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Cravings? Hungry?

Have you ever actually paused before you begin eating to check in with your body to know if you are actually hungry? 
Chances are, if you practice some mindfulness around your eating, you will discover that you often reach for food out of boredom, loneliness, anxiety, sadness, procrastination or a feeling of being under stress and overwhelmed.

This is referred to as “emotional eating” because we “feel” with our gut as well as with every other part of our body and brain, it can be easy to confuse emotions or other physical sensations with hunger.

True hunger (a need)  is general and non-specific. It can be an empty, growling stomach, lightheadedness, or irritability. Hunger comes and goes, often gradually. 
Cravings (a want), on the other hand, are VERY particular and usually for a certain kind of food.  A craving will come on suddenly and feels like an immediate compulsion.

Our brains have to coordinate input from multiple sources: our body fat, gastrointestinal tract, sensory organs, and other body systems. Emotions or physical sensations can feel like hunger because our brains also have to deal with our emotions, our physical feelings, our beliefs, and our thoughts.

Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters and also act like hormones.
Serotonin is associated with happiness, calmness and attention. Serotonin plays a role in digestion and can influence your appetite.
Dopamine is our “reward” neurotransmitter.  It’s associated with motivation and rewards. When you eat, you are “rewarded” with feeling good.
Our brain and gut  release serotonin and dopamine when we eat.
Individuals who struggle with over eating and eating junk food are often trying to get a “hit” of  serotonin and dopamine. 
Eating carbohydrates (particularly simple sugars and starches) can help release serotonin, which soothes and relaxes us.
Dopamine is released in response to the “reward” of good-tasting food. Side note, dopamine is also the neurotransmitter involved in addictions such as gambling, compulsive shopping, and alcoholism. 

Eating can be a kind of “self-medication” that helps calm us or boost our mood.
Food manufacturers know this and know that people are more likely to crave foods with the perfect amount of sugar, fat and salt(this is food science.)  
Such foods can become our “drugs” of choice because, just like other drugs,  these foods make us feel better, at least for the short term. 
Unlike true hunger, it’s hard to satisfy psychological hunger that we get from regularly consuming man-made foods/psudo-foods.

  • Understand that cravings are normal. They come and go.
  • If the craving is minor, ignore it.
  • If the craving is moderate, distract yourself.
  • Keep a “craving diary.” Write down the craving, when it happens, and what you are thinking. Over time, look for patterns. Once you identify the pattern, you can disrupt it.
  • Substitute something that gives you the same feeling. For example, take a detox bath when you are craving warmth and comfort. Go for a walk in nature when you crave a distraction. Drink water or herbal tea when you just want something to do with your mouth.

The good news is we can reduce cravings with supportive, smart food choices!
Whole foods nourish us but don’t give us the intense “hit” of processed foods. 
Serotonin and dopamine also depend to some degree on protein, fat, and micronutrient levels. 
If we eat plenty of protein and healthy fats along with a wide range of vitamins and minerals from whole foods, our brains will be happy!
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