Mar 23 , 2021
Stress Eating and Food Cravings
Appetite and food cravings (or drink cravings) can be driven by true biological hunger or......stress, boredom, or emotional triggers, also your BRAIN chemistry can affect your cravings, and we all know that our physical environment – meaning a donut or M&M’s staring at you all day - can wear you down. People sometimes have difficulty distinguishing if their hunger is truly biological.
Determine which of these areas affect your own cravings the most and incorporate the following strategies in this article to address each of these areas: true biological hunger, stress, boredom, or emotional triggers, brain chemistry & nutrient deficiencies, and/or physical environment.
Cravings Associated with True Biological Hunger
To satisfy challenges with true biological hunger, it's important to eat a diet that includes the right balance of healthy carbohydrates, lean proteins, fiber sources, and healthy fats. Fiber and protein are both helpful with filling us up and keeping us satisfied longer. Also - Avoid going too long between meals and on the flipside avoid training your stomach to crave food every hour with habits of grazing all day. As you eat more protein and fiber at your meals, notice how your body will feel more satisfied. Get to know your own body and how your true hunger begins to respond – Also, A little bit of hunger is okay to feel.
Cravings Associated with Stress and Emotional Eating
Practice mindfulness - read more in depth on this topic if you are affected by this type of eating. Mindful Eating encourages you to slow down and pay attention to your food, noticing each sip or bite you take. Learn how to really slow down and savor the taste of your food. You could even put your fork or spoon down between bites. If you determine that it's not a true hunger cue can you Delay, Distract, or Distance yourself from food? Address your emotions and stress without using food. Incorporate some of these examples of self-care like yoga, breathing, meditation, and talking with friends. Make sure you are using positive inner talk versus negative talk to encourage yourself.
Cravings Associated With “Brain Chemistry”
Our brains produce neurotransmitters called serotonin and dopamine and they both play a role in food cravings. Serotonin plays many important roles in the brain like facilitating deep sleep, maintaining a healthy mood and self-confidence, along with influencing food cravings & appetite. Dopamine is like a messenger in the brain responsible for making us feel motivated and is heavily involved with our attention span, focus, and the ability to experience pleasure. A lack of dopamine may contribute to lower motivation or lower energy levels, insomnia, and also food cravings.
Sugary or higher fat foods can seem addictive because they are effective at increasing dopamine levels on the spot – but the PROBLEM is that it doesn’t last and we are stuck with the unhealthful side effects that excess sugar and fat bring on. This is why if you start your morning with an excessive amount of sugar you may feel like you crave sugar all day long. On the upside - There is RISK involved when going too low in carbohydrates since they do indeed play a supportive part with these helpful neurotransmitter’s – the key is not excessive sugar but healthy carbohydrates in moderation instead. So Avoid excess sugar which can make you crave more sugar and try to include healthy carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Plus a few other key nutrients like B vitamins for example which can support serotonin and dopamine in the brain to curb those cravings. Sometimes we have cravings due to missing nutrients that our brain chemicals rely on. Digestive symptoms may be an indication of an unhealthy gut which in turn can inhibit the absorption of nutrients. Meeting with a dietitian or your healthcare provider can give you insight as to what nutrients you may be missing.
Explore all the ways to Improve your serotonin and dopamine levels. Physical activity, sunlight, meditation, and gratitude can all improve these levels. Same with accomplishing a goal, new experiences, reliving happy memories, therapy or human connection, and also supplementing if there are nutrient deficiencies.
Can't stress enough how important good sleep is to help with food cravings. Poor sleep is associated with low leptin levels which is a hormone that tells your brain you are full and with higher ghrelin levels which tells your brain you are hungry. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
Cravings Associated with Environmental Cues
Oftentimes, what we eat and desire to eat is suggested to us through subtle cues in our environment (commercials, other people, fond memories, a part of our routine, etc.), the more we are reminded of wanting something (such as a favorite treat), the more tempted we are to seek it out. We also eat out of boredom or just because there is an old habit that no longer serves us well. Like donuts on Tuesdays and Thursdays - maybe we don’t even really like them anymore but because it is a mindless routine we still do and a part of our environment so we still reach for the donut.
It all starts at the grocery store. Be thoughtful regarding what you keep on hand - know which trigger foods to keep out of the house. Instead of saying to yourself I can’t eat that, rephrase it to “I don’t eat that so I will feel good”. Plan your day out so you are not bored - set yourself up for success with planning and some routine. Tap into our meal planning resources by scheduling an appointment with our registered dietitian. Create an actual meal plan that’s realistic for you. Set up your environment that includes opportunities to interact with other supportive and healthy people, videos, or books. All along with mindfulness.
What Can You Do Today?
- Make sure your diet is balanced with healthy carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
- Avoid excess sugar which can make you crave more sugar.
- Ensure you are getting all the micronutrients you need to support brain health and appetite.
- Aggressively tackle any sleep issues.
- Create a healthy physical environment.
- Being kind to yourself - allow yourself to be at peace with treats from time to time.
- Evaluate the frequency of mindless or uncontrolled eating.
- Ask yourself the 80/20 rule, meaning if you are able to keep treat type foods to 20% of your intake, maybe that can fit for you as part of your overall balanced diet and still meet your health goals.
If you desire more help in this area get support and accountability by meeting with a registered dietitian, health coach, counselor, or heath trainer.
Regardless of whether you want to reach a healthy weight or if you just want to eat healthier, visit with a registered dietitian to make sure you are getting the nutrients that you need. At Fluid Health and Fitness, we help people navigate individualized plans for success.
If you are looking for 2-3 visits to jumpstart your weight loss efforts or if you want to work with a Registered Dietitian long-term to make a significant transformation click here to set up a free 15-minute call to learn more.
Jen Sletten RD, MA
Registered Dietitian at Fluid Health and Fitness
Masters in Counseling Psychology