Cravings: What They Are & What to Do About Them
Have you ever had an intense craving for a certain food? Such desires are seemingly insatiable. So much so, that they can be very difficult to resist! So, we end up at the take-out window of a fast food restaurant or the ice cream aisle of the grocer. We often joke about this inner battle or consider it normal in the face of body changes such as pregnancy. But could there be more to it than the simple desire for a food we enjoy? Could we actually be deficient in something that beckons us subconsciously toward certain foods?
Hunger vs. Cravings
To understand cravings, it is important to first understand what cravings are not. For starters, a craving is different than hunger. While hunger is a physiologic process that occurs within the gut sending signals to the brain, a craving is actually an emotional state that originates in the mind.
The process of hunger and satiety (feeling full) is an amazing and complicated process that involves many hormone messengers and neural links between the stomach and the brain. The area deep in the brain that reads signals from hormones, blood sugar levels, and nerve signals from the stomach is called the hypothalamus.
Hunger is a necessary tool for survival. Cravings, on the other hand, are more about pleasure and satisfaction. Cravings are more about desire than actual need. Science has pretty much debunked the notion that food cravings are our body telling us that we need something such as a certain vitamin or mineral. After all, most every food craving is for something unhealthy. How many times have you craved chocolate as opposed to a banana? Or pizza as opposed to broccoli?
Cravings and Addiction
Smoking cigarettes, French fries, caffeine, ice cream, narcotic pain killers, chocolate, alcohol, M&M's, gambling, pizza and sex: what do they all have in common? The answer: they can all drive the addiction center in the brain! When we eat such fatty or sugary foods, we actually get a temporary release of chemicals called opioids ( related to the narcotic opium!) into our bloodstream.
Opioids flip switches in our brains called receptors that give a temporary feeling of pleasure or euphoria. This is modulated through release of the neurohormone, dopamine. Since it feels good, we are tempted to go there again, especially in times of stress. Thus, cravings are our minds beckoning us toward that feeling again via this chemical reward system.
This cycle of craving-reward-dopamine surge is seen in similar fashion with drug addiction, compulsive gambling, and sex. Yes, when you compare those amazing brownies to crack, you are actually not far off!
Hormonal Imbalance and Cravings
Sometimes another neurohormone plays into this mix: serotonin. For example, swings in the female sex hormones that can happen before periods and in pregnancy lower serotonin levels. Such deficiencies can lead to an activation of this reward system and cravings.
Sometimes it works the other way - as a side effect of medications aimed at boosting serotonin. When serotonin is elevated, it can suppress dopamine stores. This deficiency leads to activation of cravings in order to recover dopamine. Fatigue sets in, and intense cravings for the things that raise dopamine develop - sweets, caffeine and cigarettes for example.
So, how do we break this bond if we are trying to eat healthy and even lose weight? Suppressing food cravings can prove to be overwhelming. Sometimes, it is not so simple as just taking one bite to satisfy and further suppress the craving.
Just like with drugs, we can develop a higher threshold with continued exposure! In other words, the more chocolate you eat, the more is needed to give the brain that dopamine jolt. That one Hershey's kiss that used to satisfy you may not do it anymore, but rather only serve to open Pandora's box.
Working on mentally curbing your cravings is tricky business also. A study on women who tried to quit thinking about eating chocolate lead to 50% more consumption compared to the group allowed to express their desire. Psychologists and dietary experts advise the occasional giving in to our cravings; the key, though, is limiting the frequency. In studying calorie restriction and weight loss, studies found that those who satisfied their cravings the least lost the most weight.
Success is more about managing cravings than beating them into the ground. Theoretically, aerobic exercise can also give a boost of dopamine and may serve as a healthy antidote to a craving. Admittedly though, this is the last thing that comes to mind when I am on the couch craving chocolate.
Health Conditions and Cravings
Some special cases exist with cravings. Perhaps the most bizarre is called "pica." Pica is a physiological eating disorder that is characterized by a desire to eat non-food items. Most often, pica is triggered by iron deficiency anemia. Most commonly, pica involves the consumption of dirt or ice. Various explanations have been proposed but none prevail.