Food Cravings Decoded: Understanding the Complexities and Taking Control
Cravings are common - most people get them. However, if they happen often and if you find that you don’t have control around them, they may be an indicator of something else. Some people describe themselves as addicted to certain foods, whereas others prefer to use terms like ‘feeling out of control around certain foods’.
Sometimes, we feel a strong desire for certain foods in specific situations, and it can be hard to resist. This behavior around food is called compulsive. Researchers have discovered that women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and a high body mass index (BMI) are more likely to experience food cravings and emotional eating (1). In fact, a study found that around half of women with PCOS struggle with emotional eating, which means they eat more when they're feeling emotional (2). Another study revealed that women with PCOS have a four times higher risk of developing binge eating disorder compared to women without PCOS (3).
Can you be addicted to food?
The scientists are still debating, some saying that food addiction is certainly a thing, while others saying that the term is not very suitable when it comes to food. Addictions involve a physical or psychological need for substances, so in case of food, people tend to have strong and regular cravings for things like highly salted, sugary, or fatty foods. Highly palatable foods trigger feel-good brain chemicals including dopamine (4). Once you experience pleasure associated with increased dopamine from eating certain foods, you may quickly feel the need to eat again, especially in situations where the highly palatable food is around, or you are having unwanted feelings and want to change that, or due to other reasons, which I will cover later on. Reward signals from highly palatable foods may override your signals of fullness and satisfaction. So you may keep eating, even when you're not hungry. Compulsive overeating is a type of behavioral addiction, meaning that you can become preoccupied with a behavior (such as eating, social media use, or shopping) that triggers intense pleasure.
Addiction is a strong word. Unfortunately, it carries a lot of stigma. It also can make you feel helpless, anxious, and like you have no control. Personally, I prefer to say "having a compulsive relationship with certain foods," but you can choose how you want to talk about what you're going through. You might see yourself as someone with a food or sugar addiction, or you may feel that addiction doesn't quite capture it but acknowledge that you struggle with feeling out of control around food. Maybe you feel that your situation isn't too severe yet, but you recognize that giving in to cravings too often is negatively affecting your health and self-esteem. Whichever description resonates with you, you have the power to break free from these patterns by understanding your cravings. Pay attention to when, where, and how they occur, and most importantly, how you respond when they arise. Cravings can make it hard to overcome compulsive behaviors, and they often lead to relapse into unhealthy habits, like eating too much unhealthy food or drinking excessively.
Cravings can often catch us off guard and make us feel overwhelmed. However, it's possible to develop a different relationship with them, where we don't feel compelled to give in or haunted by their presence. The key is to cultivate awareness and understand how cravings manifest in our lives. By increasing our awareness, we can begin to unravel the patterns and triggers associated with cravings. This awareness empowers us to make conscious choices and take control of our responses to cravings.
Five types of cravings
When it comes to understanding cravings, I find it helpful to classify them into five categories: physical, emotional, social, exposure, and habitual. These categories can provide valuable insights when supporting individuals in understanding their own cravings.
- Physical Cravings: Physical cravings arise when your body truly requires specific nutrients, such as during pregnancy or when there's a deficiency. It's crucial to maintain a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and consult your doctor if you experience unusual cravings. Taking care of your nutritional needs and overall health plays a significant role in managing physical cravings effectively.
- Habitual cravings: Cravings that stem from established routines and habits can be challenging to break. Do you tend to crave something sweet after your dinner? Does drinking tea feel strange without a biscuit? These are just two examples of habitual cravings. By consciously changing these habits and shaking up associated routines, we can reduce their intensity over time.
- Emotional Cravings: When we encounter unwanted emotions, it's common for many of us to turn to food for comfort. However, there are helpful strategies that can support us in managing distress more effectively. Exploring this topic in therapy and trying techniques like diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness can be beneficial approaches to cope with and navigate through challenging emotions. By developing these skills, we can reduce our reliance on food as a source of comfort and find healthier ways to address and manage our emotional well-being.
- Social Cravings: Cravings triggered by the influence of others in social settings can be powerful. If your friends are making certain food and drink choices, it can be hard to not be influenced by that, even if you would not make these choices in a different environment. By understanding these associations and aligning them with our goals, we can navigate social situations without giving in to cravings.
- Exposure Cravings: These cravings arise when we're exposed to cues or stimuli associated with certain foods. These cues can include visual cues, such as seeing appetizing food in a shop, on somebody else’s plate, or in food advertisements.
By understanding and addressing these different types of cravings, you can gradually gain control over them and live a more fulfilling life. Remember, it's about observing cravings without being controlled by them. With practice and persistence, you can break free from the cycle of cravings and reclaim control over your life. If you would like to learn more, join me in a transformative two-day workshop where we will explore the root causes of your food cravings and empower you with practical strategies to effectively manage them.
- Burnatowska E, Wikarek A, Oboza P, Ogarek N, Glinianowicz M, Kocelak P, Olszanecka-Glinianowicz M. Emotional Eating and Binge Eating Disorders and Night Eating Syndrome in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome-A Vicious Circle of Disease: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2023 Jan 6;15(2):295.
- Paganini C., Peterson G., Stavropoulos V., Krug I. The Overlap Between Binge Eating Behaviors and Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome: An Etiological Integrative Model. Curr. Pharm. Des. 2018;24:999–1006.
- Krug I., Giles S., Paganini C. Binge eating in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome: Prevalence, causes, and management strategies. Neuropsychiatr. Dis. Treat. 2019;15:1273.
- Liu S, Globa AK, Mills F, Naef L, Qiao M, Bamji SX, Borgland SL. Consumption of palatable food primes food approach behavior by rapidly increasing synaptic density in the VTA. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Mar 1;113(9):2520-5.