Sugary and other hyper-palatable foods have been thought to “hijack” our brain chemistry, making us want more. In the words of Dr. Robert H. Lustig, “No one can exert cognitive inhibition, willpower, over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute, of every day, of every year.”
There is continued research into understanding what is behind our food cravings, and for some it may reflect an addiction.
Sugar, junk and our biochemistry
It is believed sugar encourages activity of the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger to the brain, whilst reducing feelings of satiety by interfering with the normal transport and signalling of the hormone leptin. So what happens? We reach for more!1
Eating high amounts of junk food has also been found to down-regulate our dopamine receptors.1
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that drives us to seek rewards that send us to the ‘pleasure state’. Substances like cocaine increase dopamine and there evidence is growing that sugar has a similar impact on the brain.
Due to the down-regulation following over-consumption, there is less dopamine and less pleasure or reward. So again, we reach for more of the sugary substance in order to supply us with the dopamine goodness.
Breaking free of cravings
Before we go on, it is important to note that food addiction and eating disorders are very real and very serious. Please do consult with a healthcare practitioner if you find you need support. There are organisations such as Food Addicts, SMART Recovery and The Butterfly Foundation that can provide help specific to food addiction and eating disorders.
But if you are simply looking for ideas to kick the junk food cravings, here are a few recommendations following a recent symposium at University of California San Francisco2:
Identify your triggers
When you begin to crave, pay attention to what has just happened. Are you feeling sleepy after a meal and want a sugar hit? Are you feeling overwhelmed with multiple people demanding things of you, so you reach for the potato crisps? Are you feeling a little low? As a woman, are you moving into your premenstrual phase? Triggers are hugely personal, but once you can identify them you can work on managing these to then manage the cravings.
Teach yourself to tolerate cravings
“Sugar cravings are a learned response,” says Kerri Boutelle, a University of California San Diego professor of paediatrics and psychology. If you can, go for a walk, or get up and have a drink of water or a herbal tea, allowing yourself at least 10 minutes to let the craving fade.
Keep real, whole foods, including loads of veg, fruit, nuts and seeds, in your cupboard, in your bag, or at your work desk. When you make your own meals comprised of real whole foods, you are less likely to have too much of the nutrient-poor foods that are often addicting. It is much harder to binge on multiple carrots than multiple doughnuts.
Replace foods you feel you are addicted to with whole foods you enjoy
Work out the healthy foods you love, and keep them in supply. You don’t want to feel like you are depriving yourself of the joy of eating!
Limit a child’s early exposure
The creators of the Yale Food Addiction Scale have found in their research that children are more susceptible to addiction than adults, and habits formed in early years have the propensity to carry on into later life. The occasional treat is fine, but focus food energy on the real, whole stuff.
Stressing out is a big trigger for many to reach for the sugary or deep fried food (a.k.a comfort food). Being in a stressed state changes the way we digest and metabolise our food and can counter healthy eating, so find ways to curb the stressed state with deep breathing, meditation, and exercise.
Reduce your intake of added sugar
Well – this is what we are ALL about here at That Sugar. Find other ways to satisfy the sweet tooth, allowing your taste buds to adapt to the natural sweetness from fruit and spices like vanilla and cinnamon.
Sugar-sweetened beverages are the best place to start – limit these as much as possible. Then over time, start noting where you add sugar to your food or drink – like in a cup of tea or on your breakfast, and half the amount.
Give yourself a break!
Most importantly, do not be hard on yourself if you have a serve of the not-so-good stuff. Accept it, and the next meal nourish yourself with something delicious comprised of real, whole foods.
Change takes time
Take it slowly and take it easy – make small changes and these will make a big difference over time.
And know an occasional treat is okay! There may be various drivers causing us to reach for the Kit-Kat or KFC, but for many, much of what we desire is due to habit. We just don’t want too much of the food or drink we know (deep down) aren’t serving us.
- Lustig, RH, Schmidt, LA, & Brindis, CD 2012, ‘Public health: The toxic truth about sugar’, Nature, vol. 482, no. 7383, pp. 27-29.
- University of California 2016, How to break the junk food habit, viewed 30 November 2016, <https://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/news/how-break-junk-food-habit>