I think we can all agree that a big juicy burger and fries sounds more palatable than a plate of plain chicken and steamed broccoli. Do you understand why? It is the same concept when we crave overly processed foods like chips, cookies, ice cream etc. You just can’t seem to give it up. You start the week off motivated and full of self control but then the cravings hit, especially during times of heavy stress.
What causes junk food and sugar cravings?
Have you ever wondered why you crave these processed foods and never crave healthier, more natural foods? Here are four reasons why:
1. Food Euphoria
Processed foods have been made to be hyper-palatable. Your taste buds get flooded with high levels of sugars and fats to give your brain a massive hit of dopamine every time you eat them, leaving you wanting more. Especially in those with obesity, the brain's reward processing center is more conditioned to cues in the environment that trigger cravings. This leads brain is more conditioned to keep chasing that "sugar high"(1). Think about it. When you see a commercial on TV about food, is it an ad on fresh organic fruits and vegetables? Or is it a commercial on a mouthwatering pizza with wings and soda on the side that can be delivered to your door for just $15.99? Marketing is created to trigger those cues in the brain to crave these hyper-palatable foods so much so that just watching the commercial will make your mouth water.
2. Poor Sleep
Studies suggest that sleep deprivation is associated with increased hunger (especially snack and sweet cravings). And you can blame it on your hormones. Lack of sleep causes hormone shifts in some of the following ways:
Ghrelin- the hunger-control hormone, increases, causing you to eat more.
Leptin, the appetite-suppressing hormone, decreases thus amplifying the affect of increased ghrelin.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, may increase, stimulating your appetite.
Research shows that sleep deprivation causes an increase in overall hunger, which can lead to cravings of sugar, fat or both (2).
Stress eating (aka emotional eating) is really a thing. It is connected to the expression of nature versus nurture. Some people find that food helps to distract them from the discomfort of negative thoughts or emotions. Others learned as children to use food to cope.
Short term stress will activate the sympathetic nervous system (fight vs flight) where one will experience lack of appetite as the body focuses blood flow to core organs like the heart and brain. Think of it this way; in the middle of a life or death situation, your body will not need to be wasting energy on digesting food. It would be a crappy situation if you had to go poop in the middle of a fight for your life (pun intended)! Chronic stress does the complete opposite by triggering the increased production of cortisol leaving you with increased hunger, cravings and decreased ability to say no to those cravings.
Remaining in the same situation with the same surroundings will keep this vicious cycle on repeat. Watching the same shows with the same food advertising, keeping the same foods one craves in the house making it easier to give in to cravings, keeping the same poor sleep habits that lead to sleep deprivation and so on.
How to curb the cravings
Get some sleep! Decrease stress and cravings by giving your body and brain adequate rest.
Embrace meal planning and preparation. Fail to plan= plan to fail
Find ways to manage stress. When you cultivate a healthy lifestyle many cravings will decrease because there is less stress induced cues to emotionally eat.
Drink more water. Hunger and thirst are easy to confuse. By staying hydrated you can limit those cravings.
Give yourself non- food related rewards. Break the cycle of food being used as a reward and choose things that make you feel good about yourself like buying a new book to read or going to get a pedicure.
Cook food at home. Use healthier cooking alternatives like roasting food in the oven or using an air-fryer.
Practice mindfulness. Eat without distraction. Really focus on enjoying your food. This alone will leave you feeling more satisfied sooner and significantly cut down calories while still allowing you to enjoy your favorite foods.
It is OK to ask for help when you are feeling stuck. It does not mean that you are lazy or that you have failed. At Sophrosyne Health we have a team of certified experts to help you break the craving cycle and help you design your healthiest self. Click here to schedule your free consultation.
Reents, J., & Pedersen, A. (2021). Differences in Food Craving in Individuals With Obesity With and Without Binge Eating Disorder. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 660880. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.660880
Greer, S. M., Goldstein, A. N., & Walker, M. P. (2013). The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain. Nature communications, 4, 2259. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms3259