Food cravings occur for all people. Sometimes it’s sweets, fish and chips, pork crackling or oddly enough a dish you used to eat when you were a child such as a lasagne. It seems odd how food cravings can vary so much between people, but it’s all linked to your taste buds and the connections your brain makes with the food, your environment, mood and the tasting experience. With that in mind, where exactly does the motivation in conjunction with the cravings to eat all these different foods come from?
What Causes Food Cravings?
To start, let’s look at what food cravings are. They are a state of heightened eating motivation directed at a particular food. It’s different from hunger which refers to a general desire to consume any type of food for energy. Cravings and hunger have different triggers caused by the brain in response to specific cues.
The human brain is designed to be hard-wired to be motivated by key goals which supported the survival and reproduction of the human species. Some examples are sex, food, water, social support and physical comfort, but how does the brain know which goals to be motivated by? Why is food such a big motivator, especially among children? The key is dopamine.
When the brain achieves a goal which is deeply hard-wired into your genes, dopamine is released. This is why eating food makes you feel better and is also one of the reasons people like going to the gym. They feel strong which, in a primal sense, means they can protect their family, loved ones and are fit to hunt for food.
This physiological response encourages certain behaviours to be repeated the next time you feel the same way e.g. you feel hungry and you eat and feel better since dopamine is released. What this does is reinforce behaviours, making you more likely to repeat them again.
After experiencing the dopamine hit from experiencing the tasty food for the first time, the sensory cues of the situation become triggers which motivate the behaviour to be repeated. This includes:
- Association within the brain e.g. associating a type of food with a loved one
When similar cues are presented to you, you’re likely to be triggered and motivated to repeat the behaviour to get that same dopamine response. If you always go for pizza after watching a movie at a cinema and you enjoy your pizza then the dopamine response will reinforce that behaviour. This means that after going to the cinema you’ll likely experience some form of food cravings for pizza.
In some ways, this could be likened to drug addiction where more and more of a particular drug is consumed to obtain the same ‘high’ which was reached the first time around. The large amounts of dopamine released in the brain when taking drugs cause drug consumers to seek out more of the same drug as they seek out more dopamine. This can interfere with beneficial behaviours to human survival such as eating, sleeping, working and maintaining relationships. At this point, cravings have become a very powerful form of addiction.
Scent And Odours
In 1988, a researcher called Anthony Sclafani showed that infusing starch directly into the stomach of a rat can cause it to develop a preference for the odour it detects simultaneously in its nose. This means if you directly infused starch into a rat whilst it drank lemon flavoured water, it would develop a preference for lemon flavoured water over other types of water. I imagine the same principles can be applied to food which means if you ate a pizza whilst consuming a coke, then you would develop a preference for the taste of coke over other soft drinks, especially whilst eating pizza.
But it’s not just starch that reinforces behaviour. It’s protein, fat and sugar too. Follow up studies Sclafani was involved in showed that receptors within the digestive system detect molecules such as glucose, fructose, fatty acids and amino acids within carbohydrates, fats and proteins which send a signal to the brain causing a release of dopamine. The higher the concentration of these nutrients, the greater the dopamine surge helping to reinforce behaviours.
Past Vs Present
These food properties would have been beneficial millions of years ago when we lacked the scientific knowledge we have today and our body required certain nutrients. The surges of dopamine released when we consumed certain food molecules would’ve told us innately what foods we should consume and would’ve reinforced the consumption of nutritious foods.
Now, foods are engineered to target this specific dopamine response. The only problem is, many of these foods are far from nutritious and are lacking in micronutrients. The result is overeating as we eat to try and reach the same surge in dopamine. At the same time, the body is not getting the micronutrients it requires which may possibly be a cause for further hunger since the body is still seeking out those nutrients.
Managing Food Cravings
Certain lifestyle habits have been shown to increase food cravings such as:
- Lack of sleep.
- Not consuming enough protein.
- Being overly stressed.
- Not drinking enough water.
- Consuming sugary and processed foods.
My suggestion is to try and stay on top of your sleep, stress and nutrition to help manage your food cravings.
Understanding Food Cravings
Having an understanding of food cravings can help us to better manage them. Since food cravings are usually related to environmental cues, by avoiding these cues you can better avoid ‘triggers’ for food cravings. My top tip for avoiding environmental cues is to manipulate your environment.
Manipulating Your Environment
To avoid food cravings, try to manipulate your environment. Avoid environmental cues which trigger food cravings. First, clear out the foods from your house that you wish to purge from your diet. Having none of these foods in the house will make you far less likely to crave them since you know they aren’t readily available.
Now, whenever you shop resist the temptation to buy these unhealthy foods. If that’s difficult for you, try to reason with yourself and spend the money you would’ve spent on those unhealthy foods on other leisurely activities such as fine dining, a massage or use it to save up for a little holiday. Or perhaps you could spend the money on a healthier substitute, such as swapping a regular sugar-laden yoghurt for a high protein yoghurt such as skyr.
Without these foods in the house, you’re much less likely to crave them since you won’t see them and think “Oh, that pizza looks tasty. I’m going to eat that!”. Not seeing the pizza will mean that cue is much less likely to trigger a food craving for pizza, helping to manage your food cravings. This principle can be applied to all foods.
Some people in dietary communities such as vegetarians and vegans, learn to associate animal foods with animal abuse, pain and heart attacks. This makes them not want to consume these foods on a rational and moral level, affecting their intrinsic motivation to eat these foods.
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