Food Cravings: Maybe It’s All in Your Head

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You promise yourself that today will be different. You won’t gravitate toward that donut at the office, you won’t eat a piece of that birthday cake at the party, you’ll stock up on broccoli and carrot sticks to prevent needing to eat that junk. You can do it. You can do it. Just do it. But…

There are many causes of food cravings, all of which nick away at our willpower with the force of a jackhammer. All of which can make fighting off eating out of the “cracky” vending machine seem like a real war, synonymous with the battles of Seinfeld vs Newman, Tupac vs Biggie and Wile E. Coyote vs the Road Runner, but they are actually more akin to the internalized clash of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde.

Fun Little Exercise: Take a minute and think… What food can’t you imagine living without? What is the food that enters your life almost every day? If you are feeling upset, bored, overwhelmed, or angry what food/s do you gravitate toward? If you were to be stranded on a small, dessert island (besides the necessities of life), what food would you take? It might be a quesadilla (hopefully there is a grill on that island), a chocolate candy bar, toast, a cheese sandwich, coffee, a beer, cheese or something else.  Write it down. Now imagine that I’ve told you that you can’t EVER eat that food again. Done. It is out of your life. Done. What do you feel? Anger? Confusion? Resentment? Done? Have you stopped reading because you don’t like this game?

The stronger your emotional attachment to a food, the more likely that the attachment is not simply an issue of convenience or habit, but instead an addiction. This addiction can make changing your diet and lifestyle excruciatingly difficult. It can make committing to a diet plan, a healthy eating plan, a cleanse or a New Year’s resolution last as long as a relationship with Kim Kardashian.

Removing that food from your life may alleviate seemingly minor symptoms (post nasal drip, congestion, diarrhea, etc.) or huge symptoms (migraines, weight gain, moodiness, depression, fatigue, etc.), but the internal effects of consuming the antigen (food intolerance or allergy) does not mimic the external effects. Regardless of how minor your symptoms seem or how little of the food you eat, internally your body wages an all-out chemical and biological warfare against that stray food particle that your body has labeled as an enemy—an unrecognizable toxin—no longer that innocuous grilled cheese sandwich you had for lunch. But because our body loves us and would do anything to protect us from the ravages of war, it releases soothing chemicals to keep us calm (aka puts us in “la la, food coma, comfort food land”). And as a result of these “happy hormones,” you guessed it… We eat the chocolate chip cookie and all of sudden the world feels a little rosier and by golly, you might even feel a little giddy!

When our body is in a state of stress or trauma, be it from running from a bear, eating a food we have an intolerance or allergy to (sparking the internal war) or eating sugar which quickly effects our blood sugar levels, our body protects us in its state of stress and shock and releases endorphins which numb our feelings, enhance our pleasure and kill our pain—leaving us with a feeling of “ahhhhh,” euphoria and joy (think “runner’s high”). Unfortunately, eventually, if our body is constantly in a state of stress and releasing endorphins, we stop producing them on our own without the help of stress (causing us to subconsciously crave things eliciting the stress response, which may include food cravings) and eventually even stress stops producing them, causing us to crave specific foods and drugs that attach to the pleasure receptors in our brain. Unfortunately, those too eventually stop working, causing us to eat more and more of those foods and do more and more of those drugs to get that euphoric feeling of “ahhhh”. The more depleted our neurotransmitters become, the stronger the craving and addiction to those foods we have an intolerance to (cause stress in our body) becomes.

So, what does this all mean to you? If you are one of those people that says, “I don’t have a problem with gluten or dairy or chocolate or coffee (or whatever other food) because I love it too much for it to be a problem” than rest assured it is very likely that you love that food so much because it causes your body stress and therefore releases the “happy hormones”.

The first step to changing your relationship to food is to understand that relationship. Understanding where your craving is coming from may be enough to help you beat the craving—whether the craving is caused from the stress response (as discussed in this article), leaky brain with foods attaching to the opiate receptors, hormonal imbalance, thyroid issues, imbalanced blood sugar, parasites, candida overgrowth, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, habit, adrenal stress/fatigue, poor sleep, fat deficiency, nutrient deficiencies or something else. If you are having a hard time figuring out the cause of your cravings or if knowing isn’t enough to get them under control, consider working with a natural health practitioner to take your diet and lifestyle to the next level of health. You can also sign up for a complimentary Vitality Strategy Session to support you in uncovering the root cause of your cravings.

If the stress response is at the basis of your food cravings, you may find it helpful to naturally support balancing your neurotransmitters under the guidance of a natural health practitioner, working to reduce the stress in your life, and making sure to eat protein which are the building blocks of neurotransmitters.

So what are the foods that you crave and don’t think you can live without?

Learn more tips on controlling your food cravings and regaining happy health by signing up for our free Anti-Inflammatory Video Training Series.

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19 Replies to “Food Cravings: Maybe It’s All in Your Head”

  1.  Katie – I must be disgustingly well-adjusted LOL But a handful of unsalted almonds is the one thing I crave between meals. It keeps me going for several hours,  and if we’re out of them (we live 35 miles from the nearest market)) cashews don’t quite hit the mark! My one serious addiction is a cup of very strong black tea in the morning. Breat article by the way 😉

    1. Ha Ha!!! Being well adjusted is a great thing. Not all food cravings are caused by low neurotransmitters, but some are. That’s great that you don’t have that addiction response to any foods. I know that you are now gluten free. I’m curious, did you used to have that attraction to gluten? I feel lucky that I was never addicted to gluten and never craved it going off of it, even though I have an intolerance to it, but I was addicted to chocolate, which I have an intolerance to. 

  2. Katie, I really enjoy your articles.  While my Doctors say I am do not have celiac’s I believe I would benefit from a gluten free diet.  Where would I start?  I am going to have to meet you when I come home.

    1. Hey DorothyInez. Unfortunately, false negatives are common for celiac disease. Which test for it did you do? You can be non-celiac gluten intolerant which can be just as dangerous, but instead of your body attacking your digestive system, your body may attack a different part of your body (e.g. joints, brain, thyroid, etc.) or you may experience extreme inflammation that can result in constant fatigue, brain fog, digestive disturbances, sleep disturbances, depression, bags under the eyes, acne and more. There are an endless number of effects and symptoms that you may experience from gluten.

      You have two choices. You can do an elimination diet, remove gluten for a month and then add it back in and see how you feel or you can do a food intolerance blood test (IgG test). If your Dr. won’t order the test for you, I would be glad to order it. If you choose to do an elimination diet, you need to be very strict so that you don’t accidently ingest gluten or ingest it in small amounts because it will make it more difficult to figure it out. In most cases, clearing your body completely of gluten for 1 month will make symptoms very obvious when you add it back in, but again be aware that symptoms can be anything. Only risk with elimination diet not being accurate is if you don’t fully eliminate gluten or if you unknowingly eliminate something else that is the actual problem. For example you might eliminate dairy on accident, if you only eat dairy with bread and it could be the dairy causing the problem, not the gluten. So vigilance is essential.

      Here is a run down of what foods do and don’t contain gluten:
      http://www.nourishedhealth.com/90/ Here are some easy gluten free meal
      ideas: http://www.nourishedhealth.com/gluten-free-meal-ideas/ You can
      learn about how to use the grains and flours that don’t contain gluten
      here: http://www.nourishedhealth.com/glorious-gluten-free-flours-galore/ .
      Let me know if you have any questions. If you want me to order the gluten
      intolerance blood tests for you, let me know. We can also do a
      complimentary strategy session and I will let you know whether I think food
      intolerances or something else are at the root of your symptoms. You can
      schedule a strategy session via the the side of the site. Good luck and
      please post with how it goes for you with whatever you decide.

  3. Katie, I’m particularly attracted to sugar, especially in baked goods such as cookies, donuts, cinnamon buns, etc. I can see what you are talking about because if I eat them I want more, but if I stay off them I no longer crave. If I eat too much of them I tend to get sick of them though and then want a savoury meal. 

    1. Thanks Lynn for sharing. I was the same way because of imbalanced blood sugar. As I balanced my blood sugar, the cravings went away, but as soon as I slip and don’t eat enough protein and fats throughout the day, the sugar cravings return. The critical key to overcoming your cravings is finding out why you have them. There are many different causes besides blood sugar, but sometimes its necessary to work through each potential cause one by one until you find the cause/s of your cravings. That’s great that your body rights itself by craving savory foods after too many sweets.

  4. I have been into both nicotine at one point, and for a small amount of time, spoonfuls of sugar in my morning tea.  I remember the high from the sugar.  And it always seemed to me that nicotine made me more focused and I could think more clearly–not sure why that would be. At any rate, I didn’t stick with either substance, I knew they were deceptively “interesting” to me, but I understand the pull of addiction. It took me many attempts to quit smoking years ago

    1. Congratulations David on quitting smoking and sugar! You are so right about the pull of addiction. Subconsciously we can find so many reasons to continue a substance that consciously we know is bad for us. Many addictions create that high, usually as a result of triggering dopamine in the brain or from the endorphin rush when our body is in a state of stress. I have an intolerance to corn and when I consume it, my pulse increases and I feel giddy, happy and as though I could do/be anything! Back when I ate corn (usually in the form of popcorn), all I knew was that I craved it like nothing else. I ate it so often, I didn’t recognize quite how “good” it made me feel, but subconsciously my body was craving that giddy, happy energy that was created when my body was in a state of stress from consuming a food intolerance–that endorphin rush that was released to distract me from the devastating effects my body was experiencing from fighting an allergen. I used to think that we all just needed to listen to our body and eat what it tells us to consume and while that is true to an extent, we’ve also become so disconnected from our bodies that it’s hard sometimes to unravel what feelings indicate something is good for us and what feelings are a cry for help and are a protective mechanism. We are complex–that’s for sure!

  5. “If you were to be stranded on a small, dessert island” HaHaHa…Katie, did you mean desSert island or desert island? What a great Freudian slip. You sure read my mind. The entire island would be made of DESSERT! Thanks for yet another great post.

  6. When I used to do drugs/alcohol, I can tell you that when I would anticipate getting the substance, knowing I would have it soon, I’d get in such a great mood and I would be already “high” from that. I would be so awesome to people, funny, complimentary, very animated, etc. I could have sold anyone anything in those moments. Could have been a successful business person or found Prince Charming in any of those kind of moments. Those addictions are all over for me now BUT whenever I “cheat” or “splurge” (call it what you will) and I know I’m going to the store or the bakery or whatever soon, the exact same feelings come over me and I express myself in that happy, giddy, animated way to other people. It creeps me out actually cuz it’s just food!

    1. Yes! So true for so many of us Rayca! The serotonin released from eating the sugars and refined carbs or the dopamine released from caffeine and other stimulants or the endorphins released from consuming something we have a food intolerance to feels so darn good. For most people it is a subconscious craving, but others around us notice it. I also have clients that gluten attaches to the opiate receptors in their brain and so having it stimulates the same part of the brain that heroin does and going off of it results in the same withdrawal symptoms. We anticipate that brain change, look forward to it, crave it and our mood even changes from that anticipation. It is fascinating isn’t it! So many of our foods are just like drugs, but recognizing it is the key. I have a food intolerance to corn and when I had added it back in after removing it for several months to see if it was a problem for me, my heart rate sped up, I was absolutely giddy and giggly. My mom was with me at the time and she became so angry with me because she thought I was high, but no I was just on corn! Craziness! 🙂
      Katie Bauer recently posted..The Two Most Common Misconceptions about Digestive Health that Keep You Sick and Tired

  7. I have also started to commend myself or feel proud of myself for how long I may have lasted putting forth an effort to change something that I haven’t been “perfect” about. E.g., I stopped sugar (sweets, pastry, ice cream type sugar) about a month ago and bought some sweet stuff over the weekend. Guess what? I didn’t gorge on it. I have paced myself with it. I haven’t even touched the ice cream yet. What???!!! That’s unheard of for me. So instead of beating myself up, I’ve decided that I went a whole month with none of that stuff and by gosh, I’m gonna be proud of that. It makes me feel so much better and fuels motivation to make me stronger so maybe next time it will be 6 weeks, and so on….Took a looonng time to learn to not beat myself up and to know I’m not now, nor ever will be perfect.

    1. Awesome Rayca! Congrats! That is so huge to not beat yourself up over it and so important. When we beat ourselves up over giving in to a food craving we don’t even enjoy what we are eating, we go into a state of stress which causes our body to shunt blood away from the digestive organs and the food doesn’t get properly digested, and we end up just craving it again and again or needing more and more because that desire was never satiated because we didn’t allow ourselves to enjoy it. When we actually enjoy our food and not beat ourselves up over eating what we think we shouldn’t have that whole feeling of deprivation goes away and suddenly it isn’t so necessary or “craveable”. I love the psychology of eating and food cravings!

      All of that said, yep, I am with you sister! I am going on about 2.5 months of staying off of sugars because I was becoming addicted to them. So right now I’m not even eating fruit, because I’m afraid that if I do, I will spiral back into craving desserts and going overboard on fruit. At some point I will add fruit back in, once my self-control has returned, but for now I’m really, really happy eating avocado and coconut concoctions sweetened with stevia and eating sweet potatoes when I really have a sugar craving. The first couple weeks were hell, but now the cravings are gone and it is so nice to be free from the sugar prison. I think that like you, when I do choose to have something again (ice cream or a cookie or fruit or what have you) it won’t hold that same control over me. Just lovely. Anyway, congrats and let me know how your sugar detox goes!
      Katie Bauer recently posted..Kick the Crack (aka Sugar) Addiction

  8. Hi Lyn, You are so right! I agree that we all have cravings and definitely not all cravings are bad. We can crave healthy food too, because we need the minerals or vitamins they provide. Nothing wrong with craving kale, because your body needs some added anti-oxidants, for example!
    Katie Bauer recently posted..Declare Your Independence Today

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