Hi folks, we’re excited to have Board-Certified health and wellness coach Erin Power back to break down the emotional and psychological reasons we crave comfort foods. If you’ve vowed to stick to a Primal diet this year, you’ll definitely want to check out this week’s post. Got a question for our health coaches? Head over to our Mark’s Daily Apple Facebook group or ask it in the comments below.
“I’m a few weeks into eating Primal and I can’t seem to shake my cravings for comfort food. You know, mac ‘n cheese, beer, ice cream. I really want to stick to healthy eating this time and can’t understand why it’s always such a struggle.”
You probably won’t be surprised to hear that sugar is highly addictive. And that includes foods that turn to sugar in the body, like mac ‘n cheese, beer, crackers, cereal…you get the picture. But what you may not realize is that when you consume those foods, you experience a temporary rise in serotonin levels and then a fairly drastic crash. That’s why sugar gives you such a high. And then leaves you craving more once you get those cranky, hangry withdrawal symptoms.
Do Fat and Carbs Cause Cravings?
The macronutrients fat and carbohydrates are two of the main components of comfort foods. Fat and carbs aren’t inherently bad, but when combined they tend to pack a punch, metabolically speaking. As I mentioned, carbohydrates raise the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin, while fat has the phenomenal ability to soothe. In fact, this study found that when participants consumed saturated fat, they became less emotionally affected while watching a sad movie or listening to sad music.
That’s why certain foods are so addictive. And the situation gets worse when you’re under stress.
Not only that, research shows that the areas of the brain triggered by cravings (the hippocampus, caudate, and insula) are the same as those implicated with drug and alcohol addiction. These are the parts of the brain associated with our reward system and the emotional connection we develop every time we repeat a behaviour.
Eat and Repeat: Creating Neural Pathways
Every time you repeat an action, whether it’s one you want to keep doing or not, you reinforce your neural pathways. These are pathways that send signals from one part of the brain to another. Eventually, those actions become automatic.
It’s like if you took the same route to work every day. After a handful of times, you wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Your brain automatically knows where to go. The same thing happens with cravings. When you reach for a big ole bowl of mac ‘n cheese each time you feel low or stressed out, you engage in the process of continuous reinforcement. The emotion (feeling low or stressed) triggers the action (eating), which elicits the reward (feeling good). Basically, it’s not your fault that you have cravings. That doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them though.
Cravings can also be a sign that you aren’t supporting your body properly in other ways. Lack of protein, poor sleep quality, and chronic stress play a major role too. Listen, it’s not about willpower here. Cravings are often a purely physiological response. That means with the right changes, you won’t feel as tempted to dive headfirst into a pint of rocky road or bowl of grandma’s chocolate chip cookie recipe.
4 Tips for Conquering Cravings
Notice what triggers you. Are you hungry, tired, stressed out? Become aware of what sets you off. Research even shows that seeing food on TV can make you eat more of it. And not the healthy kind.
Eat more protein. Things like beef, fish, eggs, and chicken can help you feel full and have fewer cravings. That’s because protein reduces the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and improves dopamine production – one of the hormones involved in cravings.
Get more sleep. Studies prove that skimping on sleep can make you crave sweets and other comfort foods.1 So make getting quality shut-eye a priority and follow Mark’s tips for manufacturing a great night’s sleep here.
Decrease your stress. Our friends over at myPrimalCoach are sharing simple ways to relieve your stress in this post — everything from breathing techniques to taking a quick walk.
Try these for a week and see what happens. Managing cravings is easier than you think when you have the right tools.
“How do I get rid of my food addiction (cravings for junk food and other tasty food)? I’m not looking for medical advice, but if you have any tips for beating cravings for good, can you let me know how to do it?”
The emotional reasons we crave food (and have food addictions) are often stronger than the physiological ones. Since you’re up to speed on the temporary hormone changes that occur when you eat hyper-palatable food, I’ll cut right to the chase.
I don’t think there’s a single person out there who doesn’t have some emotional connection to food. Mind you, it doesn’t need to be a negative experience to count. Were there certain foods you enjoyed growing up? Did your parents treat you to sweets when you got hurt? Or rewarded you with junk food for good grades? Maybe a certain dish reminds you of when things were simpler, without bills and jobs and adulting responsibilities. This is all normal and extremely common.
Mindfulness and Emotional Eating
Practicing the act of staying present (also known as mindfulness) can help you learn to hold your ground when faced with the urge to eat. Instead of avoiding the feeling or binging on processed junk, mindfulness allows you to acknowledge the emotion without judgment. And researchers agree. Sarah Bowen from the University of Washington teaches a method called Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention. It was designed to help those struggling with substance abuse; however, her method helps all types of people with addictions learn how to become aware of the emotional sensations of their cravings and meet the experience with compassion, rather than giving in to their craving. Being mindful also helps you put a name on the emotion you’re experiencing.
When you’re stressed out or sad or feel isolated, and not legitimately hungry, be aware of what you might really be craving. It could be that you have an unmet need in one or more areas of your life.
We all have basic human needs, including:
Your junk food cravings might bring you a sense of security that makes you feel grounded and safe. Or, they might feel wildly exciting, proving a much-needed blast of uncertainty. You might be feeling socially isolated (and really, who isn’t right now) due to the pandemic and look to food to help you cope.2 Or you might feel stuck in your current situation use junk to self-sabotage.
Find Alternatives that Empower You
Once you’ve honed in on what you need, take steps to find more empowering ways to get that need met. This is a fantastic exercise I use with my own health coaching clients to help them get started: Jot down 5 non-food ways to meet each of these basic human needs.
List 5 ways to meet your need for certainty.
You might read your favorite book or listen to a song that brings back good memories.
List 5 ways to meet your need for uncertainty.
Why not make a recipe you’ve never tried before or style your hair in a new way?
List 5 ways to meet your need for significance.
Being a role model for your family is a great way to meet this need.
List 5 ways to meet your need for connection.
Call a friend or play ball with the kids at the park.
List 5 ways to meet your need for growth.
Consider taking a class, learning a language, or checking out a new yoga video.
List 5 ways to meet your need for contribution.
This could be supporting a local cause or just being present with your family.
Now, here’s the important part: Have this list ready before you need it. That way it’s just as easy to go for a walk or call a friend as it is to order a large deep dish with pepperoni. And if you want more hands-on advice, feel free to check out the new myPrimalCoach program. You can even work with your own health coach one-on-one.
Now it’s your turn. Have you struggled with cravings? If so, what’s worked for you?
About the Author
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.