by Kate Geagan MS, RD

Most of us can easily rattle off a list of the foods we crave, be it cookies, ice cream or potato chips. Me? I crave dark chocolate – a small, decadent dose every day. Many companies build entire marketing campaigns around the powerful pull their foods have on us. But what if I told you that food cravings may be all in your head?

For decades, cravings were thought to be tied to nutritional deficiencies. For example, my chocolate craving could be due to the fact that I’m deficient in magnesium, or someone craving potato chips may be deficient in sodium. But a new wave of research suggests a startling truth.

Functional MRI scans have found that certain foods (especially those loaded with fat, sugar and salt) stimulate the same regions of the brain – and exert as powerful a pull on us – as drugs and alcohol. When we repeatedly eat those foods, over time, this  hijacks the brain’s natural hunger and fullness systems with these much more potent pleasure-and-reward responses.

For example, you may crave carbohydrates or sweets because your brain anticipates the rush of “good mood” chemicals – the hormones serotonin and dopamine – that are released in response, as well as the calming effect that serotonin provides. The next day, maybe sometime when you are feeling stressed or down, the brain then fires another cascade of anticipation for sweets that tells our brain, “That was great! Let’s go back and do it again!”

While that may sound harmless, emerging research (including functional MRI scans) suggests that, over time, the brain actually undergoes organic changes that blunt our pleasure response (we don’t create the same burst of dopamine), causing us to need more and more of that sweet food in order to experience that same release of hormones and the rush of pleasure and reward it provides.

In other words, the addicted brain and the craving brain look shockingly similar.

This new realization has dramatic implications for how health experts think about food, especially processed and refined foods that deliver concentrated doses of sugar, salt and fat. No longer is it just about “willpower” or “listening to your body;” these foods may be fundamentally changing our brain chemistry in ways that make it harder to find our best health. Unfortunately, the food industry has these “hyperpalatable” foods down to a science. But there are several things you can do to stay in a healthy state of mind:

5 Fixes to Combat Cravings

  1. Fill up first on whole foods. The best way to reboot happy brain chemistry is to be sure you’re giving it the right building blocks, and that’s real, whole foods (as well as at least two servings of omega-3 rich fish twice a week, which has been shown to boost mood). Fill your plate first with whole foods that look like they do in nature, such as whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and lean proteins. This will make it easier to feel satisfied on smaller portions of the “nutritional no-nos” you may be craving. If instead you reach for that bag of potato chips or that cookie dough on an empty stomach, you’ll likely eat more … a lot more, reinforcing unhealthy brain chemistry.
  2. Start your day with a brisk 45-minute walk. A study in the October issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggested exercise may be the secret to changing our Pavlovian-like response to tempting food. Women who walked briskly for 45 minutes in the morning had a much milder brain response to food images compared to the days they skipped the exercise. An added bonus? The women burned more total calories on the days they walked without increasing their hunger, another plus for weight control.
  3. Get at least 8 hours of sleep. Call it the “dream diet.” Research from Stanford and the University of Wisconsin found that subjects who slept less than 8 hours a night had significantly higher levels of body fat than those who were well rested. Getting too little shuteye seems to interfere with the body’s hormones that regulate hunger and satiety – ghrelin and leptin. Be sure you’re getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep on most nights to minimize sleep-deprivation-driven cravings.
  4. Write it down. It’s amazing the power food logs can have – think of it as instant accountability. If you’re serious about curbing cravings, writing down everything you eat and drink during the day is a powerful step. Keeping a food log can also help you track trends (stressful day and skipped lunch?) to pinpoint what went wrong in your eating routine to cause the craving to come on in the first place. Whether you prefer a mobile app or pen and paper, documenting what you eat is consistently shown to help improve eating habits.
  5. Interrupt the “crave wave.” Did you know cravings peak, like a wave? If you can ride it out, it, too, shall pass. For many of us, if we’ve indulged in the same patterns for years, this behavior has strong emotional ties that reinforce the pattern (Example: Arrive home. Open ice cream. Sit. Eat.). And the stories we tell ourselves matter, too: Many women report peak chocolate cravings around their period, for example, but researchers haven’t found any correlations between hormone levels and cravings. The best way to break a craving cycle is to replace it with a fresh new alternative routine that works. (Example: Arrive home. Greet dog enthusiastically. Chew sugarless gum. Walk dog for 10 minutes.) Commit to your new routine for 30 days before you decide if it’s working; by then, it will have truly hardened into a habit, making it seem downright easy. The more you can interrupt your craving pattern and reprogram your mind and body with a new pattern, the greater your odds of success.