Do food cravings rule certain portions of your life, beckoning you by blotting out all activity around you and calling your name? I’ve been there too. This was a celebration of our daughter Sammi’s 4th birthday, with our daughter Shannon doing a “mock” blowout of the candles and brother Sean guiding her toward the candles.
Maybe this falls under the category of TMI but I want you to look back at that picture of the cake, specifically. After the guests left, I would typically quickly strip the cake of all of it’s icing and inhale it (leaving me feeling miserable because of my lack of control). Icing was my hot button craving food. I loved being in charge of every aspect of all of our house parties but I also expected total perfection. Now I know that is totally unrealistic. My stress release from expecting this OCD behavior was to stuff myself with food. Thankfully, now I have learned to deal with my food cravings in a healthful way. I have also had a great number of clients over the years that have had a really tough time dealing with their cravings, leaving them feeling desolate, overweight and lacking any power over their own lives. I would like to reach out and help you if you still are yoked with that uncontrolled urge.
Brain Craving Mechanism- Take a minute to think about what is most appealing to you about the food you crave. We are usually lassoed in by a combination of senses first: smell, sight, hearing or touch. But then comes the activation of the anchor of all senses for food gratification: TASTE. This is the sense that is hardwired to the portion of our brain called the nucleus accumbens (A/K/A the “pleasure center”), critical for motivation, addiction and PLEASURE. Did you catch that? Pleasure and addiction sensations originate from identical portions of the brain!
So this is the drill: You eat and taste food you enjoy, that message is sent to the nucleus accumbens or “pleasure center” and the neurotransmitter dopamine passes chemical signals of pleasure from one neuron to the next, making you feel good. The problem with this response comes in when the pleasure that is elicited from eating a particular food takes on an addictive quality and prompts you to come back for more, even when you are full. Now we are in the addictive mode of eating. It is also a known fact that drug addicts entering a rehab facility to withdraw from drugs are encouraged to trade one addiction for another: SUGAR (See “Off the Drugs, Onto Cupcakes”)!
We further exacerbate that food/addiction cycle when we turn our unhealthy automatic eating responses into unconscious habits! HELLO UNWANTED POUNDS!!!!!!
Americanized Means Hyperpalatable- Dr. David Kessler, pediatrician and former FDA commissioner coins the term “hyperpalatable” in his book The End of Overeating. He makes the point that the American food industry spends a great deal of money researching what the magic amount of sugar, salt and fat (A/K/A bliss point) is for each product. These perfect bliss foods, which are highly processed to achieve that designation are now in the category of hyperpalatable. Witness the “Hyperpalatable Hall of Shame” available nationwide:
These junk foods have the desired brain effect of hitting the “pleasure center”, emitting dopamine and then totally passing up that feeling of satiety, “because you can’t eat just one” (and the food industry engineered it that way)! The Oreo is a perfect hyperpalatable example. It is known as a dynamic contrast product because the cookie is a little bitter but the sweet icing provides the perfect contrast that has you coming back for more. In a lab rat experiment, Oreo addiction was demonstrated to be commensurate with drug addiction.
So What Can We Do To Break the Craving Cycle?
The Five T’s for Combating Cravings:
1. Triggers- What types of situations, food or times of the day push your “trigger” eating button? Take a minute and write down what your triggers are. Got’em down? Hey, I revealed to you what my triggers were, awareness is the first step! Now, let’s tackle them with some tricks.
2.Tricks- Before we tackle the tricks we all need to be aware of the baseline we should have for healthy responses to triggers, i.e. eating a healthful diet, moving everyday, responding healthfully to stress and getting the right amount of sleep for you. If you need help with any of these, please see The Perfect Day in the Game of Life, N. W. T. C. Should Be Everyone’s Mantra, Fixing Broken Sleep and Turning Unhealthy Stress into Eustress.
Trigger tricks for situations, food and times:
a. Situations- Step back from your situation and pretend you are looking in on it like a bystander. This will help you understand what is really pushing your trigger eating buttons. What emotion is registering with you when you step back?Who better to have a handle on their food triggers than a chef that spends almost every waking minute with food? Emylee Sanders, Executive Chef at Lakeview Golf & Country Club and graduate in culinary arts from Indian Hills Community College has recently lost 45 pounds after identifying what her trigger was. This is just a sample of her exceptional culinary creations:
She typically works 80-90 hours per week with a bare-bone staff. She realized that her “trigger” eating was brought on by boredom. So Emylee “compartmentalized” her work day, eating just to taste as she creates culinary magic, but counting that intake as a meal. In her personal time she makes an effort to mindfully consume only quality foods. She has recently included running in her everyday routine, receiving the effects of those natural feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins (which activate the opioid receptors). So, exercise releases an explosion of legitimate “endoaddiction”.
b. Food- As a general rule, all processed foods should be limited, not just because they are unhealthy but because they are hardwired to pass up our natural satiety point and lead to the “eat just one more” syndrome. In our recent travels to Spain, there was no processed food, and overweight was the exception. Randy and I ate like royalty everyday and we lost weight! (See “Spain Off The Beaten Path”). If your trigger foods are calling you on a regular basis, first make sure you are eating at regular intervals and you are eating a good portion of fiber and protein at every meal. That will definitely dull the effects of your trigger food nagging at you like Homer’s sirens. Here is an idea for a simple meal that fits all of the protein/fiber requirements:
Grilled Tuna Steak with a Ginger Plum Sauce and Vegetable Bean Soup
c. Times- Are certain times of the day or week a minefield of triggers? Then try a detour. Try thinking or doing something that is totally unrelated to food, Don’t walk by the office repository for every hyperpalatable food known to man. You KNOW it has a pile of your favorite trigger foods on the counter, so take a walk in the opposite direction and buy some gum. Sugarless gum has also been a lifesaver for me. It helps me think and keeps my mouth busy!
3. Track Your Taste Buds- You now know the identity of your trigger foods. Now it’s time to dissect the qualities of those foods you crave and duplicate them in healthier or limited portions. What combinations of the 5 tastes: sweet, bitter, salty, sour or umami, do you like? What mouthfeel do you enjoy the most? Do you strictly need crunch with every meal? Then replace chips with raw veggies or add a small handful of nuts or seeds to your dish. Is it sweet and creamy with a little crunch? Try this type of dessert. It has sweet, creamy and crunch taste/mouthfeel qualities but it also is a very small portion:
Cabernet Reduction Cheesecake Parfait
4. Time- Give yourself time to replace your bad habits. Don’t expect an overnight transformation. Just think, it probably took quite a lot of time for your triggers to become habitual, so don’t expect to break them overnight. Be patient with yourself! I’ve finally gotten to the point where the icing on a birthday cake no longer calls my name, but that took quite a few years!
5. Treat- Treat yourself on a regular basis. I really recommend non-food treats to start with. My go-to for a treat is exercise, especially swimming. There is nothing like exercise to make you feel like a million bucks. Bottom line, take time to pamper yourself. It’s good for your health and it will reflect in an improved attitude and (quite possibly) physique.
Can Your Brain Crave Healthy Food? Are we all hard-wired from birth to just crave foods that are unhealthy? Dr. Susan Roberts, Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Energy metabolism Laboratory doesn’t think so.
“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta. The conditioning happens over time in response to eating repeatedly-what is out there is a toxic food environment!”
Dr. Roberts was a coauthor of the latest study supporting that theory. The study was divided into two groups. One was the control group, the other participated in a weight-loss group that included portion-controlled meals and a weight-loss support group. Both groups underwent MRI scans after 6 months. Surprisingly, the control group had more brain response activity in the pleasure/reward center when shown pictures of unhealthy high calorie foods. The experimental group, actively participating in portion control and weight loss support groups, lit up the same areas when shown pictures of healthy, low calorie options. Simply put, an overweight brain can learn new tricks!
So the answer is YES! We can overcome self destructive cravings, it just takes a little work, but it’s worth it!
Recap of Curtailing Your Cravings:
1. Knowing the science of how your brain works helps you understand your unhealthy food cravings.
2. Americanized (A/K/A Processed) Foods are engineered to be hyperpalatable, so be aware.
3. Keep the 5 T’s for Combating Cravings in your back pocket:
1) What are your triggers?
2) Know the tricks.
3) Track your taste buds.
4) Give yourself time.
5) Treat yourself! You are worth it!
4. Science is proving we are not hard-wired to eat unhealthy foods. Education and follow-through with healthier food choices can make them our preferred first choice!
Life is all about living it to the fullest and that includes being selective about consuming top-quality, delicious foods! There is almost nothing to compare to a spectacular meal, accompanied with the perfect dessert to share!