By Dr. Mercola
Your body is designed to naturally regulate how much you eat and the energy you burn. Part of how this occurs is through the release of the hormones ghrelin and leptin.
When you eat a sugar dessert, for instance, your body increases production of leptin, which regulates your appetite and fat storage. Ghrelin, on the other hand, is known as the “hunger hormone” because people given the hormone in a study on grehlin became so ravenous, they ate markedly more than their usual food intake.
Ghrelin appears to act on your brain’s “pleasure centers,” driving you to reach for another slice of cheesecake simply because you remember how good the first one tasted and made you feel (at least in that moment).1
Between the appropriate releases of ghrelin and leptin, the idea is that when you eat, your body knows it should feel less hungry and you stop eating. There are many confounding factors that may derail this system, however.
When insulin is impaired (such as in case of insulin resistance), for instance, ghrelin levels remain elevated even after meal consumption a condition that leads to chronic hunger (mostly for unhealthy carbs), excess food intake and undesirable weight gain.
Your mind (and mood) also influence your food cravings, as do junk foods created with the intention to hook you and encourage you to eat more.
‘Hunger Neurons’: Your Body Is Hard-Wired to Have a Negative Response to Hunger
When you’re hungry, hypothalamic AGRP (agouti-related protein-expression) neurons trigger unpleasant feelings in your body. This, in turn, drives you to seek food in order to relieve these negative feelings.2 In times when food is scarce, this innate mechanism could be life-saving.
Seeking your next meal at one time required potentially putting yourself in a risky situation, so your hunger neurons’ ability to drum up negative feelings served as a poignant push to find food.3
Today however, if food is readily available you can eat to your heart’s content, and part of the motivation to do so (albeit subconsciously) is to silence your AGRP neurons and feel better.
This isn’t an entirely bad thing, and your body should be able to regulate its food intake nonetheless, except that nowadays this negative response to hunger is paired with a positive response to junk food, representing the perfect storm for junk-food addiction and weight gain.
Junk Foods Are Engineered to Be ‘Hyper-Rewarding’
Food manufacturers have figured out how to override your body’s intrinsic hunger regulators by designing processed foods that are engineered to be “hyper-rewarding.”
According to the “food reward hypothesis of obesity,” processed foods stimulate such a strong reward response in our brains that it becomes very easy to overeat. One of the guiding principles for the processed food industry is known as “sensory-specific satiety.”
Investigative reporter Michael Moss described this as “the tendency for big, distinct flavors to overwhelm your brain.”4
The greatest “successes” for junk-food manufacturers, whether they’re beverages or foods, owe their “craveability” to complex formulas that pique your taste buds just enough, without overwhelming them, thereby overriding your brain’s inclination to say “enough.”
Potato chips are among the most addictive junk foods on the market, containing all three “bliss-inducing” ingredients: sugar (from the potato), salt and fat. Unfortunately, healthy foods like celery and many vegetables lack these hyper-rewarding attributes. Sugar itself is also highly addictive.
Researchers speculate that your “sweet receptors” (two protein receptors located on your tongue), which evolved in ancestral times when the diet was very low in sugar, have not adapted to modern times’ high-sugar consumption.
Therefore, the abnormally high stimulation of these receptors by sugar-rich diets generates excessive reward signals in your brain, which have the potential to override normal self-control mechanisms and thus lead to addiction.
Try Peak Fasting to Beat Your Food Cravings
First of all, as with any other addiction program, the less of it you eat, the less you’ll crave it as your body gets “weaned” from all these addictive hooks. So to beat food cravings you need to, ironically, eat less of the offending foods.
In fact, research shows that calories gleaned from bread, refined sugars, and processed foods promote overeating, whereas calories from whole vegetables, protein, and fiber decrease hunger. How do you get to that point of eating mostly whole foods, when your body is begging for more junk food?
One of the most effective ways I know of to eliminate cravings (and shed unwanted weight) is intermittent fasting, as this will help reset your body to burning fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel. When sugar is not needed for your primary fuel and when your sugar stores run low, your body will crave it less.
As a general rule, I recommend a new type of intermittent fasting that I call Peak Fasting, which, unlike other versions of intermittent fasting, is done every day (you can certainly cycle in off days due to your schedule or social commitments, however).
The process is simple. Stop eating three hours before bed and don’t have your first meal until 13 to 18 hours later. Measure your blood sugar at that time.
You can do this every half hour, and when it starts to dramatically rise, this is an indication that you need to break your fast and eat food, as you are starting to break down your lean muscle mass to raise your blood sugar.
Once you’ve broken free of your cravings, it appears likely that there is long-term benefit to continuing Peak Fasting indefinitely, not only to keep food cravings away, but also because it may help slow down the aging process and prevent many chronic degenerative diseases.
Eating Real Foods Is Key to Beating Cravings
The concerted effort by the processed food industry to make their products as addictive as possible has the unfortunate side effect of stimulating your metabolism to burn carbs as its primary fuel. As long as you are in primary carb-burning mode, you will strongly crave these types of foods.
Again, Peak Fasting is one of the most effective ways to end junk food cravings, especially cravings for sugar and grains. No matter how cleverly enhanced these junk foods are, your cravings for them will dramatically diminish, if not vanish altogether, once your body starts burning fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel.
In addition to Peak Fasting, you’ll want to decrease the amount of processed foods you eat and replace them with high-quality whole foods. The key elements for a healthy diet that can help kick your junk food cravings to the curb are the following. For a comprehensive guide, please see my free optimized nutrition plan:
•Avoid refined sugar, processed fructose, grains and processed foods
•Eat a healthy diet of whole foods, ideally organic, and replace the processed foods you eliminate with:
◦As much high-quality healthy fat as you want (saturated and monounsaturated). Many would benefit from getting as much as 50 percent to 85 percent of their daily calories from healthy fats. While this may sound like a lot, consider that, in terms of volume, the largest portion of your plate would be vegetables, since they contain so few calories.
Fat, on the other hand, tends to be very high in calories. For example, just one tablespoon of coconut oil is about 130 calories all of it from healthy fat. Good sources include:
- Olives and olive oil
- Organic raw nuts, especially macadamia nuts, which are low in protein and omega-6 fat
- Coconuts and coconut oil
- Organic pastured egg yolks and pastured meats
- Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk
- Large amounts of high-quality organic locally grown vegetables, fermented vegetables and ideally sprouts grown at your home
- Low-to-moderate amount of high-quality protein (think organically raised, pastured animals or eggs)
How to Zap Emotionally Driven Food Cravings
Many food cravings are emotionally based. If you turn to a bowl of ice cream or a pizza when you’re stressed out, lonely, angry or sad (or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, when you’re excited or happy), you can become conditioned to seek unhealthy foods every time you experience these emotions.
Meanwhile, if you maintain negative thoughts and feelings about yourself while trying to take physical steps to improve your health and beat your cravings, you’re unlikely to succeed.
If you’re an emotional eater, or if you experience guilt or other negative feelings in relation to food, I highly recommend using the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT). EFT is simple, effective and can rapidly help you eliminate your food cravings naturally. In the video below, EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman demonstrates how to use EFT to fight food cravings of all kinds.