Is your appetite out of control?
10 ways to fight food cravings
What is a food craving?
A food craving – also known as selective hunger – is an extremely intense, uncontrollable desire for specific foods, which is far stronger than normal hunger. In studies of food cravings, well-known culprits such as chocolate, sugar, carbohydrates and salt almost always top the list. The common factor is that they generally fall into what we would call the ‘junk food’ category.
Because of this, cravings are one of the main reasons that people end up putting on weight and have difficulties controlling their appetite. What makes it more difficult, is that ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals, such as Serotonin, are released when these types of food are eaten, creating a rush of euphoria that your brain seeks over and over.
Food cravings are complex and driven by a number of different factors. They can generally be broken down into emotional/ behavioural and biological/ physiological causes:
4 emotional and behavioural causes of food cravings
1. The brain reward centre.
According to a study by the Monell Chemical Senses Center and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in the U.S, three regions of the brain responsible for emotion, memory and reward (the hippocampus, insula and caudate) are at least partially to blame for food cravings. These are the same areas that are lit up during drug cravings. The study showed that the memory areas of the brain that associate food with reward are actually stronger drivers of food cravings than the brain’s reward centre itself.
Because of this, seemingly innocent habits, such as eating popcorn while watching TV, create powerful associations. “The brain loves routine,” says Dr Bob Maurer, author of One Small Step Can Change Your Life. The thought of letting go of these patterns can cause a fear response in an area of the brain called the amygdala. “Once the food hits your lips, the fear response shuts off in a heartbeat,” he says.
2. Emotions like stress and anxiety
Food cravings are often linked to feelings of emotion and desire. Dr Adam Drewnowksi, an internationally renowned researcher on taste and food preferences, says cravings often arise to satisfy emotional needs, such as reducing stress and anxiety. This makes appetite control even more difficult. Carbohydrates boost our levels of the hormone Serotonin, which has a calming effect. And recent research suggests that the combination of fat and sugar may also do the same.
When you're under pressure, your body also releases the hormone cortisol, which signals your brain to seek out rewards. Comfort foods loaded with sugar and fat ‘apply the brakes’ to the stress system by blunting this hormone, explains researcher Dr Norman Pecoraro, who studies the physiology of stress at the University of California, San Francisco.
But it’s not just stress or anxieties that make us binge on the junk food or reach for the appetite pills – feelings of boredom, sadness, poor self-esteem or a negative body image can do the same. These are often triggered by difficult life events, such as a relationship break up, the death of a loved one, job loss or high workplace pressure.
3. It’s in your DNA
The role that genetics plays in food cravings and appetite control is met with some cynicism by those who believe that ‘getting a bit of exercise’ will solve the problem for overweight, unhealthy people. However, according to an American Psychological Society Observer article, getting fat is an evolutionary advantage embedded in our genes.
The article suggests humans have been able to survive times of famine and hardship throughout history due largely to our ability to store excess calories, consumed during times of plenty, as body fat. At some level, our bodies may be programmed to crave foods high in calories.
4. Too little sleep
According to a 2016 University of Chicago study, skimping on sleep has long been associated with overeating, poor food choices and weight gain. It showed that “sleep loss initiates this process by amplifying and extending blood levels of a chemical signal that enhances the joy of eating, particularly the guilty pleasures gained from sweet or salty high-fat snacks.”
The study showed that a few sleepless nights were enough to drop levels of the hormone Leptin (which signals satiety, or fullness) by 18 percent and boost levels of ghrelin, an appetite trigger, by about 30 percent. Those two changes alone caused appetite to kick into overdrive, and cravings for starchy foods like cookies and bread jumped 45 percent.
Other studies support this, showing that sleep-deprived people are up to 55 percent more likely to become obese, compared to people who get enough sleep.
5 biological and physiological causes of food cravings
1. Leptin resistance
Leptin is an appetite-reducing hormone that your body produces in fat tissue. Its primary job is to stimulate your appetite and tell you when you’re full. This all works fine when your stomach and your brain are in the same reality. But, the problem starts when constant surges of Leptin trick your brain into feeling hungry, even when you’re not.
What causes this? One culprit is sleep loss (as above), another is having too much body fat; more fat means more Leptin is produced. Another cause is eating a diet high in sugary foods and processed carbs, as the sugar triggers your fat cells to release surges of Leptin. Whatever the reason, constant surges of Leptin can lead to Leptin resistance, which creates a feedback loop and dulls your ability to perceive your real appetite.
2. Eating too little, too infrequently
If you're eating fewer than 1,000 calories a day or restricting an entire food group (like carbs), you're putting your body in prime craving mode. Even just three days of strict dieting decreases levels of Leptin by 22 percent. Experts note that ‘restrained eaters’ – dieters who severely limit calories or certain foods – aren't necessarily thinner than regular eaters; they're actually about 1 to 2 Body Mass Index (BMI) points higher, or the equivalent of 5 to 10 kilograms, as their self-imposed food rules often backfire.
According to research from the University of Toronto, restrained eaters are more likely to experience cravings and to overeat ‘forbidden’ food when given the chance. In a study from the journal Appetite, women who were asked to cut carbs for three days reported stronger food cravings and ate 44 percent more calories from carb-rich foods on day four. “Making certain foods off-limits can lead to obsessing and bingeing,” notes Kathy McManus, Director of Nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, U.S.
3. Low levels of Serotonin
Serotonin is a ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter produced mainly in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It’s directly tied to our mood, appetite and digestion. According to a study by obesity specialist Judith Wurtman, eating carbs and sugar increases the release of Serotonin, making us feel temporarily on a high. She explains this is why “many patients learn to overeat carbohydrates (particularly snack foods) to make themselves feel better.”
A low Serotonin level can be due to a variety of things, including poor gut health, alcohol consumption, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
4. Unhealthy foods driving endorphin production
Eating sugary foods and salt increases the production of endorphins in your body. Endorphins are basically opiates that make us feel relaxed, so when we eat these foods and experience this feeling, we want more – similar to the way drug users get addicted to narcotics. In fact, a recent study shows that sugar can actually have a more intense feeling of reward than cocaine, it’s that powerful.
Another recent study looking at the addictive qualities of foods found that highly processed foods that are filled with fat and sugar can cause addictive eating because of their rapid rate of absorption. So the more you can avoid packaged and processed foods, the more control you’ll have over your food choices.
5. Unhealthy gut
As mentioned before, low Serotonin levels are linked to cravings, and your gut is the epicentre of Serotonin production. In order to maintain feel-good levels of Serotonin, your gut needs to be in tip-top shape so it can absorb nutrients from your food and pump out Serotonin through your gastrointestinal tract.
This process is greatly dependent on healthy levels and the proper balance of good bacteria. But when your diet isn’t healthy, bad bacteria can overpower the good, creating more food cravings. Cultivating a healthy balance of good bacteria by eating fermented foods, taking probiotics and embracing other healthy gut habits can create the intestinal balance necessary to calm your cravings.
How do you treat food cravings medically?
Prescription appetite capsules from a doctor are usually prescribed for obese patients with a body mass index of 27 or higher. With your doctor’s approval, some appetite suppressants are good for short-term use. These drugs include phentermine, diethylpropion and phendimetrazine.
It is recommended to not take appetite suppressants for more than a few months due to their side effects, including sleeplessness and nervousness. Additionally, phentermine can cause increased blood pressure and heart rate and diethylpropion can cause dizziness and headaches.
10 ways to fight food cravings naturally
Here are some great ways to ward off food cravings and introduce appetite control:
1. Avoid getting extremely hungry
Extreme hunger is one of the biggest reasons we experience food cravings. To avoid getting excessively hungry, it’s a good idea to eat regularly and have healthy snacks close at hand. By being prepared, and avoiding long periods of hunger, you may be able to prevent cravings from showing up at all.
If you do hold back when you’re hungry, you’ll likely end up over-eating to compensate, and it’s at this stage that we crave instant gratification foods that are full of sugar. However, these cause our pancreas to pump out insulin, which in turn causes our blood sugar to drop. Eating smaller meals more regularly throughout the day will help control food cravings and manage your appetite.
Stress may induce food cravings and influence eating behaviours, especially for women. Women under stress have been shown to eat significantly more calories and experience more cravings than non-stressed women. Furthermore, stress raises your blood levels of cortisol, a hormone that can make you gain weight, especially in the belly area. Try to minimise stress in your environment by planning ahead, being mindful and generally slowing down. If you take good care of yourself day-to-day, you will be less likely to feel stressed, angry or unhappy, and therefore less likely to crave comfort foods.
3. Eat more protein
Eating more protein may reduce your appetite and keep you from overeating. It also reduces cravings and helps you feel full and satisfied for longer. One study of overweight teenage girls showed that eating a high-protein breakfast reduced cravings significantly, and another study in overweight men showed that increasing protein intake to 25 percent of calories reduced cravings by 60 percent. Additionally, the desire to snack at night was reduced by 50 percent.
4. Plan your meals
Try and plan your meals for the day, or ideally, the week ahead. By knowing what you’re going to eat in advance, you eliminate spontaneity and uncertainty. If you don’t have to think about what to eat at your next meal, you will be less tempted and less likely to experience cravings. Planning forces you to make sure you eat more healthily at mealtimes. This way, your body gets the nutrients it needs and you won’t experience food cravings straight after eating.
It’s also essential to eat a full breakfast, as skipping the first meal of the day makes you more likely to consume more calories overall later in the day. A healthy breakfast will fire up your metabolism and fight off the hunger pangs that will lead to bad food decisions later in the day.
5. Start a food cravings journal
If you have a problem with food cravings and can’t seem to get a handle on how to lose appetite for ‘bad’ foods, keep a cravings journal for a month. List the times of day you have cravings, the emotions you're feeling at the time, the foods you crave and what and how much you ate. When you look back through your journal, ask yourself if there are any patterns, such as certain times of day when you tend to experience food cravings. Are there certain emotions or situations that tend to bring them on?
6. Stay hydrated
Thirst and dehydration make you feel hungry and may worsen food cravings and fuel your appetite. Drinking water throughout the day helps you stay hydrated and helps control your hunger. Consuming two cups of water before a meal helped a group of obese adults lose a kilogram of weight over a 12-week period, according to a 2015 clinical study published in the publication Obesity.
7. Exercise and stay rested
To help you feel relaxed and happy, go for a brisk walk during the day and get into bed a little earlier in the evening. These habits produce the ‘feel good’ hormones, endorphins. Exercise also boosts Serotonin levels, which should help you skip sugar and extra carbs more easily too. As described earlier, sleep deprivation disrupts your hormones and may lead to poor appetite and stronger food cravings.
8. Don’t go food shopping while hungry
Grocery stores are probably the worst places to be when you are hungry or have cravings. First, they give you easy access to pretty much any food you could think of. Secondly, supermarkets usually place the unhealthiest foods at eye level. The best way to prevent cravings from happening at the store is to shop only when you’ve recently eaten. Never go to the supermarket hungry.
9. Avoid the target of your food craving
When you feel a craving, try and distance yourself from it. For example, take a brisk walk or a shower to move your thought patterns on to something else. This change in thought and environment may help stop the craving. Some studies have also shown that chewing gum can help reduce appetite and cravings.
10. Natural supplements
There is a range of natural foods and remedies that can help counter food cravings and cause loss of appetite. Reputable herbal pills like Vivano Appetite Manager contain effective loss of appetite ingredients.
Vivano Appetite Manager – a natural way to fight food cravings
Vivano Appetite Manager is a research-based supplement to help manage normal food cravings and impulse eating. Its formulation works to:
- Support weight goals to help you reach ideal weight targets and manage carb cravings.
- Improve mental focus and energy and calm impulse eating to help you feel better.
Vivano Appetite Manager contains three key ingredients:
Key herb number 1 – Gymnema
Gymnestra is the active ingredient in Gymnema and gained its reputation as a sugar destroyer in traditional Indian medicine. Since the 1930s, medical journals have established that Gymnestra is able to decrease sugar cravings while helping stabilise blood sugar levels.
Key herb number 2 – Vanadium Sulphate
Maintaining a good balance between blood glucose and insulin is essential for supporting a healthy metabolism and managing weight. According to a 1998 review, Vanadium helps maintain this balance by supporting the healthy metabolism of glucose, fat and protein. Better glucose metabolism, in turn, can lead to improved energy production and may aid in weight management.
Key herb number 3 – Chromium Polynicotinate
Chromium is a trace element that supports healthy metabolism by regulating the way the body uses carbohydrates. Studies show Chromium helps metabolise fat and protein more effectively.
The Vanadium and Chromium found in Vivano Appetite Manager both support the effective control of carb and sugar cravings.
Vivano Appetite Manager is doubly effective when combined with Vivano Kilo Manager for healthy calorie burning and fat metabolism.
This combined Vivano Weight Management pack is specially formulated to:
- Manage your carbohydrate cravings.
- Help control your appetite.
- Promote efficient burning of calories.
- Inhibit fat absorption and fat storage.
- Induce feelings of calmness and self-control while reducing eating or drinking.
Vivano products are manufactured in New Zealand to the highest standards with thorough testing and guarantees of no adulteration or undeclared ingredients.
Vivano products are most effective when combined with healthy eating and moderate exercise. Free eating and exercise plans are included.
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Disclaimer. This information is provided for general informational purposes only and does not substitute for the advice provided by your medical professional. Always seek specific medical advice for treatment appropriate to you. Individual results may vary and are not guaranteed.