Do you ever feel guilty for giving in to cravings? Have you ever felt remorse for eating dessert? You are not alone. In fact, you stand with every other person in today’s western society, because we all know what happens when overeating becomes a chronic problem: As of today, two-thirds (66%) of North Americans are overweight or obese, and one out of every two (50%) has diabetes or pre-diabetes. Worse still, these rates are rising with no end in sight.
With that being said, here’s the truth: The urge to eat a lot of food is 100% normal. Although advanced, we are animals with a built-in evolutionary drive to eat. Years ago when food was scarce, the instinct to eat as much as possible is what kept us alive. In this age of processed food and delivery services however, this evolutionary drive has created cravings that are making us very fat and very sick.
To compound the issue, society has evolved to equate fatness with laziness: If you aren’t thin, then you must lack discipline and will power. When you combine this completely normal physiological drive with the emotional impact of judgement, a vicious cycle begins: Shame from giving in to cravings leads to emotional eating, which leads to weight gain, increased feelings of negativity, and… more eating.
How did we get here?
The human brain is hard-wired to look for the properties in food that have kept us alive and reproducing for centuries: Sugars, starches, fats, proteins, salt, etc. Through eating whole foods, these ingredients gave our ancestors a small hit to the reward center of the brain, stimulating a dopamine (feel-good) response, and driving us to find these foods again (i.e crave them). Today, the human diet is on figurative crack: We’ve found ways to extract the ingredients that spike dopamine (crystalized sugar and salt, refined seed oils, corn starch, potato starch, MSG, etc.). We’ve gone so far as to engineer new “foods” that are devoid of valuable things like fiber and vitamins and minerals, while being rich in nothing but instant-gratification.
We’ve extracted the reward from the nutrition, and now we are fat and sick.
In the past we would have had to digest valuable whole food sources to give our brains a rewarding hit. Today we do the opposite, and those hits that are available through whole foods now pale in comparison to processed options, leaving our brains hard-wired to seek out the biggest hits possible. When you eat a delicious processed food item, you train the reward center of your brain that this is a food item that will give you lots of easily accessible energy with very little effort. Your brain will not only learn what food items spike dopamine best, but also where the food items come from, and who the foods are associated with.
That’s right: People and places become triggers for these food sources. If you see an advertisement for something you’ve eaten in the past, you’ll crave it. If you drive by a restaurant where you’ve eaten in the past, you’ll crave it. It you see your friend with whom you always eat fast food, you’ll crave it.
Cravings are chemical responses to how you’ve trained your brain. They are not a reflection of you as a person, but they are indeed a direct reflection of your habits. It’s normal to struggle with cravings, but it is increasingly important to understand that they are not the result of a personality defect or an issue with will-power. If you make mindless decisions over and over in today’s world, the availability of hyper-caloric-nutrient-devoid foods will make you fat. Bringing awareness to daily habits and how your actions train your brain will facilitate making better decisions.
What to do from here?
If you’re among the many who have trained your brain to crave processed foods, it’s never too late to change that wiring. Here is a short blue-print on how to reorganize your brain’s reward center:
- Show some self-compassion. Understand that the drive you have to eat is completely normal and that all animals are wired to make decisions that are easiest and that provide the most comfort. Corporations in western society prey on this mechanism and have made the current environment completely incompatible with being lean and healthy. You are not alone. You are not broken. You can turn things around. But yes, change requires effort.
- Bring awareness to your actions and behaviours. If you get a craving, understand that this is just your brain trying to get something it has had in the past. Be aware of what’s happening, why it’s happening, and understand that you are fully capable of making a decision that will better your health and support your goals.
- Change your environment. Set up your home and office for success. Make the right foods readily accessible and purge any hyper-palatable foods that you crave. If the food is in the house/office, you will eat it. The problem foods have to go.
- Curb your cravings with whole foods. If you want the sugar, you have to eat the fruit. If you want the starch, you have to eat the whole potato. If you want the fat, you have to eat the meat. You can scratch the dopamine itch, but you have to do it with real food. This is how you re-train your brain, re-sensitize it to actual food, and de-pattern your old cravings and associations.
- Keep your diet as simple as possible. If your food sources are limited, you will eat less overall. Think about eating at a buffet- when you have more options, you are more prone to overeat. Make yourself a short list of quality foods, stock your kitchen full of these items, and set a plan for your next trip to the store to stock up on more. Furthermore, never shop hungry and skip the aisles with your personal “big hit” foods.
- Eat good food, not super delicious food. If food is one of the main things that brings you joy in life, you will never achieve anything close to your optimal body or health. Food is what keeps us healthy and able to enjoy a meaningful life, not a reason for living itself. Save the super delicious food for super special occasions.
The process of losing weight and improving health starts with being present in day-to-day decisions. Everywhere you look there is affordable access to rubbish food products. Without making conscious, calculated choices, we would all mindlessly grab the cheapest and most delicious food item available at any given time- that’s the nature of being human.
The next time you get a craving for junk food, acknowledge the situation before subconsciously giving in to the impulse. Live the moment, feel what your brain is telling you, and make a conscious decision instead of acting without direction. Even if you choose to eat something low-quality- which we all do from time to time (it’s called living life)- at least you will be in control of that decision, and when you control your decisions, you control your outcomes instead of playing the victim.
Need a hand with your cravings?
Great article. Keep it coming.