Understanding Food Cravings
I often encounter the comment that I have some form of superior self-discipline and that’s why I can adhere to my diet. This implies that I exert effort and vigor in adhering to my diet plan. This seems to make sense on the surface, but the confusing part for me is that I never feel like I am withholding anything from myself or spending any effort at all on what to eat nowadays. I don’t want chocolate, I don’t want ice cream or dairy, I don’t want fried foods and I don’t want sugary food. I just don’t really feel interested in non plant-based food anymore.
Luckily, I recently discovered what is happening behind the scenes through a book I am reading a book called The Power of Habit; I highly recommend this book. The thesis of the book is that our habits are formed by cues in our life which inform a routine selection of decisions that give us a specific reward. This circle is what causes cravings. We want more and more of the reward and start anticipating the reward as part of the routine. Anticipating a reward is craving.
In the case of diet the diagram could be drawn the following way:
A diet is the routine choices we make for the food we eat based on the cue of hunger; everyone has a diet of some sort. In our natural state we crave the survival of the fittest outcome as we do more and more of the diet behavior. We eat to live and those who survive are the fittest at fueling hunger properly.
Feeling hunger is a good thing. Our bodies are finely tuned machines from millions of years of evolution that are geared towards that single objective, survival of the fittest. Hunger is a general signal from our bodies to our brains, “hey we need fuel to keep this show on the road.” Our taste buds exist for the purpose of helping us navigate what foods to eat. Taste is a signal from our bodies to our brain, “please give me good fuel dude, I can tell you what that tastes like.”
Don’t eat dirt, but yes eat leaves like spinach; No need for flowers, but yes please eat fruit. We want salts and fats naturally because we use it in our cells. We want sweetness and sourness in the forms of fruits and vegetables because vitamins and minerals are important for functions in our body. This is our natural drive and it is critically important for our survival of the fittest. Yes, the human body is fit in its natural state, evolution wouldn’t make sense another way — we have not evolved to be overweight and diseased with brittle bones. Survival of the fittest is our natural craving, its a very good part of hunger.
So what happens to us then? Why do we eat food that we may even know is bad for us? What additional information is added to our hunger cue that dictates our cravings? Answer: someone tried to sell us something manufactured or processed to eat. In particular someone tried to sell us “hyperpalatable” food. Hyperpalatable food is food engineered to us to illicit strong reactions from out taste buds. This is basically any fast-food, any restaurant food and any packaged food or drink (sometimes even my beloved komboucha).
Here is former FDA commissioner (and San Francisco-based) Dr. David Kessler describing hyperpalatable food almost exactly in the context of cue, routine and reward. Read the entire interview here after this, it is well worth it my friends:
[B]rain circuits remain elevated and activated until all the food is gone. Then the next time you get cued, you do it again. Every time you engage in this cycle you strengthen the neural circuits. The anticipation gets strengthened. It’s in part because of ambivalence. Do you ever have an internal dialogue? “Boy, that would taste great. No, I shouldn’t have it. I really want that. And I shouldn’t do it.”
That sort of ambivalence increases the reward value of the food. It increases the anxiety, it increases the arousal, it keeps it in working memory. We’re wired to focus on the most salient stimuli in our environment. For some people it could be alcohol or illegal drugs or nicotine or sex or gambling. For many of us it’s food.
It’s basic learning. When you get cued, the brain gets activated. There’s an arousal. There’s increased dopamine. That dopamine focuses your attention. It narrows your focus. Of all the stimuli in the environment, why does that chocolate-chip cookie have such power?
We’re wired to focus on the most salient stimuli. What do I mean? If a bear walked in right now, you’re going to stop focusing on this interview. It’s part of being human. It’s what’s made us successful as a species. You make food hyper-palatable with fat, sugar and salt. It’s very stimulating and it becomes the most salient stimuli for many people. (emphasis added)
-Dr. David Kessler
Does that quote and circle of habit above sound like addiction? There are studies comparing our neurological response to sugar to addiction. Studies that talk about the release of dopamine as a response to sugar intake. Academic papers that explore clinical similarities between drug addition and obesity. I’ll save you the science and twenty-character neurochemicals mentioned, hyperpalatable foods are probably addictive.
Does it sound impossible that we could be surrounded by highly toxic, highly addictive chemical substances we put in our body and not be protected by our government? Look at the chart below and see how long it took the government to catch on about the dangers of nicotine and cigarettes. The first Surgeon General Warning only came out in 1964. These papers I mentioned here are all less than a decade old.
The scientific research is out about the comparison between nicotine and hyperpalatable foods as well:
the components that increase the public health consequences of alcohol and nicotine are also present in the modern food environment, such as the ease of accessibility, increased social acceptability, heavy marketing and lower cost of highcalorie foods — Yale University & York University Paper
As I read the Power of Habit I realized what advertisements, product positioning and general availability of bad food did to my hunger cue. These products outsmarted me and played to my taste buds. It is hard to admit that Taco Bell outsmarted me. It is hard to admit that Cherry-CocaCola outsmarted me. It is hard to admit fried food outsmarted me. But they did. They made me believe that the solution to my hunger was their products, not nutrition based decisions. My poor brain never had a chance.
What is the solution then, how do we get over it? One of the interesting things the Power of Habit describes is that the experience of craving does not go away. What we are able to do is change our behavior and begin to crave something new that hopefully points us in the right direction. Now I look at food and measure its value based on nutritional specs because I crave what food does for me elsewhere. Now I crave doing better in the gym. Now I crave doing more while cycling. Now I crave feeling fit and looking fit. Truthfully, now I crave the response people give me in society for my fitness (its nice).
My advice to you is simple. I have a list of items in my phone of “do” and “don’t” from a speech I heard Jack Dorsey give once. One of the items on my “do” list is eat raw food if I am ever in doubt what to eat. Next time you feel your hunger cue or see any packaged food at all and aren’t sure what to do, please go eat a salad (vinaigrette 0r other vegan / dairy-free dressing) just to see what that routine feels like. I promise, if you keep doing this something amazing will happen to you. Don’t worry about feeling hungry, that is the good part of your instinct and you can always go and eat more salad whenever you like.
Part of the thesis of starting new habits from the Power of Habit is that a person must believe it is possible to get a good result from a new habit in order to fully commit to it. I hope that my example of changing habits makes you feel it is possible to get a great result from a whole-food, plant-based diet. It is certainly worth moving away from any addiction, including especially the addictive, hyperpalatable foods we are surrounded by in our modern lives. Remember that whole plant-based food is the kind with no packaging and very little advertising associate with it. Plants are just pure nutrients and you can eat all you like (besides something super carby like white potatoes. I eat these, but just be careful).
Many of my friends say when they are looking at food they feel me in their ear encouraging them to ask what is healthy. This makes me very happy to hear. I am hopeful anyone that reads my posts makes better decisions for themselves. I hope that you feel a sense of community and belief with me when you are making decisions on what to eat and what addiction you may face in hyperpalatable foods. I am always available to you on Facebook, email, Twitter or simply in your ear.
Share this post please if you feel it helps you think about your diet habit in a new way or may be able to help others! Also please comment below so I know what you are thinking, it’s very meaningful to me!