You’re doing so well on your diet. You’re controlling your portions. You’re choosing healthy foods. You’re exercising. You’re losing weight.
But then that stressful week happens. Your boss asks you to stay late. Your car breaks down, and your kids need you to drive them to extra practices. Your dog gets hurt and has to go to the vet. Your best friend needs you for her wedding. You rush from one thing to the next hardly able to keep it all straight.
And all of a sudden, one morning, that frosted donut sitting there on the table at the office is just far too attractive to resist. You cave. How can a donut taste so good?
It starts an avalanche of cravings. Your usual healthy lunch becomes a burger and fries. Your veggie-loaded dinner gets tossed for a nice juicy steak. When you stay up late to get everything done, your brain screams at you for fuel, and the only thing that will do is a nice big bowl of ice cream.
Been there? We all have. Unfortunately, when things settle down and we realize what’s happened, we feel awful. We lost control, we think. We weren’t strong enough to stick with our own resolutions. Guilt, guilt, guilt.
It’s time to ease up on yourself. Whereas we used to think sticking to a healthy diet was all about self-control, now we know better. Science has discovered that evolution has stacked the cards against us. Turns out our food cravings are tied to things that can be difficult to control, like how much sleep we get, what our genetic makeup is, what hormonal changes we’re going through, and yes, what our gender is.
Best of all, with what we now know, we have even more effective ways to help you resist those cravings so you never have to feel guilty again.
What is a Craving?
You’ve likely experienced it before—that powerful desire for a particular type of food. It’s different from a regular feeling of hunger. When you’re hungry, a number of foods will satisfy you. But a food craving is often for something salty, sweet, or smooth—something that will satisfy a strong need you have at that moment.
Cravings can strike at any time, but usually occur when something else is going wrong in your life. You’re tired, stressed, bored, or you haven’t been eating right lately and your body needs energy. We used to think that cravings meant you were low on a certain nutrient or group of nutrients, but science has found more evidence that cravings are associated with other causes.
What Causes Cravings?
Here’s what we know so far:
- Obesity: This is a tricky one, as scientists don’t have all the answers yet, but they have found that food cravings tend to be “hard-wired” into the brains of obese people. In studies, food cravings activated different brain networks in obese people than they did in normal weight people. In fact, the pathways in food cravings were similar to those associated with drug addictions.
- Sugar: Studies have found that sugar, on its own, can trigger cravings. In 2013, for example, researchers reported that sugar lights up pleasure centers in the brain that play a role in compulsive eating. Lead researcher Eric Stice of the Oregon Research Institute told the New York Times that it was clear “the more sugar you eat, the more you want to consume it.”
- Fat: Though not quite as strong as sugar, fat can also trigger cravings. In the study mentioned above, researchers found that fat also activated brain-reward systems—just not quite as powerfully as sugar did. But fat is still a player, and consuming it can lead to wanting to consume more.
- Carbohydrates: Sugary foods and drinks, white bread, white rice, bagels, juice, and processed foods all cause spikes in your blood sugar. They are broken down quickly to glucose in the body, raising your blood sugar levels. But then after a short time, you experience the “crash”—when blood sugar levels drop quickly again. This cycle is unhealthy and will produce cravings for more carbs to get those blood sugar levels up again. According to researchers in a 2013 study, compared with a low-glycemic meal, a meal high in carbs increased hunger and stimulated areas in the brain associated with reward and craving by the time the next meal came around—encouraging people to eat more. That’s why nutritional experts recommend you consume more fiber, protein, and low-glycemic foods, as these are broken down in the body at a slower pace, keeping blood sugar levels steady.
- Fructose: You’ve seen “high fructose corn syrup” as an ingredient in many sodas and sugary treats. Turns out that fructose may have a different effect on your brain than glucose. In a 2015 study, for instance, researchers found that fructose led to more hunger and cravings for treats than glucose did.
- Blood sugar changes: As mentioned above, if your blood sugar is stable, it’s going to be easier for you to resist unhealthy foods. If it’s crashing, though, good luck! According to clinical nutritionist Byron J. Richards, when blood sugar drops, “your conscious level control center loses control and your subconscious control center takes over and demands that you eat high calorie food and do so now, as if you are trying to avoid some type of auto accident.”
- Exposure in utero: What your mom ate while she was pregnant can affect your food cravings. Studies have found that expectant mothers who consume a junk-food diet can cause their children to have an increased preference for these foods later in life.
- Genes: Yes, you may be able to blame some of your cravings on your genes! A recent study reported that two genetic variants (FTO and DRD2) can cause certain people to experience more intense cravings for unhealthy foods. If you have these gene variants, you may be more prone to overeating high-calorie foods.
- Lack of sleep: If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re going to have a hard time resisting those donuts or that slice of pizza. A study from U. C. Berkeley, for example, found that compared to a good night’s sleep, a sleepless night impaired activity in the brain’s frontal lobe—which is responsible for decision-making—and also increased activity in the reward-seeking centers. Sleep deprivation is also tied to changes in hunger hormones that drive you to want to eat. On the other hand, getting enough sleep has been found to cut cravings significantly.
Where is a Woman Most Vulnerable?
Now in addition to those factors listed above, women are susceptible to other things that can create powerful cravings. They include:
- Hormonal changes: You probably already suspected it was true, when you felt those cravings for chocolate during your menstrual period. Now we have scientific evidence to show that hormonal changes can cause cravings. In one study, for example, researchers found that women had a greater preference for chocolate foods during menstrual flow.
- Stress: “Stress-eating” is a real thing. Stress releases hormones that increase appetite and ramp up the motivation to eat. Studies also show that physical or emotional stress increases the desire for foods high in fat and sugar. Unfortunately, women seem more prone to using food to cope with stress than men. (Men are more likely to turn to alcohol and smoking.)Stress releases hormones that increase appetite and ramp up the motivation to eat. Studies also show that physical or emotional stress increases the desire for foods high in fat and sugar.
- Mood: Watch out if you’re feeling sad, angry, down, or anxious, as these feelings are tied to cravings—in women. A 2001 study examined gender differences between men and women for food cravings, and found that women were more likely to respond to negative feelings with cravings than men were. (Men were more likely to experience cravings with positive feelings.)
- Resistance: More bad news—compared to men, women have a harder time resisting cravings, and it doesn’t look like it has anything to do with willpower. In a 2009 study, researchers instructed both men and women to resist their hunger while they were tempted with food. Brain scans showed that men’s efforts resulted in less activation of brain regions that control hunger and desire for food. Women’s brains, however, didn’t react the same way, making it harder for them to resist. “Even though the women said they were less hungry when trying to inhibit their response to the food,” said lead researcher Gene-Jack Wang, “their brains were still firing away in the regions that control the drive to eat.”
Studies have also found that men and women have different food cravings. Whereas men may get that hankering for a steak, women are more likely to want chocolate or some other easy snack. This may have something to do with hormones, but according to a survey by the Food and Brand Lab at UL Urbana-Champaign, it may also have to do with our upbringing.
Whereas men long for that home-cooked meal their mothers made when they were young, women like less labor-intensive options not associated with food preparation. In other words, we don’t want to have to work for our reward, right?oHor
12 Ways to Outsmart Your Food Cravings
All these factors can make cravings very difficult to resist—for anyone.
Nicole Avena, a faculty member at the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University, says that people can have all willpower in the world, but “if the brain reward system is being activated in a way that causes them to have a battle against their willpower, then it can be very difficult for them to control their intake.”
You don’t have to feel powerless in the wake of your cravings, though. Here are twelve tips that can help you increase your ability to eat healthy more often. The good news is the better you get at resisting your cravings, the easier it will become.
- Make sure you have a regular schedule for meals. If you don’t eat every three-to-four hours, your blood sugar levels will crash, which will trigger food cravings. Start by eating small meals frequently.
- Add fiber and protein to each meal. These are the magical foods that keep your metabolism burning at a consistent level and help you avoid blood sugar ups and downs, reducing cravings.
- Get enough sleep. Shoot for 7-9 hours each night.
- Get enough exercise. Moderate-level exercise naturally raises “feel-good” endorphins and helps reduce cravings. Try walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, and the like.
- Wait five minutes. Telling yourself you’ll give in to the craving later can often help you avoid it completely. During that five minutes, try to distract yourself with something else—a new project, some exercise (go for a walk), a call to a friend, etc. If that doesn’t work, try to use that time to think of a healthy way to satisfy your craving.
- Give in…a little. Research shows that if we constantly deny ourselves our coveted treats, cravings can actually get worse. Just be sure you watch your portion size. Instead of eating the ice cream straight out of the carton, dish up a small amount and savor it.
- Set up healthy snacks. If you prepare healthy snacks ahead of time, you’ll be more likely to use them. Try things like nuts, raisins, pieces of fruit, veggie bites, yogurt, and the like. Separate them into one-use containers and have them readily available for when cravings strike.
- Drink water. Sometimes we think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty! Try drinking a tall glass of ice water and see if that doesn’t help.
- Find other ways to soothe yourself. Remember that women tend to respond to negative feelings with food. What else comforts you? Maybe it’s a hot bath, time with a friend, a walk in nature, time with a beloved pet, or getting involved in a craft you enjoy. Make a list of these options and keep it where you can see it when cravings strike. Ask yourself: Is this about food, or about how I’m feeling? If emotions are involved, try one of your other options.Ask yourself: Is this about food, or about how I’m feeling?
- Play a game. A study by psychologists found that people who spent at least three minutes playing Tetris on their smart phones had fewer cravings for food and other substances like alcohol than those who didn’t. Angry Birds, anyone?
- Take a sniff. Have you tried aromatherapy? Smells can affect your brain, and some smells can actually defeat cravings. One study by researchers from St. George’s Hospital in London, for example, found that smelling vanilla helped curb cravings for chocolate and other sweet foods, and helped participants to lose weight. Other scents that may work include peppermint and jasmine.
- Get enough sunshine. It improves your mood (and it supplies the vitamin D you need!). If you’re not getting enough sunshine, especially in the winter months, you’re likely to notice more cravings for fatty, sugary foods. Try getting out in the sun for at least 10 minutes a day, or use a lamp designed for light therapy in the darker winter months.
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