It has been a belief for quite some time now that a food craving is an indication of a vitamin deficiency within our body. This raises one important question.  If a person has never had their vitamin levels checked, how can they assume they are deficient in anything? There have been countless studies done about the craving/deficiency theory, and although in rare cases there has been a connection between the two, in most cases cravings are all in our heads. So, what are some of the underlying causes and how do we “fix” them? It all comes down to reprogramming our brains.

Neurological Causes

Consciously, you know you don’t NEED the doughnut, but that Dopamine circuit is telling you different, and it usually will win.

A craving is a sensation that is caused by the Dopamine and B-endorphin circuits within our brains.  Basically, you need a dopamine fix to release your “inner happy”. There are a few things that trigger this sensation including hunger, stress, or certain places or events. For example, many people will not watch a movie without popcorn and or some other form of snack, regardless of whether they are hungry or not. Why is this? When you picture going to a movie at the theatre or watching one at home, what is the first thing that pops into your mind? POPCORN! Who cares if the movie stinks, just give me the popcorn! Studies have shown that the stronger and more vivid the mental image, the more powerful the craving will be. Another example of the craving connection is the infamous workplace coffee break. You walk into the lunchroom and someone has bought the staff doughnuts. Consciously, you know you don’t NEED the doughnut, but that Dopamine circuit is telling you different, and it usually will win. Once the doughnut is eaten, your brain releases that “inner happy”, and the fateful connection is made. Now every afternoon on coffee break your brain will trigger that craving. And so, it begins……

Taming the Beast

To break this nasty cycle, we need to “trick” our brains. We can go about doing this by bringing a homemade “treat” that contains less sugar and trans fat, or better yet, none. Eventually, our brains will begin to realize that this treat has a much weaker result, and the craving itself will become weaker, until it disappears altogether. Deconditioning complete!  A great snack for afternoon crash is the good old-fashioned apple with cheese trick. Our brains get a fructose fix, a fat fix, not to mention a dose of protein and vitamins.

BE CONSISTENT WITH MEALS

Allowing ourselves to become hungry is the first trigger for those nasty cravings.  It isn’t all about carbs.  It is within our genetic makeup to crave high fat foods when we are hungry.  It is a form of survival. Fats are our last form of energy after our bodies have used up our glucose stores. Fat provides a sense of satiety that lasts a longer amount of time, however the kinds of fats we choose is where the problem lies.  Chocolate chip cookies contain 50% fat, and 46% carbs, and French fries contain 56% fat and 40% carbs. So, is that craving about the carbs or the fat? Substitute trans fats for healthier fats, such as avocado, olive oil salad dressing, hemp, chia, sunflower, or pumpkin seeds as well as nuts.

GET SOME VARIETY

This is a huge one.  I have seen countless people restrict their diets to a small grouping of foods, only to crash, burn, and gain weight. When that dopamine circuit gets bored, look out! It is craving central! Try new recipes, and foods. With every grocery order, gather the ingredients for a new recipe, or simply try one new fruit or vegetable.

DO NOT ENTER THE JUNK FOOD ISLE!

Skip it. Speed (did I say that?) past the 7-11, run past the “bad” isle in the grocery store, close your eyes if you must, but skip it all together. If you don’t have it around, you cannot eat it. It’s that simple.

DIVERT!!

If there is a pile of junk food in the lunchroom, eat in your car. If you are going to a party or event where you know there will be temptation, eat before you go. A snack with adequate healthy fats and proteins will help. If you are struggling still, walk away from what ever it is that is causing the craving and breathe through your mouth. (smell is the biggest trigger for most people) Diverting your eyes away from the cause of the craving and visualizing something else can also help.  I have known people to wear an elastic around their wrist to snap until the craving subsides. Going for a walk, playing with a pet, meditating, or just asking yourself “Is eating that the best choice for my body, and will it bring me closer to my goals?”, are all examples of diversion tactics that people have used. Try a variety of tactics until you find the one that works best for you and stick to it.

HERE IT COMES…… ALLOW YOURSELF TO HAVE THE TREAT!!

Okay, don’t get too excited here, there are limits. It has been proven repeatedly that people that dive headfirst into calorie restricted diets not only become bored with the repetition of their food (as I mentioned previously), but they NEVER allow themselves an OCCASIONAL treat.  The key word here being occasional. People that jump head first into a calorie and food restricted diet, generally crash, burn, and gorge due to the fact that they are bored with the foods they are eating, and they are not allowing themselves to have the occasional comfort foods that they need. This leads to the “yoyo” dieting cycle. In the fitness world it is a theme among athletes to have a “cheat meal” once a week.  This allows their bodies to satisfy any craving they may have without wreaking total havoc. The key is, they don’t over do it. They eat the food they crave, enjoy it, and Bingo! Their Dopamine circuit releases that “internal happy”, nobody gained weight or feels guilty, and its back to nutrient dense meals. Cravings provide us with a form of comfort whether it be a cup of hot chocolate on a cold day, mom’s apple crisp, or popcorn during a movie, so allow yourself the freedom to enjoy the occasional dose of comfort and not feel guilty about it. Just remember to make it an occasional thing and don’t overindulge.

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