Food cravings Part 3 Caffeine
Just like glutamates and sugar, caffeine has a stimulatory effect on the brain, it fires up the brains ‘reward’ pathways, those feelings of feeling good. Caffeine has another effect also, it raises norepinephrine (adrenaline) levels, which then fall later on making us feel tired and ‘craving’ something to lift us up again. Coffee also raises insulin levels which then clears glucose from the blood stream, and when they plummet we crave some other stimulating food.
Putting it all together
Your brain cannot tell the difference between one ‘craved’ food and the next. The three common cravings for a "mood boost" are glutamates/aspartates (things like sugar free gum, cup a soups, 2 minute noodles, flavoured chips), sugar/refined carbs (cakes, chocolate, bread etc) and caffeine (coffee, energy drinks). These are all interchangeable, 2-minute noodles (with glutamates) for lunch can very easily trigger off a sugar craving (chocolate) at 3.30. Ironically a cup-a-soup at 3.30 is the worst thing you can have for 3.30itis (as advertised) as it will have you craving again at 5.30 while you’re cooking dinner trying to stay away from the flavoured chips, cheese or crackers.
Tracing your food intake back to breakfast will hold the key to mid morning cravings and similarly to mid afternoon cravings. Tracing the type of food eaten during the day will hold the key to whether you are genuinely hungry or whether you are ‘craving’. Every time we stimulate our brains reward pathways we are essentially giving our brain a big hug, or a pat on the back and it likes it. Later on, it wants another pat on the back and that’s when we put another stimulatory food into our mouth. We aren’t usually aware that our brains are doing this, as all we think is “I really feel like some chocolate…I think I’ll just go to the snack machine”.
Here’s a common food diary, this demonstrates the stimulatory ups and downs of our common food cravings:
Cereal with fruit and low fat milk.
(This is not healthy, as the hit of carbs and sugars will make you crave more later on)
Coffee…trim mocha…and an apple
(the caffeine and the sugar in the chocolate will have you craving in about an hour or so and by mid afternoon you will be in a cortisol slump. The nutrients in your apple are not enough to outweigh this effect)
Big salad for lunch with chicken.
….and just a little something sweet from the café around the corner
(We were doing so well with the salad, but your sugary morning has made you crave ‘that little something sweet’ If your salad had nothing more than lettuce and chicken, then you are also opening yourself up to craving later on)
Chocolate and coffee
(Past the point of no return now, if you have 3.30itis this will certainly remedy it, as 3.30itis is nothing more than your brain wanting another ‘excitatory’ food to stimulate the reward pathway)
Went to the gym
Fantastic!! Exercise WILL release feel good hormones and give you real energy
Snack on some chips and cheese while cooking dinner
Now we’re getting stuck into the foods that contain glutamates…flavoured chips
Meat and 3 veg dinner
(great, nice and healthy)
….and something sweet (puddings, biscuits, fruit, weight watchers desserts…)
That pesky brain wants you to stimulate those reward pathways again…and if you don’t give in the brain will throw a childlike tantrum and have you feeling grumpy and upset until you do.
How do we stop food cravings?
- Recognise your craving scale and create some awareness around your cravings:
Is your craving a 10/10 or just a 1/10. A 10/10 craving will be very hard to stop and this is where we are likely to give in. A 1/10 can easily be ‘distracted’.
- Distract the craving:
You need to remove yourself from the craving either mentally or physically. What we want to try and do is turn a 10/10 into a 1/10 or turn a 1/10 off completely.
- Start the day right:
Start the day with a breakfast balanced with protein and fats to avoid insulin and glucose hits right from the start. Try to avoid starting the day on coffee alone.
- Wean or cold turkey?
Some people prefer to wean themselves off excitatory food, others are best with cold turkey. Cold turkey will send your brain crazy…it will demand the food, it will get angry and upset and it will take it out on other people, this is all normal, and will pass in a few days once it realises that it’s not getting its way. When weaning or going cold turkey we want to consider all of these main offenders: Energy drinks, coffee, sugar, baked goods, wheat, flavoured products (eg chips, noodles etc, artificially sweetened products).
- Diary the cravings:
Keep a food diary, this will help to highlight patterns in types of foods chosen. Eg if you find that you always eat just an apple at morning tea time and your food diary shows that you always have a chocolate bar at afternoon tea time, then you can perhaps think about swapping that apple for an apple WITH some protein to see if your 10/10 chocolate craving turns into an 8/10. It’s about being aware of your body.
- Consume real energy:
Ensure you are getting food from nature. This is the real energy your body has been craving for. Sure, you think coffee is what it wants, but its actually asking you to feed it and get it out of malnourishment. Eat and exercise regularly, hydrate well and get plenty of sleep. These are the ways that our bodies generate energy, anything else ‘quick’ is just a crutch and provides you with stimulation…not energy. Stimulation leads to crashes, whereas real energy can be sustained for a whole day.
A final word on cravings
It’s important to note that these type of food cravings work in much the same way as an addiction to things like nicotine, drugs or alcohol and can take some time to fully break the habit or the want. If food cravings are standing in your way to health, fitness or weight loss, or they’re costing you money then getting a handle on them is a good idea. At first it seems like the world is going to end, but over time as you crave less and less it gets to a point where you don’t even think about the food therefore you’re not actually missing anything at all.