emotional triggers? Cold turkey (excuse the non-vegan expression) is brutal, as any addict can attest to. Boredom is the easiest to solve; all you have to do is get busy! Cognitive tasks, gardening, and interesting projects keep the mind engaged, crowding out idle thoughts looking for comfort. Exercise and competition are great replacements in that they not only get you to focus on other things, but they also cause the body to secrete some of those same feel-good hormones. Healthy food alternatives are helpful, like substituting Stevia for sugar, or Hummus for pudding. If you are really stressed or bored, instead of giving in to the food demon, take a nap.

Slay the crave dragon with healthy alternatives and staying busy.

A great way to get you going on resolutions is joining our fitness challenge!

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