I’m fairly good at spotting film plot twists. I got the sixth sense, realised who Nicole Kidman was in The Others, and guessed Teddy Daniels’ real identity in Shutter Island. The Usual Suspects, however, floored me. Not only didn’t I guess, I didn’t even see it coming. When the actual bad guy was revealed I had no clue. Where your food cravings are concerned, it’s likely you think that sugar is the enemy, but just like Keyser Soze’s hidden identity, the bad guy isn’t who you really think.
If you’ve ever been motivated to eat a specific food, rather than just food in general, then you’ve experienced a craving.
While we all get cravings from time to time, for some people they can be hugely difficult to deal with. What I’ve noticed from the questions that I receive is that sugar is usually the thing people seem to crave most. Sugar, it seems, is what derails diets, halts progress, and makes getting the body of your dreams almost impossible; but not all is what it seems. When we identify why we crave certain foods, it’s clear that it’s not only sugar we’re after.
For most of human history, starvation has been a major problem. It makes sense then that we would adopt different ways to combat this. Where surviving is concerned, our brain has our backs, but it’s less interested in how good we look in our speedos, and that’s reflected in what food what food it makes us crave. Our brain is happiest when we’re getting fatter.
Our cavemen ancestors needed to recognise the types of food that were highest in calories in order to survive. We wouldn’t have lasted long as a species on a diet of spinach leaves. We needed to find the right food, and be motivated to eat it in order to live long enough to produce the next brood of little homo sapiens.
- When we eat food, it passes through our stomach and into the small intestine.
- Once in the small intestine, receptors there sense how much total energy and nutrients are contained in the food.
- They send a signal containing that information to the brain.
- In response to the number of calories and other nutrients in the food, the brain releases dopamine.
- The more fat, carbs, and total energy is contained in the food, the more dopamine is released.
Dopamine is a chemical that promotes liking, wanting, learning, and creates positive reinforcement. When dopamine is released in response to eating food, it creates a motivational state. In short, if you’re eating chips and garlic mayo, it makes you want to keep eating chips and garlic mayo. Not only does dopamine help with motivation, it also helps you learn.
- When dopamine is released, your brain notices everything that is going on around you.
- The sights, smell, and location you’re in are all learned for later use.
- When we experience the sight or smell of the food we ate, we’re driven to eat more of that food again.
This is why doughnuts smell so tempting, why the sight of sticky toffee pudding makes your heart skip a beat, and why it’s so hard to ignore the shelf full of chocolate bars when you’re paying for petrol. Those things trigger dopamine, which increases your motivation to eat, which further reinforces your cravings for those foods.
A study by Erica Shulte sought to identify which foods have the most “addictive” qualities. In the study, 120 people completed what’s called the “Yale Food Addiction Scale”. In it, they were forced to indicate from a list of foods which ones they found hardest to resist. The table below shows the top 8.
As you can see, all of the foods are high in sugar, but also pack a punch with their fat content. What we end up seeing is a list of foods that contain the most energy per gram. The real thing we’re craving is the highest number of calories per bite of food. This makes sense for our caveman ancestors, they needed to be driven to find food like that. Unfortunately for us, our brains don’t realise we’ve got a Pret on every corner, but the drive to eat the food in there is just as strong.
There’s a point to this. Painting carbs as the central bad guy where cravings are concerned influences your diet choices. If the only way to lose weight is to quit sugar, you’ll always be on a low carb diet. Knowing that cravings are really based on the energy content, rather than the sugar content, of food, gives you options. If you don’t want to give up carbs to control cravings, you don’t have to.
Not only shouldn’t you ditch the carbs, but we should also probably have some amount of the foods we crave too. Being too restrictive with food choices backfires in terms of adherence. Instead of trying to ignore the foods you crave, try using a strategy to limit the amount you have.
- Use a small part of your daily calorie budget to indulge in something you really want, but don’t have any more than that.
- A good target is 10 to 20% of your total daily calorie intake.
- You could choose to have a small amount of chocolate, for instance, every day.
- Or, you could save up an amount over time to have all on one day.
- For example, if you are on a 1,500 calorie diet, you could choose to have 150 to 300 calories of something you crave per day, or you might save it up to have 1,050 on one day a week for a slightly more epic indulgence.
Cravings are our brain’s way of keeping us alive. While we might not welcome that kind of help these days, understanding why we get them helps us manage them. Going on an ultra hardcore low carb diet or quitting sugar shouldn’t be your first port of call if you crave sweets. Allow yourself to have a bit here and there, and get leaner easier than before.
Sugar is not the bad guy, it’s the potent combination of fat and carbs that makes you long for specific foods. By understanding what you crave and why you don’t have to quit sugar to lose weight.
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