Myth: Food cravings are our body's way of telling us that we need certain nutrients.
If today's myth were true, you would crave peas, tuna, oysters, spinach, and Swiss cheese since these foods are high in zinc, omega 3 fatty acids and Vitamin D. These three micronutrients are the most commonly inadequate in our diet. Cravings for pizza, ice cream, chips, chocolate, fries, bacon, cheeseburgers are all learned behaviors.
Before we dive into today's myth let's first use some common language. Cravings are a state of heightened eating motivation that is directed at a specific food. Hunger is a nonspecific motivation for calorie-containing food in general. It's important not to interchange the two. If you're really hungry, you'll be willing to eat fish and steamed broccoli. If you're not, you're most likely craving something based upon a learned response to it. Cravings follow a predictable pattern of cue, routine, reward.
Our brains are hard-wired for specific physiological and psychological needs such as water, social support, physical comfort, sex, and of course, food. When we successfully acquire one of those things our brain releases dopamine. Dopamine is an incredibly powerful feel-good biochemical that we instantly want more of. We form an association, a cue, that the thing we just ate, drank, touched, or had sex with is what makes us feel so good. Of course, we don't know that we feel so good because of the dopamine release. We just want more of the thing. Every time we get it we get more dopamine which reinforces the thing and thus our routine is created.
Let's explore a real world craving example of pizza. In the very primal part of our brain, pizza is an outstanding source of calories from delicious fat, carbs and perhaps protein. As you eat it your brain releases dopamine and also catalogs all of the smells, sights, and tastes of the pizza. The association becomes so strong that all you need now is a reminder of the pizza and you'll start salivating and craving it. You experience this when you see a pizza commercial on TV or when someone suggests going out to Bridger Brewery after Friday night's workout. You start salivating and obsessing about pizza. This is because the last time you ate it your brain released one of the most addictive chemicals on earth into your blood stream. Here's an illustration of how this works from the smart folks at Examine.com.
Since we're all unique snowflakes some of us crave salty things and some of us crave sweet things. But none of us crave healthy things. That's because cravings are a hold-over from ancient times when highly-palatable high caloric food wasn't available 24 hours of the day. Back when we had to hunt, gather and travel for miles and miles just to get something calorically dense our brains rewarded us. It motivated us to find that amazing food source again. Now, all we have to do is call and it will be delivered to our front door.
Chocolate and sugar cravings are even more interesting because of the addition of another highly addictive biochemical called theobromine. Theobromine is a stimulant that accentuates fat and sugar’s natural ability to spike dopamine signaling. That's why sugar cravings are the hardest to control. Some research suggests that sugar is the most addictive drug on the planet, more so than crack, cocaine, meth and heroine. Good luck controlling that craving!
Since cravings are driven by sensory cues (sight and smell) the most straightforward way to control cravings is to avoid exposing yourself to those cues. If temptation is not around you can more easily avoid it. Clear out your freezer, fridge and pantry and "it's out of sight out of mind."
This time of year, the Winter holidays eating season, is a particularly challenging time because we are surrounded by beautiful and wonderful smelling food. We are missing family and togetherness. Eating "comfort food" is a way we feel connected to traditions, emotions, and all the other things we're craving. It's ok to feel this way. Try to establish a plan for this season. Perhaps you eat only homemade things and nothing store bought, or eat just ONE piece, or take 20 mins to eat the thing you crave. These strategies can help you navigate all of the temptations about to come our way.
In the meantime, the next time you see a social media post about how cravings are our body's way of telling us that we need certain nutrients you can confidently call "bullshit." There's a LOT of silly bullshit on social media and I want you help you identify it. Do you have a myth you want me to explore? Tell me in the comments.
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