How to Stop Craving Foods That Make You Fat
How often have you heard people say that they’re addicted to certain foods?
They very well might be. Food addictions are just as real as addictions to drugs or alcohol, just not as obvious. The reason that most diets fail is that they don’t address the changes in brain chemistry caused by food that can be more powerful than the effects of cocaine.
Last year, the Scripps Research Institute released a groundbreaking study that found that rats given diets of bacon, sausage, chocolate and cheesecake had sharp rises in dopamine and serotonin, neurochemicals that affect the brain’s pleasure centers.
Later, when the researchers withheld these foods and tried to put the rats on a nutritious diet, the rats refused to eat, almost to the point of starvation. The rats even chose to endure painful shocks to get the sweet and fatty foods. They were literally addicted—and it took two weeks for their brains to return to normal. Rats addicted to cocaine, on the other hand, recovered normal brain functions in just two days.
Bottom line: An addiction to food can be harder to overcome than drug addiction.
CHEMISTRY AND WEIGHT GAIN
Most people who are overweight don’t experience more hunger than anyone else. They eat too much as a form of self-medication, unconsciously trying to balance levels of the two brain chemicals that are disrupted by unhealthy foods…
Dopamine is the neurochemical that produces excitement and other high-energy feelings. When you eat foods that are high in fat, such as red meat, french fries and cheesecake, you experience a surge of dopamine. It feels good, but the “high” is short-lived. As dopamine levels decline, you may feel listless, sad or depressed. The quickest way to offset the negative feelings is to eat more high-fat foods…and the up-and-down cycle continues.
Serotonin is somewhat different, but just as addictive. It’s a “calming” neurochemical that promotes feelings of optimism and hope. It’s the primary target of most antidepressant medications. People who consume a lot of sugar or carbohydrates made primarily from white flour (pasta, crackers, white bread) or a combination of sugar and white carbs (cookies, cakes, doughnuts) have increases in serotonin that make them feel good. But, as with dopamine, the effects are temporary unless you keep eating these foods.
BREAK THE CYCLE
Traditional diets mainly deal with calorie restriction. They rarely work because they fail to address the addiction that causes people to overeat in the first place. Important steps…
Know your pitfalls. These are the thoughts and activities (and foods) that ultimately lower levels of dopamine and/or serotonin and make you crave another “fix.” Examples: A stressful meeting at work that makes you anxious will increase cravings for sugar or carbohydrates (for the serotonin boost). Spending the night alone in front of the television can lead to loneliness that makes you crave both sugar (for the serotonin boost) and fat (for the dopamine).
Just about everyone with a weight problem engages in what’s known as emotional eating. When you realize that you’re eating ice cream every night because you’re lonely or that you’re digging into bags of chips or other snacks when you get anxious or frustrated, you’ll be less likely to indulge in this behavior.
Increase “booster activities.” These are activities that increase and help maintain healthier levels of serotonin and dopamine. You can tailor these activities to increase levels of either one of these substances. Examples…
For more dopamine. Being active and social are the best ways to boost dopamine. Go to a museum or an art opening. Clean the house while listening to loud music that makes you want to dance. Cook a new, healthful dish. Go dancing.
For more serotonin. Cultivating relationships and being kind help increase serotonin. Ask a coworker how he/she is feeling. Call a friend or loved one just to say “I’m thinking about you.” Give someone a compliment. Play with your dog or cat.
Detox gradually. Just as smokers are more likely to successfully quit when they use nicotine patches or gum, you’ll find it easier to give up addictive, high-calorie foods when you replace them with healthier foods that also help balance brain chemistry.
Many of the foods that you already know are healthy will increase serotonin and dopamine. These include…
- Whole grains
- Lean meats, such as chicken and turkey
- Low-fat dairy, such as cottage cheese and yogurt
- Healthy snacks, such as unsalted nuts, popcorn and fresh fruits.
Important: It takes at least 10 “exposures” to a healthy food before you’ll start to crave it in the same way that you once craved unhealthy choices.
Identify risk times. How many times have you sat down in front of the TV with a full bowl of snacks and emptied it by the end of the show—without even being fully aware that you were eating? Most food addicts snack or binge after 6:00 pm, when they are relaxing at home. This is known as mindless eating, and it’s a common behavior of food addicts. People often eat mindlessly in the car as well.
Important: Plan other activities during your own high-risk times. If you tend to snack in the evening, use that time for something else, such as straightening the house or calling friends. It also is helpful to have ready-to-go healthy snacks, such as air-popped popcorn or sliced fruit, for quiet nights when you’re reading or watching TV.
Allow occasional “slips.” We all have special treats that we don’t want to give up. For me, it’s buttery movie-theater popcorn. For someone else, it might be ice cream or soft drinks.
In my experience with thousands of patients, those who achieve a healthy relationship with food—those who eat when they’re hungry or simply to enjoy a particular food, rather than to fulfill emotional needs—can enjoy up to two servings daily of a pitfall food and still maintain a healthy weight.
To be safe: Don’t exceed 300 calories per serving. This might be, for example, half a Big Mac or a small order of fries.
It’s not weak to occasionally give in to cravings. As long as your life is full of healthy serotonin- and dopamine-boosting foods and activities, you’ll have these cravings only occasionally.