We have all experienced food cravings at one time or another. Whether you love salty foods or if it’s sugary sweets that get your mouth watering, it can be hard to pass up your favorites. Oftentimes, food cravings feel out of our control and that can be frustrating when you’re trying to stick to a healthy diet. But what if you could train your brain to crave healthy foods? Research seems to indicate that you can do exactly that.
According to Medical News Today, food cravings stem from the same brain region that manages memory, pleasure and reward. This can make food an emotional experience for some people. For instance, if you received a food treat from a parent, teacher or other authority figure as a reward (or a means to cheer you up—perhaps after a doctor’s visit), then an emotional link might be created.
Over time, this can undoubtedly contribute to the food cravings that we experience. Even as adults, we often reward ourselves with food. These actions create lifelong habits that link food to feelings and make cravings challenging to overcome. Specific hormone imbalances or nutrient deficiencies have also been linked to food cravings, says Medical News Today.
Understanding these attachments is an important first step in attempting to move away from them—which is admittedly difficult. For many, certain foods have strong emotional experiences connected to them. This can make it seem nearly impossible to let go of those feelings. However, creating awareness of these emotions and coming to terms with why you might be craving a specific food can play an important role in stopping those cravings in their tracks.
This boils down to being more self-aware. In the same way that you should ask yourself “Am I really hungry?” (sometimes, honestly, you may be thirsty), you should also think about asking yourself “Why do I really want this food?”
If it has more to do with how it makes you feel, then it’s a craving. The good news is, unlike hunger, cravings will fizzle out over time if you don’t give into them.
In your effort to be more self-aware, you should also aim to practice mindful eating. This means paying closer attention while eating. Don’t eat when you’re distracted, such as while watching television or reading. Mindful eating can help you avoid overindulging, while also helping you become more aware of what drives your cravings and desires to eat in the first place.
Also pay closer attention to how you feel after eating something. For instance, while you might feel an immediate rush of pleasure after gorging on donuts, chances are you don’t feel that great later on.
Even if you’re not someone who outright craves healthy foods, making them a regular part of your diet can, over time, start to re-train your brain.
According to Healthline, dopamine is released when sugar is consumed. They explain that dopamine is a main neurotransmitter involved in the “reward circuit” connected to addictive behaviors. This may explain why many studies are now discovering the possible addictive nature of sugar in humans.
However, those who decrease their sugar intake often say they stop craving it. Some have even said that it doesn’t taste as good when they have it down the road, often using descriptions like “sickeningly sweet.” Harvard Health says that eating less sugar-containing foods can lead to decreased cravings. They recommend purchasing unsweetened varieties of your favorite foods like yogurt, tea and oatmeal. It’s easy to add your own sweetness with an alternative like stevia, monk fruit or erythritol.
The fact is, once you start living a healthy lifestyle, your body can begin to crave the proper nutrients in order to help maintain that lifestyle. Harvard Health recommends eating a balanced, nutritious diet filled with whole grains, lean proteins, fruits and vegetables.
Research has also indicated that a food journal can help you lose weight, says Harvard Health. The NuMi app by Nutrisystem is a great tool to use for this. It will help you greatly in your effort to practice more mindful eating, to be more aware of your cravings and ultimately to make healthy changes that will help to re-train your brain to crave healthy foods.
The most important thing is to be patient and to give it some time. A change like this won’t happen overnight. But if you put in the effort, you can overcome cravings and have long-term success.