Cravings are powerful sensations, aren’t they? I had one the other day for s’mores. I wasn’t hungry at all, in fact, I had just finished dinner a few minutes earlier. I was watching TV and there were s’mores on some (evil) commercial and while I’m sure I had seen the commercial before without the cravings trigger, as soon as I saw them they were all I could think about. I played it through in my mind “Well, I don’t have anything to make them but I could totally run out to the store and be back within 10 minutes. I could roast the marshmellows on the grill. Or hell, I could keep it simple and pop them in the microwave. Oh man, that melty chocolate and the gooey marshmellow with the crispy sweet graham cracker! And girl, you’ve been working hard. Taking a night off from discipline might actually help you….”
I wasn’t hungry but I was battling my mind over a craving. Cravings are a strong desire or urge which arise from the pleasure center of our brain. While they are largely emotional and psychological, there is also a strong biochemical component. When you experience a craving (or any strong feeling of desire) dopamine surges through your brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (think signaling molecule) that influences the pleasure/reward cetner of your brain, making you feel feelings of pleasure and excitement. At the same time, stress hormones are released. This combination explains the strong desire plus sense of urgency and immediacy that you experience with cravings. It’s not just that we lovvvvve s’mores (though I do!) – that overwhelming urge, desire and need is largely biochemical.
Many people (myself included) lose the battle of will against cravings because they don’t understand how to fight back intelligently. I first started to understand this concept a few years back when I read Metabolic Effect’s book The Metabolic Effect Diet. It’s an amazing resource for this kind of stuff!
Here are some strategies you can use to beat the cravings without losing your mind (or increasing your pants size!):
- Make sure you’re eating enough protein. Cravings are associated with deficiencies of several amino acids (building blocks of proteins) so consuming adequate protein will help prevent those cravings. If your cravings are still out of control with consistent protein intake, considering supplementing with tyrosine, tryptophan and/or glutamine.
- Notice behavioral patterns around cravings. Do most of your cravings come at night when you’re watching TV? Maybe you experience them most when you’re bored in the middle of the afternoon. Once you’ve identified the pattern, insert a new activity in that time period. Instead of watching TV, take a walk or a bath. When you feel that mid-afternoon boredom, do a crossword puzzle or a quick blitz workout of 20 squats, 20 pushups and 20 sit-ups. Cravings are largely habitual so put the work in and figure out a new habit.
- Get enough sleep. You will see that with just about every fat loss struggle there is, sleep will help. Sleep is incredibly restorative. It balances our hormones, including cortisol (a stress hormone) and this hormonal balance helps keep cravings at bay.
- You’re gonna love me for this one! Eat chocolate. Not just any chocolate! This is not a case for the Hershey bar in a s’more (oh girl, if it was, I’d be alllll over it!). We’re talking about rich, high quality dark chocolate that is 65% cocoa or higher. Without going crazy over the science (you can read more here) the bottom line is that small amounts of this rich chocolate releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins. This gives us that same blissful sensation we can get from indulging a craving without the stress response, guilt or added calories. You can either mix up a couple tablespoons of cocoa powder with hot water and stevia for a cocoa drink, add the cocoa powder to a protein shake or enjoy a small square or two of dark chocolate.
The next time you get a powerful craving take a minute to reflect on what’s going on. Make note of your hunger and energy. Make note of the time of day and what you’re doing. Make note of what the craving is for and how intense it is. Identifying patterns is going to be a critical part of making progress along your fat loss journey. Evaluate if your protein intake was high enough over the past couple of days. Did you get enough sleep? Go for a relaxing walk to help lower those stress hormones and fix yourself a warm cocoa drink when you get back.