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Why Do I Crave Junk Food? (and How You Can Stop!)

Have you ever wondered, “Why am I craving sweets?” Or maybe you have asked yourself, “Why are potato chips sooo delicious and brussel sprouts are so not?” And what if I told you that you aren’t actually addicted to those foods that you love? Well, today I am going to put your mind at peace and walk you through what actually happens when you crave salty, sweet and otherwise delicious foods! Because if you know what is causing your cravings to surface, then you can prevent them from ever happening in the first place!!

What is a Sugar Craving?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s use sugar cravings for the example. Sugar cravings can arise for a number of reasons. Maybe you have had a particularly stressful day at work and start thinking about that pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer. Or maybe you are out at a restaurant and get a whiff of the melted chocolate fondue
that the other table is being served. Or maybe you are just out camping during the summer and a melty gooey s’more is just part of the tradition! In whatever way that your sugar craving comes about, there is one common denominator for every single sweet-tooth episode that comes about – dopamine.

Your Brain on Sugar (and other drug-like foods)

Ok, bear with me here because I am going to do my best to take the intricacy of brain science and break it down into a really simple way to understand what is going on in your brain when you have a food craving!

You see, our brain cells are not like the round little things we learned about in 8th grade biology. In fact they are shaped more like a snake, feeding off of each other’s tails! When a thought or a movement or any other stimulus from our world comes into contact with our mind, an electrical signal is sent from the head of one brain cell and shoots all the way down into its tail. This tail releases the signal to the next brain cell in the form of brain chemicals. Dopamine and serotonin are a few of them!
This next part is important: when the signal is sent out of the tail, the next cell receives these signals through receptors that are attached to the head of the next cell. When we receive too much of a stimulus from something – such as sugar, salt, drugs, sex, alcohol, etc. – these receptors attempt to adapt to this stimulus overload by killing off its own receptors – this is the reason why people who drink coffee every day don’t get the same burst of energy that those who only drink it once in a while do! Their body doesn’t receive that signal because we have desensitized our body to that stimulus.

This kind of adaptation can occur with many other things that stimulate our brains as well. What is important to note about sugar cravings, salty food cravings and other food cravings is that once we have shown our brain that these things can release all of our happy brain chemicals (and believe me, they already know) they know where to get it the next time we are feeling anything less than “high”.

The Solution

“Ok, let me get this straight Jenna...” You say.
“You are telling me that the reason I am craving sugar all of the time is because I eat sugar and then I get a blast of happy chemicals in my brain that causes my brain to adapt to it by killing happy chemical receptors? And now that I don’t have as many receptors for happy chemicals I am dependent on those things that blast my happy chemicals just so I can feel somewhat normal!?”
Yep. That’s the gist of it.

But wait, before you go clicking out of here losing all hope for redemption, LET ME SAY THIS!!! : Our bodies are incredible things that know both how to both to too much of a too-good-thing…and ALSO how to adapt to too little of a too-good-thing!! The beautiful part about this is that our brains are actually able to regenerate our happy chemical receptors! When we are abundant in happy chemical receptors in our brain, we don’t have to be dependent on things like sugar and salt to make us feel satisfied! So now that you understand how sugar cravings, sugar withdrawal and being dependent on sugar to keep you functioning work, let’s talk about how you can overcome your sugar, food, or any other food-related addiction for good!!!

How to Rebuild Your Brain to be Sugar-Addiction Free!

When somebody is trying to “quit” something, there are basically two approaches:

Approach number 1 is “cold turkey” – you basically refrain from taking in any and all sugar for a number of days – many people refer to this as a sugar detox. While this can most certainly allow your brain to re-develop more dopamine receptors and make you feel normal again perhaps more abruptly, there is a period where you can experience those withdrawal symptoms because your body is used to having that external source of dopamine (happy brain chemicals) coming through sugar! Another concern with this method is the question of sustainability – How LONG are you going to do this for? 1 week may not be enough time to rebuild those receptors and the longer you stretch this kind of intervention, the more difficult it can be to sustain in the long term. Also, it does not address the VERY important fact that once the cold turkey phase is complete…How much sugar do you eat then? You can’t just go back to eating molten lava cakes and never feel the sensation of a sugar craving again because when you eat large amounts of sugar again, then you will just kill off your dopamine receptors (…AGAIN!)

Approach number 2 for overcoming your sugar addiction is to WEAN yourself off of the addictive substance (i.e. sugar, salty foods, etc.) and then establish a healthy daily amount for your future. There are a few different ways to do this, but in my professional experience, the way that I have found works best for many people is to eat foods that contain NATURAL alternative sweeteners. Now, I get it, the word “natural” means nothing to most people, and honestly, that seems like a good rule of thumb to live by when it comes to most packaged food products. But in this sense, the reason I use the term “natural” is because it is in opposition to the term “artificial”, meaning a chemical substance that has been developed in a laboratory. Natural sweeteners, such as stevia and monk fruit, are 200-300 times sweeter than sugar (so you only need 200-300 less to sweeten something)! When wearying off of sugar, eating food products with these sweeteners, and of course in combination with a High-(Healthy)-Fat Diet, can ease the transition of coming off of a sugar addiction and minimize uncontrollable cravings in the process.

A few food products that include these sweeteners are:
  • Lily's Chocolate Bars and Morsels - Lily's is renowned for creating stevia-sweetened chocolate goods. They provide a selection of baking morsels and chocolate bars that contain less sugar than regular chocolate.

  • Hu Chocolate Bars - Hu Kitchen produces chocolate bars that are made with simple ingredients and are sweetened with natural sweeteners like coconut sugar, which is a less refined sugar source compared to traditional sugars.

  • Halo Top Ice Cream - A variety of ice cream flavors are available from Halo Top that are lower in sugar and calories than regular ice cream. They combine various sweeteners, including stevia, to achieve sweetness without having a lot of added sugar.

  • SweetLeaf Stevia and Monk Fruit Sweetener Packets - To sweeten coffee, tea, and other liquids, SweetLeaf sells packets of stevia and monk fruit sweeteners. These sugar substitutes are made from natural ingredients and have no calories.

Please be aware that product formulas might alter over time, so it's always a good idea to double-check the sweeteners used in these items by consulting the ingredient list and nutrition information on the container. Other brands and products might also incorporate stevia and monk fruit sweeteners into their formulas.

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