We've all been there. You're just hanging out, minding your own business and then bam, you just can't get that one food out of your head. Despite our best efforts, everyone has given in to a food craving at one point or another. After all, we're only human, so it's normal for us to give into temptation every now and then. Even so, it's important to understand the what, why, and how of food cravings to avoid that familiar post-binge guilt.
What Is A Craving
The areas of the brain associated with cravings include the hippocampus, insula, and caudate. The hippocampus filters sensory data, the insula helps control social emotions, and the caudate nucleus deals with the body's dopamine (feel-good hormone) system. Together, they make up the reward center of the brain. As such, the dopamine stimulation and chemical reward people get from giving in to food cravings has some similarities in the neurological pathway compared to that of the high experienced by drug addicts .
Standard hunger fulfills physiological needs, as it's your body's attempt to keep you alive by making sure there's some food in your stomach. Cravings are more psychological in nature, in that they cause a strong desire for a specific food regardless of your level of hunger .
Why Does This Matter
While the kinds of cravings can vary widely between individuals, people tend to choose junk foods and processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutritional value . This can lead to binging or other undesirable eating habits when dealing with these types of foods. On the other hand, viewing our cravings as guilty pleasures demonizes certain foods for us, which makes us feel shame or unhappiness while eating them . Both situations are less than ideal and promote an unhealthy relationship with food and our own bodies. We all eat for pleasure as well as for survival, so it should be okay to eat what you enjoy, as long as it doesn't get too extreme.
Dealing With It
Having a craving is inevitable. As long as you live and breathe, you will suddenly feel the need to eat something you don't necessarily have to eat in that moment. Knowing some general strategies to reduce the impact of food cravings can make for overall less stressful eating and help you enjoy the foods you love.
Cravings can be distracting. They sometimes interrupt your focus and keep you from finishing whatever task is currently at hand. Actively visualizing something unrelated to that food can help reduce the impact they have on you. Cravings use working memory, specifically the parts of the brain involved in sights and smells, so preventing yourself from accessing these can cause the cravings to subside.
Smells have a strong connection with our memories and emotions. Happy times can be associated with particular smells, so we may desire foods that remind us of these times as a way of experiencing the pleasure again. To work around this, non-food related smells can be used to mask that of the craving, as something that is pleasant, but not mouth-watering possibly prevents that emotional trigger.
Food is not inherently good or bad. Unhealthy foods don't have to be avoided at all costs to maintain a healthy lifestyle, care just needs to be taken to ensure that nutritional needs are met. The main issue with craving unhealthy foods is that their lack of nutrients can cause some people to overeat which can lead to weight gain and obesity. Keeping a few cravings on hand and giving in to them occasionally can fulfill that satisfaction of giving in to your favorites without significantly impacting your health. An alternative method could be to pick something healthier with a similar flavor profile to something unhealthy as a way to address the craving while providing your body with a more wholesome meal.
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