We have been told over and over again that the key to making positive changes in our diet is primarily related to making good choices and avoiding “bad foods”. But the “bad foods” taste so good, and in fact, food companies spend billions of dollars exploiting the physiology of our body so those junk foods are almost irresistible. These ‘bad foods’ are loaded with sodium, fat, sugar and carbohydrates and for most of human existence, these high-energy food sources were difficult to come by. Now that we have an overabundance of calories around us, the instinct to eat these foods no longer serves our survival.
We are told that we must exert our ‘will power’ in order to avoid the temptations of these calorie rich food sources. If someone is unable to resist a temptation or craving for a food, they are labeled as someone with a lack of will, or weak. This kind of thinking revolves around a level of self-induced shame we tend to experience as will power breaks down and we give into a craving. It is a vicious cycle that leads to a circle of disappointment and failure.
What if I told you that the main reason people give in to food cravings has nothing to do with weak “will power”? What if I told you that hormone and neurotransmitter (brain chemicals that dictate mood) imbalances were responsible for at least 70-80% of cravings that break our will?
That is exactly the case. While it is important to be as strong willed as possible when making healthy choices, hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances are often what breaks our ‘will’ and leads to poor food choices. Let’s look at a few examples.
One of the strongest promoters of food cravings, particularly cravings revolving around sugar and carbohydrates, is the hormone insulin. While insulin itself is not always the strongest promoter of cravings, its net effect can be quite significant.
It all starts with eating a meal high in sugar or carbohydrates. This could be something obviously high in sugar like a doughnut or something a little less obvious like a bagel, health cereal or even a piece of fruit. These high carb/high sugar meals cause a rapid influx of sugar into the blood stream which results in a large insulin surge. As a result, blood sugar levels dip below optimal levels and your body is left in a state of low blood sugar. Because the brain derives its energy from sugar in the blood, when sugar levels fall the body enters a state of panic. As a result, stress hormones, such as cortisol, drive you to eat something high in sugar or carbs so that the brain can have nourishment quickly.
To avoid this scenario, make sure to eat three meals a day and do not skip meals or wait too long to eat your meals. Also, make sure each meal has a balanced ratio of good quality protein, good quality fats and complex carbohydrates. Examples might be an egg with apple slices and almond butter for breakfast, a salad with avocado, chicken or beans for lunch, some nuts and fruit for a mid afternoon snack and a balanced dinner with vegetables, whole grains and high quality protein. Eating in this manner will keep blood sugar levels stable, insulin balanced and significantly reduce cravings for sugar and carbohydrates.
Serotonin is our body’s feel good hormone. It helps us to relax and promotes a happy positive outlook. Foods that we eat can have short and long term effects on serotonin and choosing which foods you eat can make a big difference.
When we feel depressed or stressed our brain craves a boost in serotonin to balance our mood. Researches have shown certain foods will cause a temporary boost in brain serotonin. The most effective ones include chocolate, dairy products and foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates. This explains why we crave “comfort foods” when we are stressed or depressed. It is no surprise that so many people break their commitment to eating healthy when they are under stress or going through a tough time.
Now before you start eating chocolate and mac and cheese everyday to self-medicate, understand that these foods only cause a temporary boost in serotonin and research shows that repeated consumption actually lowers serotonin levels in the brain. This leads to a vicious cycle that ends up leading people to feel more depressed and stressed.
The take home message is to eat healthy foods with protein and vegetables. Unlike “comfort foods”, foods that are high in protein like chicken, turkey, fish, grass fed beef, tofu and beans contain an amino acid called tryptophan. Tryptophan is the starting material your brain uses to make serotonin so eating lots of these foods will lead to a long lasting increase in serotonin levels. Fruits and vegetables provide the vitamins and minerals necessary for your body to convert the tryptophan into serotonin. For a great overview of how to use nutrition to improve mood and neurotransmitter balance, check out “The Mood Cure” by Julia Ross.
Sometimes just knowing why you are craving junk food helps the process of making better choices.
Changes in estrogen and progesterone levels can have a huge impact on food cravings. With this in mind, it is no wonder why so many women have intense cravings just prior to the onset of the menses when hormone levels take a dramatic swing.
The most significant player in this scenario is estrogen. Estrogen levels in a woman’s body have been directly linked to serotonin levels in the brain. Scientists are still investigating exactly how this works, but it has been observed in human females that estrogen increases the ability of serotonin to positively affect brain cells by increasing serotonin receptor sites and receptor activity. This means that when estrogen levels fall dramatically before menstruation or after pregnancy, it results in a decreased ability of the brain to utilize serotonin which explains certain mood changes like sadness, anxiety, sleep disturbances and irritability commonly experienced by women during these times. It also explains why many women crave chocolate, sugar, carbohydrates and other comfort foods during that time. We learned in the last segment that those foods temporarily boost serotonin levels and it becomes a way to offset decreased bio-availably of serotonin in the brain.
So what can you do? Hopefully, understanding why you are craving will help you make better choices and alleviate feelings of guilt. Put aside the ‘will power’ vocabulary and practice a full understanding of your diet. Using natural therapies to balance hormone levels can dramatically reduce the negative symptoms that coincide with the drop of estrogen that occurs prior to the menses. Chaste tree (vitex agnus) is a wonderful herb that helps to balance female hormones. I often recommend it be taken in conjunction with herbs that support liver function such as milk thistle, burdock root and dandelion root. Because all hormones are processed and metabolized by the liver it is important to support this organ when working to optimize hormonal balance.
Also, remember that eating a diet rich in high quality protein and fruits and vegetables will help to boost your body’s serotonin levels which will help to ease the drop off that occurs during hormonal shifts.
Understanding your brain and body can help put cravings in to perspective. Be patient with yourself and be respectful to your body. It is not always going to be easy. If you follow and understand the guidelines above it should help to lessen cravings and empower you to take control of your health.
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