The Science of Craving

The Science of Craving

Junk food and fast food companies have become so adept at milking our prehistorically rooted cravings for fat, salt, and simple carbs that they don’t even need to hide their tricks anymore.

We Americans are so in love, we look past the blemishes, giving into junk food cravings as a form of release from the stressors of daily life.

For anyone not willing to trade in a few minutes of greasy gratification a day for heart disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s, the resistance effort begins and ends at craving management.

Speaking of, why do humans crave unhealthy foods anyway, and what can we do about it?

The Evolution of Craving 

Fat: The Survivalist Macronutrient

Pre-agricultural man was highly fond of fatty food sources for survival reasons, a phenomenon observed across many animal species then and now.

Hunting yielded an unpredictable food supply while burning a lot of calories, so in addition to making evolutionary adaptations to allow for fasting, the human body developed an affinity for fatty, starchy foods.

These would help pre-neolithic man survive winters, food scarcities, and other environmental challenges.

Food Security Increases With Farming

Then, about ten millennia ago, we learned how to farm crops and domesticate animals.

Without modern advances, agriculture was still highly imperfect (no defense against weather or disease, primitive tools and methods, etc.), but it still provided a more consistent and abundant food supply.

Working the land with barely any tools was no picnic, but the advent of agriculture is still considered by evolutionary biologists as a stepping stone to the most unhealthful development of all: the industrial revolution.

Industrialization Changes Everything

The third major landmark in the evolution of food cravings effectively slammed the last nail in the coffin when it comes to nutritional health. 

With industry came specialization; people no longer had to spend such huge portions of their time producing food. 

Throughout the 19th century, Americans moved to cities, created jobs, and got (relatively) comfortable. 

Fast forward to the late 1920s, and refined sugars and other processed foods hit the US hard, never looking back.

To distill it down to two points, this is how the past 10,000 years have turned what was once a protective mechanism—craving—into a serious detriment to public health:

  • Greatly increasing the availability of addictive, processed, nutritionally bankrupt foods.
  • Greatly decreasing the caloric expenditure required to obtain these foods.

The biggest problem is that our brains are still telling our bodies to stockpile for the winter; the human body doesn’t evolve nearly as quickly as society has. 

Resisting a craving is basically resisting survival instincts.

All this, and we haven’t even touched on the psychological aspect of craving, another side effect of post-industrial society.

Modern Food Therapy: Binge-Eating as Avoidance Behavior

Lazy writing or not, the old trope we’ve all encountered in TV and movies about the post-breakup ice cream binge is actually rooted in fact.

Experiential avoidance is the term that this study from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine uses to describe stress-related eating, a highly prevalent issue among a global population experiencing unprecedented levels of stress.

In the study, college-aged adolescents were placed in stressful situations (simulated speaking test, for one) and then provided cookies, after which they completed a questionnaire designed to assess their thoughts related to how the sugary snack helped them with the stress.

At the conclusion, the researchers reported that they successfully correlated cravings with emotional eating using experiential avoidance as the bridge between the two, as experiential avoidance accounted for 24.66% of the variance in emotional eating. 

This effect is especially pronounced in subjects with poor coping mechanisms, and persists in the case of alcoholism.

The Damaging Potential of Unchecked Cravings

Let’s get the most obvious issue out of the way first: giving into cravings on a regular basis will make you fat.

The same finding from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine referenced above puts it more diplomatically, citing several studies that connected food cravings with a “higher weight status.”

Along with unhealthy weight gain via regular intake of processed, nutritionally void foods comes increased incidence of a laundry list of epidemic-level health threats, including:

  • Metabolic syndrome/obesity.
  • Type II diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Alzheimer’s

The review goes on to bring a less obvious, but equally important factor into this equation— the likelihood of following through.

Approximately 80-85% of college students and adults follow through on their food cravings, cited the authors.

This is why many nutrition experts believe in preventing cravings instead of trying to resist them when they occur, but more on that in a moment.

Eating Disorders

As one might expect, a higher intensity and frequency of food cravings is correlated with binge-eating disorder (BED) and bulimia nervosa.

A study by the University of Salzburg in Austria confirmed the classical conditioning model of binge eating, showing that bulimic participants had stronger cravings after being exposed to food cues than control group members.

However, the issue of causality—whether the cravings caused bulimia or vice versa—is still being bounced around.

One thing that researchers can agree on is the importance of mental health status in determining craving reactivity. 

Chicken or egg, discounting the mental health side of eating disorders narrows treatment options, where a more holistic approach that also seeks to identify psychological motivators of binge-eating behaviors casts a wider net. 

That said, there are plenty of practical methods that bulimics and non-bulimics can turn to when it comes to wresting control of food cravings. 

How to Guide Cravings to a Healthier Place

Hydration is arguably the most effective, sustainable, and practical method for reducing food cravings.

Hydration

Water is essential for metabolizing glucose (in the form of glycogen) into usable energy, so when the body is dehydrated, it craves sugar to replenish what it perceives to be insufficient glycogen stores.

Staying hydrated allows you to more efficiently metabolize the glycogen that’s already in your system, cutting the craving off before it can develop.

Intermittent fasting isn’t just for avid weightlifters or severely overweight people; average-sized people struggling with food cravings may be able to mitigate cravings using this method.

It may seem contradictory, but fasting is more potent in this regard than conventional dieting, because fasting inhibits the hunger hormone ghrelin.

Conventional dieting, on the other hand, creates a classic case of the forbidden fruit—you can’t have it, so you want it even more. 

Speaking of, not all dietary choices are created equal when it comes to their craving-killing potential.

Namely, protein-rich foods have been shown in trial reviews like this one from the University of Medical Sciences in Shiraz, Iran to suppress ghrelin levels more than other foods.

The study also confirmed that protein-rich foods are better at promoting a feeling of fullness, compounding their effectiveness in this regard.

The Smarter Approach Always Wins


Resisting Junk Is an Active Process

It’s far too easy to slip into bad nutritional habits today. Being prepared for temptation is the best way to prevent this.

We won’t sugarcoat it (pun intended): the nutritional environment that we Westerners live in today is designed to play to our base instincts, exploiting our natural and once-protective affinity for fat and sugar for profit.

Fighting back effectively is less about willpower and more about preparation.

If you can persuade your body out of survival mode with adequate hydration, sleep, relaxation, and nutrition, the cravings will have much thicker armor to get through.

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