You want to eat healthily. You’ve planned your meals and you’re all ready to lose weight. But then, out of nowhere, food cravings arrive and you feel like crap. You don’t want to indulge but cravings keep on getting stronger until you have to indulge only to feel worse about yourself.
Sounds familiar? Don’t worry. We all have been there. This is called the downward spiral of addiction. You might think that it is all your fault. But let me give you the permission to stop blaming yourself for bad eating habits.
Food cravings arrive from internal and external factors that are out of our control. So instead of relying on willpower and our own self-esteem, let’s fix the internal and external issues so that we stop craving junk foods.
Sugar and processed foods
The number one reason of sugar cravings is the consumption of sugar itself. Sugar is an addictive substance. It plays tricks with our reward pathways aka mesolimbic pathways. These pathways are responsible for releasing neurons like dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. (the feel-good hormones)
When we eat sugar these neurons are released in an insane amount. As a result, we feel amazing as our reward pathways light up. But when we stop eating sugary foods, our reward pathways expect a similar ‘high’ which the body is not able to produce without any addictive substance. We then feel crappy without sugar and we need even more sugar to feel the same release of neurons in our reward pathways.
Sugar addiction leads to depression as we start relying on it to feel good. Moreover, sugar keeps on destroying our health from inside. So, sugar really is a poison (in large amounts). It destroys both – our mental and physical health.
Guess what happens next? Depression leads to even more food cravings as we try to seek pleasure from food which only sugar in high amounts can provide. We get stuck in a vicious cycle of addiction.
That’s not all. Another reason why sugar is responsible for our cravings is because of its impact on our blood sugar. Sugar shoots up our blood sugar level which gives us energy at the time of eating. But soon after, we feel a crash in our energy and mood as our blood sugar drops down. We may feel hangry (hungry + angry) after a while and reach for more sugary foods.
Here’s what you can do about it…
Getting out of addiction cycle is not easy. If you quit sugar cold turkey, you will feel withdrawal symptoms and crave sugary foods so it might not be the best strategy for everyone. An easier approach is to gradually reduce the amount of sugar you consume on a daily basis. So if you put 2 teaspoons of sugar in your breakfast, start putting 1 teaspoon. Next week after that, put half a teaspoon and then slowly try to eliminate sugar altogether. You can still use the sweet taste of natural foods like banana and berries to maintain palatability of your breakfast.
It might sound like you can never quit sugar but trust me, our taste buds adapt and our we start to get off the addiction cycle slowly. However, if you crave any sugar, you’re still in the addiction loop. So, if you want to go hardcore with a strong reason to quit sugar, you can go cold turkey and take the harder path of feeling withdrawal systems and trying hard to tame cravings.
Sugar is also hidden most of the items in your grocery shop. It is important to learn how to read nutritional labels and ingredients to identify hidden sugar in your products. Some of the most common names of sugar you will find in the list of ingredients are high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, dextrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, agave nectar, fruit sugar, fruit nectars, beet sugar, cane juice, caramel, raw sugar, brown sugar, maltodextrin, rice syrup, molasses, barley malt, and the list goes on.
My goal is not to scare you. I want to educate you so that you can make wise decisions and take charge of your health. Food engineers and marketers do not care about your health. They want to make their product as appealing as possible even if they have to add addictive substances into it. It is our job to take care of our own health and avoid the trap of food addiction. Focus on the long-term happiness instead of short-term pleasure which could result in long-term depression and serious health conditions.
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The second most common reason for our food cravings is stress. All stress is not evil. There is good and bad stress which we need to take care of.
Good stress is acute. It boosts our performance and helps us get things done efficiently. Similarly, exercise is a good stressor which acutely acts as a stressor but in the long term, it helps us manage chronic stress and boosts our mood.
Chronic stress, however, has a negative impact on our mind and body. It leads to poor mental health and fat gain. The hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is affected whenever we are stressed. Stress produces cortisol which gives negative feedback to HPA axis. It activates our sympathetic system which is responsible for fight or flight response.
If we don’t turn off the fight or flight response by activating the parasympathetic system (opposite of sympathetic system), we get chronically stressed which can lead to psychological problems and neuroendocrine dysfunctioning. This phenomenon leads to cravings.
We need to learn how to turn off the stress signal in our modern world where we are constantly bombarded with stressors. Stress can come in many forms such as work stress, financial stress, relationship stress, etc. Moreover, external factors like air pollution, noise pollution, processed foods can act as stressors for our body.
Here’s what you can do about it…
Meditation or simply deep breathing is the quickest way to tell your body that is not in fight or flight situation. To get started, take brief pauses in your day and take a few deep breaths. This way, your body will learn to switch off the stress signal. Playing, laughing, exercising or going for a walk in nature/park will help reduce chronic stress as well. Yoga, taichi and getting a massage are also good ways to relax.
You can also try being more mindful of your emotions. Instead of judging your emotions or running on autopilot, observe what you’re feeling and acknowledge it. You can also write it down in your private journal to relieve stress. Speaking with close friends is another good way to manage your stress. Just make sure not to smoke or eat unhealthy foods while doing so as it will only provide temporary relief. In the long term, it will only damage your mind and body.
Another way to reduce your chronic stress levels is to get a good night’s sleep of 7-9 hours. The amount of sleep required will vary depending on your genetics, age, gender, and lifestyle. But generally, aiming for 8 hours of sleep is a good target. It is also important to focus on the quality of your sleep.
To improve the quality of your sleep, sleep in dark room with at least disturbing noises as possible. Make sure not to eat heavy meals or caffeine beverages before bed and try to stop watching digital screens 1-2 hours before bed. If you absolutely have to do so, use blue light blocking applications like f.lux on mac or windows, twilight on android and night shift on iOS. You can also establish a night time ritual like reading, drinking decaffeinated tea, journaling, meditating, listening to calm music, stretching, taking a hot shower etc. to easily fall asleep.