Phoenix Ignition Fitness Company

Fitness by the Fire: Why we crave certain foods, especially those that are bad for us

by Ron Kennedy • March 27, 2019
Junk food. The mere mention of it automatically triggers visions of French fries covered in chili and cheese oozing across a loaded plate, or succulent deep-fried piece of chicken that requires you to “pre-wipe” in order to soak up some the grease seeping from the glowing golden breading. Pizza… don’t get me started! Thin crust, thick crust, hot, cold, plain cheese, triple meat loaded, and my favorite… a double decker from Chicago where the creators have taken TWO layered  pizza crusts, added toppings in between, cover the top with sauce and cheese and additional toppings and proceed to roll the end crusts up like a pie and bake for 45 minutes to allow the breading to raise to an amazing end. If nothing from this paragraph has a the very least brought back memories, if not flat out make you crave junk food you are not human, and my hat is off to you!

So, what causes us to crave junk food? Let’s be honest with ourselves people, there are only three things that make food taste good. Salt, sugar, and fat. I’m a fitness professional and for a living a inspire and create fitness training programs to convert people to a fitness lifestyle, and I’ve got to tell you… never in my life have I wanted to curl up on the couch after a long day and indulge in a pint of broccoli! Experts believe that cravings occur for a variety of reasons. They attribute them to evolution, psychological factors such as stress and unhappiness, and sometimes a genuine need for certain foods.

Physiology of why we eat:

Hunger is the body's way of making sure it is provided with energy, in the form of nutrients from food. When the stomach is empty, it releases the hormone ghrelin, which communicates with the brain's command center, the hypothalamus. This creates the feeling of hunger and is how we know when to eat. Satiation is signaled by the release of the hormone’s leptin by fat cells, and insulin by the pancreas, in response to increased blood sugar. Cravings, unfortunately, are triggered from something else.

Cravings are an overwhelming sensation of desire for a certain food. There are several chemicals in the brain that are associated with this. Dopamine is a chemical that is involved in learning and concentration. When we see or experience something new, dopamine is released in the brain. This works in tandem with other brain chemicals called opioids, which gives us feelings of enjoyment and pleasure. The combination of these two factors mean that the brain associates certain activities with pleasure, and it teaches us to do them again and again.

Well “Duh” Mr. Fitness, but why do we crave?

From an evolutionary point of view, junk food cravings are linked to prehistoric times when the brain's opioids and dopamine reacted to the benefit of high-calorie food as a survival mechanism. We are programmed to enjoy eating fatty and sugary substances, and our brains tell us to seek them out. Unfortunately, despite all the south beach, Atkins, paleo, ketonic, and vast array of fade diets available, our instincts are going to lead us to survival over appearance. After all, have you ever seen a drawing of a caveman with chiseled abs? Yeah, neither have I.

The body produces a hormone called cortisol in response to stress. Its primary function is to increase sugar in the blood to be used up as energy by the body's cells, suppress the immune system and aid in fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism. It also blocks the release of leptin and insulin, increasing hunger. This is the reasoning why when we're stressed, we're more likely drawn towards high-energy foods, such as cakes and sweets. Stress, in response to danger, used to mean energy was burned up. Stress factors in today's lifestyle have the similar effects, though these days we are less likely to burn off the calories we consume. When is the last time you ran from a saber tooth tiger? Mmhmm… I didn’t think so.
Mood is also a very strong driving factor regarding cravings. We crave reward foods. The pattern for this is partially set in childhood when parents give us sweet food to show love or reward. Sweets (for example) can actively alleviate pain by releasing opioids, thus excusing us for giving sweets to an injured or recovering child. That’s why doctors keep lollipops in stock for all those children that must come and get shots. It doesn’t have quite the same effect on adults unfortunately, and believe me… I’ve tried!

Are cravings different between men and women, and what do those cravings mean?

Unsurprisingly, more than 50 per cent of reported cravings are for chocolate and most others are for highly palatable foods such as sweets or biscuits. Chocolate melts at body temperature which gives a pleasant sensation, and fat and sugar further increase the sensory appeal. Gender can influence the nature of cravings. Studies show that women predominantly crave sweet, fatty and energy-dense food and men have more savory cravings, although it is not yet understood why. There ladies, let that remove you’re guilt!

Chocolate and sweets:

Cravings for these are usually down to a psychological desire for a food that makes you feel better and gives a short-term ''fix''. Dark chocolate contains magnesium, antioxidants and iron so there is unquestionably some nutritional benefit.

Pizza, pasta, and chips:

It may be an example of wheat intolerance in the case of pizza and pasta. It’s Ironic that we crave things we are intolerant of. One theory is that if we don't digest or absorb foods properly, we desire them more as the body isn't getting what it needs from the food. For instance, diabetics can't regulate their blood sugar, leading to low energy levels. But if the condition is uncontrolled, they crave sugary foods, as the body believes it isn't getting enough.

Dairy:

Milk contains key nutrients, and if you crave cheese, you may need the fat-soluble Vitamins A and D, especially if you have a low-fat diet