Edited extract from The Forensic Nutritionist by nutritionist Fiona Tuck.
If you have ever had an urgent yearning for doughnuts, chocolate or pickled onions, fear not, you are most certainly not alone.
The good news is that, yes, you can overcome the desire to overeat. As a self-confessed comfort eater, carbs used to be my go-to solution (or excuse) to solve any problem the world threw at me. Once you know how to overcome craving triggers, food cravings and overeating will simply disappear and become a distant memory.
Let’s have a look at what’s really going on when you get that late-night craving for cookies and milk or a bag of salted chips.
Food cravings are thought to be triggered by the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory and pleasure, creating an addictive cycle of eating to make us feel good.
Specific regions of the brain appear to be activated when you experience food cravings. The memory areas of the brain are responsible for associating a specific food to an emotional response, thereby giving new meaning to the term ‘comfort eating’. You could actually call this food addiction, as overweight people tend to show a greater pleasure response to food than those who maintain a normal weight. Some medications prescribed to assist weight loss therefore target the feel-good neurotransmitters to increase serotonin and noradrenaline, reducing the desire to eat to feel good.
Eating delicious foods abundant in fat and sugar disrupts the natural balance of the body. These foods are high in calories but most often low in nutrients. Eating high-calorie foods that are devoid of nutrients has a stimulating effect on the body to seek further nutrients.
The gut connection
Constant sugar cravings may be a sign that the natural microflora (bacteria) in our gut is out of whack. When the gut is healthy it sends normal healthy appetite signals; however, when the microflora is out of balance – a condition called dysbiosis – it can upset the natural healthy functioning of our intestines, which also affects general health and wellbeing. As the bad bacteria feed and multiply in a high-sugar or yeast environment, our bodies will respond to craving and eating more of these foods to promote the growth of the bad bacteria. This natural human response to eat more only serves to further disrupt the health of the gut. So the only way we can take back control of these bad bugs is to temporarily eliminate their energy source – sugars and yeasts.
The opioid effect
Some foods contain opioids, which trigger a short-term chemical response in the body to make us feel good. An opioid is a psychoactive chemical that works by binding to opioid receptors, which are found principally in the central and peripheral nervous system and the gastrointestinal tract. Opioids are a class of chemicals which include natural opiates derived from poppies such as morphine and heroine and synthetic opioids such as methadone.
Our bodies can make opioids in the form of feel-good endorphins.
Opioid-containing foods include wheat, gluten and dairy.
Junk food addiction
Eating junk food high in fat, salt and sugar can relieve pain or stress and calm us down by stimulating endorphins or feel-good chemicals. Eating these highly palatable foods activates the opioid circuits in the brain, which in turn encourages us to eat more. Junk food is therefore highly addictive – the more you eat, the more you crave. Gradually weaning yourself off these foods and replacing them with healthier options will in time curb the cravings.
De-stress to discourage cravings
Cravings often become worse when you’re stressed or anxious. The more stressed you are, the more you crave high-carbohydrate foods. Carbohydrates boost serotonin, which has a feel-good, calming effect. Carbohydrate cravings can also be a sign of nutrient deficiencies, as the body needs more nutrients, particularly B vitamins, in times of stress. Vitamin B6 is involved in serotonin production and a deficiency of this vitamin may lead to anxiety and carbohydrate cravings.
Some common cravings and what they mean
Nutrients you may need: vitamin B6, nitrogen, tryptophan
What to eat instead: Protein, chicken, turkey, salmon, sunflower seeds, pistachios, eggplant, bananas, spirulina, eggs, milk
Nutrient you may need: magnesium
What to eat instead: raw nuts and seeds, leafy green vegetables, lentils
Oily, fatty foods
Nutrients you may need: omega 3 essential fatty acids, calcium
What to eat instead: flaxseeds, walnuts, oily fish, almonds, broccoli, kale, legumes, cheese, sesame seeds, tahini
Nutrients you may need: chloride, potassium, vitamin C.
What to eat instead: seafood, unrefined sea salt, olives, fresh fruit, potatoes, spirulina, citrus, berries, kiwifruit, tomatoes, capsicum
‘Myth Buster of the Health Industry’, Fiona Tuck, has just released her first book, The Forensic Nutritionist. Taking an investigative approach to health and well-being, her book is the first book of its kind on personalised nutrition. It is on track to change people’s lives, as it includes self-diagnostic guides to recognise common nutrient deficiencies and provides answers to food cravings and inconsistencies in the skin.
The Forensic Nutritionist is designed to help you investigate your own nutritional deficiencies and detect early health warning signs. It covers:
- Debunking fact from fiction with popular diet trends
- Reading food labels properly
- Regaining health, energy levels, mental clarity and weight management through nutrient boosting
- Nutrient-boosting recipes
The Forensic Nutritionist is available from Fiona’s website and all good health foods stores. RRP $39.95.