How do food cravings work
To understand how we can reduce our cravings, we first have to have a basic understanding of how stress reinforces them. As so many of us are aware, chronic stress increases our palatable food intake and subsequent increase in visceral fat, leading to a vicious cycle.
We are not meant to operate under constant stressors. Out of an evolutionary point of view, the fight of flight response should be a relative short lived event. The trouble comes in when we are under constant stress, so our bodies do not get a chance to recover. Without getting too deep in the physiology of the effect that stress has in the body, we all respond in the same way: eventually our cortisol (stress hormone) levels in the body drops and one of the effect is that we start craving that big piece of chocolate cake or pizza which in turn stimulates the brain’s reward centre and the cycle is perpetuated.
Now the £1 million question: what can I do about cravings, am I doomed to keep the cycle going indefinitely?
The answer to these questions is YES, we can do something about stress-related cravings and even binge eating!
I will give you a couple of strategies I found useful with my clients. Some are common sense, but still worth mentioning, as it forms the foundation and this way your chance of success increases. We want to achieve two major changes:
a) to make a wiser choice about what we eat and
b) to change the way we deal with stressors and do it as scientifically as possible.
5 ways to fight food cravings
1. Accept the fact you are craving –
you can only make an informed decision to change your habit if you have made peace with the fact that you are craving and eating that certain food. We can substitute by knowing what we eat.
2. Recognise what your stressors are –
I had a client, who would immediately go to the fridge and get a tub of ice cream when her mother called her on the phone. She did not even realize she was doing it until someone pointed it out. Stressors are something we either know about, or they hang around subconsciously. To this effect start a daily journal and you have to be brutally honest with yourself, otherwise there is no point of doing it. This is the only way you know what your cravings triggers are.
3. Dealing with the triggers –
once you have your triggers, rate them from high priority to low, this way you can plan a strategy to sort them out. You should start with the most pressing and should not overload yourself by trying to do everything all at once!
4. Mindfulness meditation –
there is a growing body of research, regarding mindfulness and stress reduction. The subject warrants an article on it, from self-helping and basic cognitive modifications to dealing with posttraumatic stress symptoms. The practice encourages being aware and recognising when we start stressing in a non-judgemental way. We focus on a neutral input, like breathing, staying in the moment, not thinking about the past or the future. What it does: promotes a more normal release of cortisol, which in turn lowers our cravings for food.
5. The last, but not least important strategy is exercising –
the effect of exercising on our hormonal and mental state is well documented in science and mainstream media. People who exercise are less likely to be affected by stress and generally make healthier food choices, thanks to improved confidence and a better body image.