Being hungry all the time can be debilitating. It’s constantly uncomfortable, and when you eventually give in to your cravings, you’re often left feeling guilty and upset. We can combat this by learning about the causes and how to prevent them.
1. Blood Sugar Problems
In the most simplest terms, food cravings are about uneven blood sugar levels. When you haven't eaten for a long period and then eat a meal rich in carbs, the carbs will be digested and released into the bloodstream as sugar. Sugar causes a positive reaction that makes us feel elated.
Insulin is then released by the pancreas to transport sugar out of the blood and burned for energy, or stored as fat. When the body digests too many carbs at one time, too much insulin is released. This leads to blood sugar levels plummeting while energy levels drop and eventually you’re hungry again.
2. Inability to burn fat
Ideally you want your body to be metabolically flexible, which means your body is able to burn both fat and carbs for energy. Any time your blood sugar is low because you haven’t eaten recently, your body will switch from burning glucose to burning ketones, which are a byproduct of fat burning.
However, if carbs are eaten every 2-3 hours, your body will never have the chance to develop the metabolic mechanisms necessary for burning fat. Without the ability to burn fat, your energy and mood will plummet if you don’t eat every three hours. Fat gain becomes easier because your body is used to eating more instead of readily switching over to burn its own fat stores.
3. Excessive stress/high cortisol
You might experience hunger after highly stressful situations. When under stress, hunger is suppressed. Once the stress has passed, watch out; cravings are soon to come thanks to cortisol, the stress hormone.
Cortisol triggers extreme hunger as a mechanism to increase blood sugar and supply energy in preparation for more stress to come.
Stress activates energising neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which is associated with reward-driven eating. It makes us seek out highly palatable foods that make us feel really good, and it’s hard to stop eating when we are constantly looking to increase dopamine.
4. Food addiction
With the effect dopamine has when satisfying cravings, one can become addicted to certain foods.
Typically, people will become more easily addicted to junk foods that contain sugar, wheat, processed fats. Eating these foods leads to the release of substances called endocannabinoids in the gut. They affect dopamine and opioid receptors in the brain, improving mood in the same way that drugs or alcohol are pleasurable.
There’s evidence that if we eat highly palatable junk foods over time, our opioid receptors will become hypersensitive, which often leads to a withdrawal symptom when we stop eating these foods.
Cravings associated with food addiction don’t have much to do with energy balance. They make us feel good and over time and we learn to associate them with the relief from stress.
The brain transmitter serotonin is an important regulator of appetite, mood, and preference for certain foods. A healthy level of serotonin makes us feel calm. Low serotonin stimulates appetite and a preference for carbs, since carbs provide an amino acid that is necessary for serotonin production, tryptophan. The increase in serotonin leads to a boost in mood and a reduction of anxiety. If you associate getting relief from high-carb junk foods, you’ll be conditioned to do it again and again.
However there are solutions to help you combat these symptoms. These require that you develop a healthy lifestyle and good habits
1. Work Out
Exercise is the ultimate cure for reducing food cravings because it can solve all five mentioned causes.
First, strength training improves insulin sensitivity so that the body is better able to manage blood sugar. Second, both anaerobic and aerobic exercise improve fat burning.
Strength training helps to overcome high cortisol levels and can reset the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis that governs the stress response and is involved in anxiety management. Strenuous exercise triggers endorphins that bind with opioid receptors, which may ultimately lead to helping people overcome food addiction.
Finally, doing any form of exercise is a great tool to distract you from food cravings you might have.
2. Eat to balance blood sugar
Low-carb diets will restore insulin sensitivity and increase metabolic flexibility. This is important because insulin is a hunger-reducing hormone when you are insulin sensitive. But if you’re insulin resistant, as overweight people usually are, insulin doesn’t stem appetite and you’re still hungry after eating a carb-filled meal. A solution is to plan meals around protein, healthy fats, and vegetables.
If you’re not overweight and you work out frequently, a higher carb intake may be possible for balancing blood sugar. The key is to choose whole complex carbs, and always eat them as part of a mixed meal with protein and healthy fat to reduce the insulin response.
3. Eat carbs at night
Eating less carbs during the day and saving higher carb foods for the evening meal will have the following positive effects on reducing food cravings:
- First, it requires the body to tap into body fat stores and improves insulin for better metabolic flexibility and steadier blood sugar.
- Second, it helps lower cortisol while raising serotonin for a restful evening.
- Third, it provides structure to your nutrition, avoiding reward-driven eating and anxiety associated with food.
4. Use glutamine
Glutamine is an amino acid that can treat food cravings because it is an energy source for the brain. It reduces the desire to eat that is associated with low mood or addiction for sweets. Glutamine is so effective for calming obsessive thoughts that it is a primary treatment for alcohol and drug addiction.
Try eating foods that are high in glutamine like:
- dairy products,
- green vegetables like cabbage parsley and spinach.
You can also take glutamine in the form of a supplement with water any time you have food cravings or mix it into your protein shake to eliminate temptations.
5. Manage stress
Besides blood sugar problems and insulin resistance, stress appears to be the most important factor when it comes to food craving. If you want to get rid of food cravings in the long term, it’s vital that you manage your stress in the moment. A few strategies include:
This or any form of mindfulness has been found to decrease cortisol and reduce reward-based activity in the brain that triggers food cravings.
- Prioritise sleep
Any disturbed sleep automatically reduces insulin sensitivity and fat burning, while increasing cortisol so that food cravings become overwhelming.
- Moderate caffeine
It’s common to use coffee to wake you up or get you through stressful times, but this will backfire if you’re suffering from high cortisol levels or anxiety. Try to avoid it altogether or if this isn’t possible, schedule your coffee for the midmorning. This will give you the right kick for your day since this coincides better with your body’s circadian rhythm instead of having a coffee when you wake up.