Cravings: The Diet Culture Test of ‘Willpower’
Summer is supposed to be all about the strawberries and fruity things, but for whatever reason, it is rich and decadent chocolate that has been ruling my mind. Over the last few weeks, I have found myself craving chocolate constantly.
I know, I know; a woman wanting chocolate is a textbook cliché. But I can’t help it!
So what exactly is a craving? And how is it different from hunger?
Cravings are essentially a strong motivation to eat and tends to be directed at a specific food or type of food.
Maybe you want something sweet, or salty, or crunchy. Or maybe you specifically want that chocolate chip cookie that’s sitting in your kitchen right now.
Hunger also represents a motivation to eat but it’s non-specific; you just want to eat something that will give you food energy (calories) and make you feel full.
Cravings and hunger are not only physiologically different; they are also experienced differently from a psychological perspective (as you probably have already noticed in your own life).
Cravings are a result of a powerful reward mechanism in the brain; it has been studied extensively in both biology and psychology as it drives most human behaviours when it comes to survival. Specifically, they play a huge role in our activities around water, sex, social support, and of course, FOOD. The key player here is dopamine.
To put it simply, when you perform a behaviour that caters to one of our evolutionarily-developed innate needs, dopamine is released. It is a learning mechanism that makes you more like to repeat that behaviour. This is called reinforcement.
Interestingly, our brains are wired to be especially responsive to starch, sugar, fat, and protein. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes a lot of sense. Starch and sugar give us quick energy, fat provides us with a dense source of energy, and protein is vital for hormones and maintenance of lean muscle mass. These are all things that help our bodies survive.
This evolutionarily-enforced partiality towards certain foods sometimes feels less like an advantage in the current world, with our overabundant access to less nutritionally-valuable foods. Things like pizza, pasta, donuts, and candy all cater to our innate drives, but can sure seem like a nuisance when we are trying to incorporate more nourishing foods in our diet.
Diet and weight-loss culture penetrates much of the messages we are exposed to day in and day out; they try to convince us that we must 'overcome' those innate drives. According to them, physical fullness is the most important thing and they constantly promote volume foods, which are foods that are relatively large in volume, while being lower in calories. Large salads, rice cakes, plain oatmeal, and fruit bowls are common examples.
Don’t get me wrong, these are all nourishing foods that can certainly be incorporated into a healthy eating pattern. However, a problem arises when we put the focus predominantly on physical fullness, thus neglecting mental satisfaction.
Emotional satiety is just as important for overall well-being.
Let me know if you’ve ever had this happen to you: You finish dinner and are craving something sweet. Specifically, you really want that chocolate bar that’s sitting in your fridge. But chocolate is ‘bad’ so you opt for an apple instead. It’s crunchy, sweet, and filling…but didn’t quite hit the spot. After all, apples do not equal chocolate. Okay, you’ll just have that low-calorie popsicle in the freezer. Tastes like cardboard, but is kind of sweet. Hm, maybe a spoonful of peanut butter will do the trick? Nope, that didn’t work either. That chocolate is still in the fridge…okay, screw it, I’m having it.
That scenario used to happen to me ALL the time!
In all reality, if I had just eaten that piece of chocolate right after dinner when I originally wanted it, it would’ve likely taken just the right amount for me to feel satisfied and then I could have moved on.
This aligns with Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch’s Intuitive Eating principle, discover the satisfaction factor. Experiencing pleasure from eating is a gift that we, as humans, get to enjoy. Diet culture tries to pretend like this is unimportant and that we just need ‘willpower’ and ‘discipline’ to overcome cravings, but why deprive ourselves from this basic pleasure if we don’t have to?
So next time you have a craving, don’t judge yourself or think that you have ‘failed’. Allow yourself to eat the food and truly experience the pleasure and satisfaction from it. When you feel satisfied, feel free to stop and then move on.
Stay nourished my friends,