Do you know that there are three types of craving? There's true hunger, the hunger for pleasure in food, and the fake hunger caused by addictive foods. What causes these cravings is hormones -- brain chemicals that make us feel hungry, motivate us to eat, and give us the pleasure of eating. For an increasing number of people, craving for food persists even after enough food has been eaten. This is a topic of growing concern, since obesity and obesity-related illnesses are on the rise. Research shows that one reason for the persistence of craving is hormonal imbalance.
You may have tried programs and products that promised weight-loss. Maybe you lost weight and found it was short-term. It's possible that the program did not eliminate craving. It's possible that the reason the weight came back on was due, not to self-sabotage or lack of willpower, but to the powerful hormones of craving. The key to successful weight-loss is freedom from craving. Let's look at how our hormones get out of balance and what we can do about it.
The Continuum of Craving
Have you noticed that there are different degrees of craving? It can be mild and fleeting or intense and chronic. You might forget about food til mealtime. You might think about it, want it, and eat throughout the day. Or you might be somewhere in the middle. In Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction, Very Tarman, M.D., and Philip Werdell look at craving as a continuum or spectrum. Imagine a horizontal line with true hunger on the left and compulsive eating and food addiction on the right. We'll call the person on the left a "normal eater" and the person on the right a compulsive addictive eater. Where are you on the continuum?
The Hormonal Causes of Craving
Here's a simple overview. We'll look at five hormones. Ghrelin creates hunger. It gets us to crave food when we need it for fuel. Ghrelin, in turn, triggers dopamine, which, along with insulin, increases our craving, motivates us to eat, and gives us the pleasure of eating. This pleasure rewards us for eating and helps insure our survival. In the normal eater, serotoningives the feeling of contentment/satisfaction with a meal, and leptin makes us feel full. These two hormones get dopamine - the hormone of craving - to subside. Pleasure subsides, craving subsides, and eating stops.
What is the hormonal imbalance that causes craving to persist? Serotonin and leptin are insufficient or absent. Therefore, satisfaction with a meal does not occur, nor does the feeling of fullness. The lack of these hormones keeps dopamine flowing and causing craving.
The Three Types of Craving
1. True hunger. We've seen how dopamine gets us to eat and how serotonin and leptin get us to stop.
2. Pleasure. In the normal eater, the anticipation of pleasure and the feeling of pleasure that eating provides is what motivates us to eat. When we are in pleasure-mode, dopamine is present. In the compulsive eater/food addict who overeats, pleasure fades but the desire for pleasure through food persists. With more overeating, pleasure may turn into disgust, but the desire for pleasure persists because, without sufficient serotonin or leptin, dopamine continues to be released. Dopamine production is no longer in the service of survival. It's been "hijacked" for the pursuit of pleasure through food.
Besides sensory pleasure, another pleasure that eating provides is emotional comfort and relief. If a stressful feeling arises, the normal eater will find ways of handling it primarily without food. He might talk to a friend, witness the feeling, let it pass. The compulsive/ addictive eater will use food. For him, stress triggers hunger and a strong urge to eat. "Comfort food" works -- it makes him feel good, even if the original feeling is not addressed. Is this good self-care? It may be. However, if eating continues even after the comfort peaks, he may find himself in another dopamine-induced cycle of craving and eating. In this case, the comfort may turn into sedation and emotional numbing. When these states wear off, the original stress may still be there, compounded by the added stress of having overeaten.
Besides sensory pleasure and stress-relief, food can give us the sense of love and connection. The sensory pleasure of eating can be enhanced by having a shared meal with family and friends, or by eating the foods you associate with love and connection -- for example, something a dear one used to prepare for you, or a holiday/seasonal item. For the compulsive/addictive eater who has no "stop" button -- for whom dopamine continues to spew craving -- unfortunately, the eating continues and creates havoc. The sense of love and connection can morph into a nightmare of numbness and obsession. This experience may sound extreme, but it's a common one for people at the right end of the spectrum.
Another kind of pleasure afforded by food is relief from spiritual hunger. The normal eater may use ritual foods to enhance his spiritual life, but the compulsive/addictive eater will try to fill his "spiritual void" by eating. When the hormones get rebalanced, and dopamine gets released appropriately, the cycle of craving and eating subsides, creating the peace for spiritual practice. Whatever your spirituality looks like -- meditation, mindfulness, prayer, worship, celebration, service -- it's easier to fulfill yourself spiritually when you're not chasing food. However, spirituality can be a powerful catalyst in breaking the cycle of craving. Spiritual support can effectively plant you on the road to healthy weight-loss and freedom from compulsive eating.
3. Fake Hunger Caused by Addictive Foods
What are the foods most craved by compulsive/addictive eaters? We'll look at five of them. Remember that if you enjoy them, there's nothing wrong with that. However, if you feel out of control with them -- unable to resist them and remorseful after eating them -- know that you are not alone. You may be one of the countless victims of a hormonal imbalance that compels you to crave and eat.
Five foods most craved by people are sugar, salt, fat, high-glycemic foods, and highly palatable foods that combine the first four foods. The food industry keeps coming up with new combinations of these four foods in order to maximize craving in consumers and profits for the industry.
1. Hormonal supplements. It may be helpful to increase serotonin and leptin in order to check dopamine and limit craving. However, if you find that, while adding supplements, your craving persists, keep in mind that it may take time for the hormones to rebalance and for craving - both physical and emotional - to subside. Keep in mind, too, that, in some cases, the addictive power of food can override the effect of the hormones, which brings us to Solution 2.
2. Reduce or eliminate your intake of addictive foods. This is not easy to do. But it is possible. A life of health and peace is available for everyone. If you can reduce your intake of addictive foods and get free from craving, you will be able to enjoy these foods and weight-loss too. If you find that cutting back on them is a huge struggle that ends eventually in bingeing, you may discover that even small amounts of addictive foods perpetuate the dopamine cycle of craving and eating.
3. Get clear about what healthy looks like for you. What foods and how much of them would make your meals delicious, nutritious, weight-losing and craving-free?
4. Be willing to have healthy food on hand at home and when you're on the go.
5. Identify your triggers -- what feelings, situations and times of day make you want to eat.
6. Develop protections so that, if and when triggered, you won't have to eat compulsively.
7. Begin to allow and enjoy all your feelings so that you won't seek to hide from them in food.
8. Learn how to bring pleasure, sweetness, and loving connection into your life in ways other than eating.
9. Get support - personal and spiritual - to sustain you through your day.
10. Be patient with the process. Acknowledge yourself for the courage to claim the radiant life awaiting you.
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