The Science Behind Food Cravings (Plus Healthy Snack Options When Hunger Strikes)
Picture it: It’s mid-afternoon and you feel your energy start to drop. Your morning coffee is wearing off, but there’s so much left to check off on your to-do list. The snack pantry is a few feet away and before you know it, you’re back at your computer with a tasty treat and a guilty conscience.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. We all have food cravings during the day, and despite what many people believe, it doesn’t mean we’re weak or don’t have willpower. All it means is that our bodies need fuel.
What’s Happening in the Brain?
Sugary, high-carb, and high-fat foods stimulate the reward center of our brains. It releases “feel-good” chemicals such as dopamine, and the more of these foods we eat, the more dopamine is pumping through our system.
So, yes, food addiction is a real thing. Like a drug addict whose tolerance increases with time, a food addict needs more food to experience the same amount of pleasure.
When it comes to sugar, the brain is also very reactive. Research shows “like drugs, the motivation to obtain sugar appears to grow with the length of abstinence.” This is why (as hard as we try) we crave chips and cookies instead of fruit and veggies.
But there is an upside! Eating habits are learned, which means they can be unlearned. For instance, you may have a habit of swinging by the donut shop on your way to work. Or when you feel stressed during the day, perhaps you turn to junk food to make you feel better.
The only way to break a negative habit is to replace it with a positive one. When you feel the urge to eat a donut or snack on something unhealthy, choose something healthy instead. Through repetition, this new habit will replace the old one and you won’t crave the unhealthy food anymore. This is one of the core focuses of our online personal training, personal fitness training and group fitness training programs.
Combat Cravings with these Healthy Snacks
- Nuts and seeds
Packed with healthy fats, nuts and seeds are an excellent mid-day snack. The next time you’re at the grocery store, go for dry or roasted nuts (they are the most nutritious!)
And here’s a fun fact: Also, did you know having nuts and seeds on a daily basis can reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease?
- Fresh vegetables with hummus
This tasty snack is a great choice for numerous reasons. Hummus is low in sodium, high in protein, and is also good for your heart health. Chickpeas are the main ingredient and are scientifically-proven to improve digestion and help with weight management.
Although you can dip many different foods in hummus, the healthiest option is fresh vegetables: carrots, celery and bell peppers are all delicious.
- Fruit or vegetable smoothie
When many people hear, “smoothie” they assume it’s healthy, but that’s not always the case. Many fruit smoothies are high in sugar, so it’s important to go for fruits that are low in sugar: raspberries, strawberries and blackberries.
If you’re more of a veggie fan, or want to combine the two, leafy greens and carrots pair well with berries. To cut calories, use water or coconut water as the base. And feel free to experiment with different combinations – that’s part of the fun!
The next time hunger strikes, you’ll be prepared with these healthy alternatives. You’ve got this!