01/11/2013 05:33 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

Why Can't I Curb My Cravings?

Bill Jones

Eating can feel like an addiction. When you're overweight and trying to focus on healthy choices, as many are at the beginning of the new year, withstanding certain foods can be a battle.

But why? Cravings, once considered the body's way of signaling that we were missing important nutrients, are now understood to be something quite different.

If they were merely a signal that we were short on, say, magnesium (a nutrient found in chocolate), then why do we tend to crave salty and sweet snacks, rather than healthier options of nutrient-rich foods? Bran, pumpkin seeds and molasses all contain magnesium, but rarely rank high on anyone's cravings list.

Instead, cravings are a complex combination of different factors. Social, cultural, psychological and environmental cues all play a part in whether you experience a craving or not. Take chocolate, for example. Craving chocolate is often more about the emotion it evokes than the taste or the nutrients found in it. Chocolate is often linked to moments of celebration and childhood memories, making the craving more about the environment than hunger or nutritional need.

Cravings are powerful things. They are triggered by our environment, our internal needs to soothe ourselves or evoke a particular feeling, our cultural expectations and by the people around us. Not only are they triggered by a wide variety of circumstances, they can have a chemical affect on our bodies -- yes, like an addiction.

I suggested at the beginning of this article that a food craving may feel like an addiction. Research on the brain indicates that food cravings activate the same parts of the brain as drug and alcohol cravings. And, like drug and alcohol, giving in to the craving results in a release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the brain that plays an important role in the experience of pleasure.

But, when we give in to cravings too often, our dopamine receptors become flooded. The neurons compensate for this overload of dopamine by becoming less sensitive. What this means is that with continued overindulgence, more and more food is required to create the same pleasurable experience. Instead of craving one cookie, you crave a whole box and even that doesn't feel satisfying. Dr. Pamela Peeke, a physician and author of the book The Hunger Fix, notes that food addiction changes the brain in the area associated with impulsivity and addictive urges.

The idea that we are constantly surrounded by circumstances that cause us to crave food --often sugary, salty or otherwise unhealthy food -- can be disheartening. However, when faced with strong temptations that conflict with your goals, it is possible to maintain self-control. Simple strategies to improve self-control can help. Effective self-control strategies include: limiting your ability to access tempting foods (say, by banning them from the house), boosting willpower overall by getting adequate sleep, eating balanced meals and managing other areas of you life such as study habits and exercise and by making contracts and public commitments that will hold you accountable to your goals.

Although curbing cravings can be difficult, particularly if you are already in a pattern of indulging, it is possible to better understand your cravings and make even small changes that have a lasting impact on your willpower.

For more by Christy Matta, M.A., click here.

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