It’s time to throw the shaming self-talk and guilt out the window. Anyone who has had to peel themselves away from the chocolate, bread or cheese know that food cravings are a very real thing. We know we shouldn’t, but we eat it anyway. The Lay’s Potato Chip slogan “Bet ya can’t eat just one!” sums it up. But is this merely an issue of will power? Should we all just be stronger at saying no? Or could something deeper, more biochemical, be occurring beneath the surface? As with all things health-related, the body always has its reasons. Interpreting its language, spoken in symptoms, becomes the mission, and food cravings are no different.
The Biochemistry of Food Cravings
Though there can be a psychological component, believe it or not, food cravings (food addiction can be lumped into this category, too) often have very little to do with will power. Rather, we have to direct our attention to the body. The body will often use the macro- (fat, carbohydrates and protein) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients) in food to correct underlying biochemical imbalances, such as imbalanced blood sugar, hormone imbalance (such as adrenal and thyroid hormones), neurotransmitter imbalance (brain communication chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine), and nutrient deficiencies. BY identifying and correcting the root issue, the once insatiable craving often effortlessly disappears.
Below are a few of the more common sources of food cravings.
Craving #1: Nutrient Deficiencies
Nutrient balance is critical to the body’s optimal function, and nutrient deficiencies, both macro and micro, can clog the wheel in thousands of biochemical processes. Unfortunately, poor diet, our toxic environment and chronically soaring stress levels all wreak havoc on out nutrient status. Before we know it, we’re binging on potato chips and chocolate, not realizing these are actually the body and brain’s attempt at self-medicating.
Take magnesium for example. An essential mineral, magnesium is involved in over 300 biochemical pathways. In addition, it is considered a calming nutrient as it is involved in muscle relaxation and is necessary for the production of soothing brain chemicals, such as serotonin and opioids. Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include tight muscles and muscle spasms, anxiety, insomnia, PMS and painful menses in women, and migraine headaches. Due to soil depletion and nutritionally bankrupt junk “food,” it is estimated that 75% of the population is deficient in magnesium. One of the best food sources of magnesium happens to be dark chocolate (no, not the milk stuff that’s hardly even chocolate). Chocolate also stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, imparting a relaxed yet focused outlook.
In moderation, a few pieces of dark chocolate can easily fit into a healthy diet. However, some people complain of their chocolate cravings being truly overwhelming and counteractive to their attempts at clean eating. If you exhibit the signs of magnesium deficiency, focusing on eating other magnesium-rich foods, such as figs, leafy greens and almonds, or supplementation for a brief period of time will help correct the imbalance much faster, and help kick those cravings for good.
Another common nutrient-deficiency-food-craving dynamic duo looks at essential fatty acid imbalance: the potato chip. Despite being villainized for the past 30 years, fat is a critical component to our body’s function: the brain is 60% fat; fat is the backbone of our steroid hormones, including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and cortisol; fat insulates our internal organs, protects us from physical bumps and blows, and keeps our hair, skin, and eyes moist and supple. Symptoms of fatty acid deficiency include hormone imbalance, persistently dry skin or hair, joint or muscle pain, and even fatigue and brain fog. While the body can synthesize some fatty acids, those that are considered ‘essential,’ including omega-3’s and omega-6’s, must be obtained from diet. Following a low-fat diet or eating a junk food diet high in processed, refined, and trans-fats, will eventually lead to deficiencies in the omegas. Processed food in particular tends to combine 3 of the most chemically addictive flavors: sugar, fat, and salt. These activate the reward centers in the brain (another reason to look at dopamine and serotonin for food cravings), keeping us hooked and coming back for more. The combination of the ubiquitous presence of junk food, its addictive qualities, and an essential fatty acid deficiency has many reaching for the potato chip as opposed to salmon or avocado, two foods that will actually help correct the underlying imbalance. If through conditioning the brain believes potato chips are the only option in our environment, that’s what we will crave. However, if processed food was replaced with healing, whole foods (and after going through withdrawals of junk food addiction), the brain would target this as its source of balance, and with a few handfuls of nuts and seeds and slices of avocado, we would be on the way to potato chip-craving recovery.
Bottom line: If you consistently crave the same food or similar types of food, explore the commonalities and address the underlying imbalance.
Craving #2: Food Sensitivities, Gluten and Dairy
Many find it ironic that we crave foods that harm us. A food sensitivity is similar to an allergy in the sense that the offending food triggers an immune response. However, a true allergy is mediated by a specific type of immune cell called immunoglobulin E, which, after binding to an offending food, eventually initiates the release of histamine and other inflammatory chemicals, resulting in the classic allergic reaction of hives, congestion, and even anaphylaxis. A food sensitivity on the other hand involves either immunoglobulin G or A and triggers a different chemical cascade. While allergic reactions typically occur within minutes of exposure to the offending food (or environmental antigen such as pet dander or pollen), sensitivities can take up to 48 hours to manifest, and the associated symptoms are diverse: headaches, skin rashes, joint pain, IBS, mood swings, brain fog, and much more.
Here’s the thing: simply put, food sensitivities are a stressor to the body. One way the body reacts to stress is to release endorphins, which fall into the opiate family along with morphine, to essentially numb the pain. Opiates make us feel good, which is why we end up craving more of these sensitive foods in an effort to get more of these addictive, “happy” neurochemicals.
Gluten and dairy are two of the worst offenders. First, wheat and milk are both 2 of the top 8 allergens. To add insult to injury, the gluten and casein (a protein in dairy) proteins are broken down in the gut into ‘gluteomorphins and caseomorphins,’ biochemically virtually identical to our own endorphins. Once absorbed, these look-alikes migrate to the brain and bind to our opiate receptors, triggering the same feel good, happy, “gotta have more of it” response. This is also why some people become physically addicted to gluten and dairy, and it’s even more pronounced in those who are sensitive to these foods, too!
Bottom line: Try eliminating foods you crave for a few days then reintroducing it. If you notice an increase in certain symptoms, it could mean a food sensitivity is driving the craving.
To Sum it Up
All of this boils down to the fact that the mind-body connection is always a two-way street: the body will affect the mind, and the mind will affect the body. The approach to any health issue is to ask “why” until you cannot ask why anymore. If you’re experiencing unrelenting food cravings or addiction, start by asking the almost too simple question: why? When did the craving start? Are there similar foods that you crave, too? Is it situational or time-dependent? Do you have other symptoms, such as the examples listed above? The last thing you want to do is blame yourself, believing it boils down to a lack of will power. One thing I can guarantee: the last thing being able to say no to a food means is weakness. It’s simply the body trying to speak to you. Now is the opportunity to learn its language.
About the Author:
At 8 years old, Kimsey Self discovered that the ingredients for ICE CREAM were listed on the back of the container. Ecstatic, she ran to show her mom, thinking they could make it at home. As she listed the ingredients off to her, she got to "xanthan gum," "carageenan," and "high fructose corn syrup," and in that moment asked the question that ignited her fire... "what is in our food?"
Twenty years later, she has made a career out of that question. She now owns and operates Progressive Health and Wellness, a completely virtual wellness consulting practice specializing in identifying and addressing the root causes of chronic disease. In addition to holding a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration from Fort Lewis College, Kimsey has completed the Master’s program from the Nutrition Therapy Institute (NTI) in Denver, Colorado, the nation's leading private nutrition school. This is a 2-year program that consists of over 500 hours of advanced clinical nutrition education courses. Driven by passion, she blasted through the program in 10 months, while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. In addition, she holds continuing education certifications in Functional Blood Chemistry, Functional Brain Chemistry, Environmental Toxicity and Detoxification, The Intestinal Microbiome, and more. Kimsey strongly believes that education is paramount to success.
She has been interviewed on the Michael Brown KHOW radio show, an “I Heart Radio” top 100 broadcast reaching thousands across the nation. Kimsey holds public seminars, attends medical lectures and conferences, and follows the latest research in order to stay current in this ever-changing field and provide her clients with the best care possible. Teaching people WHY they are suffering from their health concerns, then explaining HOW to eat rather than what to eat (in addition to other therapies), ensures long-term, independent success. PH&W's mission is to spread awareness and accessibility of alternative medicine.
Kimsey's blog directly honors that mission by reaching people that she would most likely never be able to reach otherwise. If these writings influence at least one person to make a positive change in their own life, it's all worth it.
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