As a former sugar, junk food, and caffeine addict, I have experienced that overwhelming emotional experience that cravings can have.
I allowed my craving to make me go against my values and goals so many times that I lost count.
At that moment, it was as if the dark side of cravings was in control of my body and actions.
But what exactly happens in the brain and body when we crave something? And can we stop the craving without understanding it?
In this article, we’ll explore the dark side of cravings through the lens of research and discuss some strategies we can use to derail our cravings that are backed by science.
Cravings, Triggers, and Long-term Harm
Cravings are a complex phenomenon that various biological, psychological, and environmental factors can cause.
Most cravings are triggered by stress or boredom, lack of sleep, and exposure to cues associated with the desired substance or behavior.
Giving in to cravings can not only lead to overeating or consuming unhealthy foods, which can negatively impact physical health, but can lead to weight gain, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues.
For some, including myself, cravings can be emotionally draining and cause stress and anxiety.
While not all of us struggle with food cravings, most of us struggle with some compulsive behavior that starts with a craving, whether it’s social media, sex, work, or shopping.
Most of us have two things in common. The first is numbing behaviors as a coping mechanism, further exacerbating negative emotions.
Second, the guilt and shame we feel when we give in to cravings. This affects our self-esteem and mental health, especially if the behavior doesn’t match our values and goals.
What Happens When We Crave?
First, we see, smell, feel, or think about something we desire.
A stored memory, person, situation, or specific time can trigger an urge to respond, which we often give in to without questioning if we are not accustomed to practicing self-awareness.
Several complex processes occur in the brain and body when we crave something:
Activation of the brain’s reward system:
Our brain has a complex reward system responsible for processing pleasurable experiences and reinforcing our motivation to seek those experiences again.
When we crave something, the brain releases dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward, and activates the reward centers in the brain.
Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can also be released in response to a craving, leading to physical changes such as increased heart rate and sweating.
Association with past experiences:
Cravings can also be linked to past experiences, such as the smell of food associated with a happy childhood memory.
This can trigger emotional responses in the brain and further reinforce the craving.
The role of learned behavior:
Cravings can also be influenced by learned behavior and habits.
For example, we have developed the habit of eating a snack or engaging in a particular behavior every day at a specific time. In that case, our body may crave that snack or behavior simultaneously.
Cognitive and emotional factors:
Our thoughts and emotions can also influence our cravings when we feel stressed or sad.
We may crave comfort foods that we associate with feelings of relief or comfort.
We Can’t Fix What We Dont Understand
Understanding cravings is the first step toward overcoming them.
Cravings are often the result of unmet needs that need to be identified and addressed constructively — most often, the answer is right in front of us.
It is crucial to recognize that the desire or the behavior is not the problem but rather a signal that underlying values and needs must be discovered and respected.
Most clients I work with aren’t struggling with cravings or particular habits. Their challenge is connecting the dots between what’s triggering the craving and how that relates to their needs.
Their life starts to change when they see that taking responsibility for meeting their needs is an act of self-love that leads to lasting change.
As one client put it:
We can better understand and address our cravings by identifying the gap between our values, needs, and goals.
Some strategies for managing cravings
A study published in the sleep journal found that sleep deprivation can increase cravings for high-calorie and high-fat foods.
Getting enough sleep helps to regulate hormones, reduce cravings for unhealthy foods, reduce stress, and improve our decision-making.
Much research shows that sleep deprivation reduces activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in decision-making and impulse control.
Sleep deprivation affects mood and increases stress, which can also impact decision-making abilities, often translating into self-defeating behaviors.
Practicing mindfulness can help us understand our cravings by increasing our awareness and acceptance of our present-moment experiences, including our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
We can gain insight into our cravings’ underlying causes and triggers by paying attention to them without judgment or reactivity.
We can also learn to observe our cravings with curiosity and detachment rather than being consumed by them or acting on them automatically.
Mindfulness can also help us to develop greater self-awareness and self-control, which can help us to manage our cravings.
Awareness of our physical and emotional condition can help us to identify and respond to our needs in a healthy and adaptable way.
Research has shown that mindfulness-based interventions can effectively reduce cravings for substances such as tobacco and alcohol and food and other addictive behaviors.
Through a non-judgmental and compassionate approach to self, we can learn to manage cravings more effectively and make choices that support overall wellness.
Identifying triggers can help us understand our cravings because cravings often have specific triggers that elicit them.
A trigger sets off or activates a craving, which can be internal or external. Internal triggers might include emotions such as stress, anxiety, or boredom.
In contrast, external triggers might include environmental cues, such as the sight or smell of food, or social situations where people engage in a particular behavior, such as zoning out on social media or drinking alcohol.
When we identify our triggers, we can become more aware of the situations, emotions, or thoughts associated with our cravings.
This can help us anticipate and prepare for potential triggers, avoid them when possible, or develop coping strategies to manage them.
By understanding our triggers, we can also gain insight into the underlying causes of our cravings.
For example, we tend to crave unhealthy foods when stressed.
In that case, we can develop healthier coping mechanisms, such as exercise or relaxation techniques for managing stress.
If we tend to drink alcohol in social situations, we may need to find ways to socialize without relying on alcohol.
Keeping a journal to track our cravings and behaviors helps us identify triggers and patterns.
We can only take steps to avoid these triggers or find healthier alternatives when we are aware of them.
Healthy habits help us understand our cravings because they can provide insight into the root causes of our cravings.
By establishing healthy habits such as regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, and getting enough sleep, we can better regulate our body’s natural processes and hormone levels, reducing our cravings for unhealthy foods or substances.
By paying attention to how our bodies respond to healthy habits, we can also become more aware of how our cravings are triggered and develop strategies to manage them more effectively.
Sleep and food are powerful medicines.
Regular Physical Activity
A study published in the journal Appetite found that exercise can reduce cravings for sugary and high-fat foods by regulating hormone levels, such as ghrelin and leptin, that regulate hunger and appetite.
Engaging in physical activity provide a healthy distraction from cravings, as it requires focus and energy. This can help reduce the intensity of cravings and promote healthier habits.
Regular physical activity has been shown to improve mood and reduce stress, often triggering cravings.
Paying attention to how our bodies respond to physical activity, such as changes in energy level, appetite, and mood, can help us become more aware of how our bodies react to stimuli, including cravings. This increased awareness can help us develop strategies to manage cravings more effectively.
Regular physical activity can be a powerful tool for managing cravings and promoting healthier habits.
Having healthy options available is essential for understanding our cravings and developing healthier habits.
Regardless of our self-defeating behavior or habit, we can better understand our cravings and learn to manage them more effectively by experimenting with healthy options.
If you had a meaningful activity in your life, would you still be mindlessly scrolling, shopping, or eating comfort food?
Seeking support can be an effective way to understand and manage our cravings more effectively.
Support from friends, family, or a professional can provide a level of accountability to help us stay on track with our goals. Knowing we have someone else to answer can help us stay motivated and committed to making healthy choices.
Talking to someone else about our cravings and challenges can provide a fresh perspective and new management ideas. Sometimes it can be helpful to get an outside perspective and learn from others who have successfully managed their cravings.
Cravings can often be accompanied by feelings of shame or guilt, which can lead to social isolation. Support can help us feel less alone and more connected to others who are going through similar experiences.
Support also provides access to resources such as educational materials, support groups, or professional counseling, which can help us understand our cravings and develop effective strategies for managing them.
Finally, support can help us stay motivated and committed to making healthy choices over the long term.
Healthy habits start with understanding why and how we crave. Understanding the underlying problem a certain behavior is trying to solve.
When we get this right, we can develop coping strategies to manage cravings more effectively and understand what we need.
Research on cravings
- Neurobiology of food addiction and craving by Nora D Volkow, Gene-Jack Wang, and Ruben Baler
- The Oxford Handbook of Eating Disorders edited by W. Stewart Agras and Athena Robinson
- The Psychology of Food Cravings the Role of Food Deprivation by Adrian Meule
Books on cravings
- The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love - Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits by Judson Brewer
- The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite by David Kessler
- National Sleep Foundation — How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Brain
- 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(1), 1–9.
- “Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food” by Jan Chozen
- Liao, Y., Shonkoff, E. T., & Dunton, G. F. (2013). The acute effects of exercise on food cravings: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Appetite, 63, 10–18.
- Davis, C., & Curtis, C. (2019). Mindful eating and the self-regulation of eating behavior. In S. Steptoe (Ed.), Handbook of behavioral medicine (pp. 1–20). Springer International Publishing.
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