You're on a diet, but when faced with chocolate or ice cream, do you find yourself in a tug-of-war between the angel of good intentions and the devil of desire?
Put aside the guilt. Food cravings are not a sign of a lack of willpower. Research has uncovered a far more complex cause of those irresistible urges. Luckily, there is much you can do to tame the crave beast and manage your waistline.
A Fantastic Voyage Serotonin, endorphins, neuropeptide Y and galanin sound like characters from Star Wars, but they are some of the many microscopic chemicals at the helm of your crave control.
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Serotonin: People often crave carbohydrates because their brains are low in the hormone-like substance called serotonin, which regulates carbohydrate intake and mood. A person feels depressed, irritable and tense when serotonin levels are low; satisfying a sweet tooth with a doughnut or raisin bagel raises serotonin levels in the brain and calms down carbohydrate-sensitive people.
Endorphins: Both sugar and fat are suspected to release endorphins, morphine-like compounds in the brain that produce a natural euphoria. It's no wonder people turn to chocolate when depressed or stressed -- chocolate is a combination of sugar, fat and other compounds that might stimulate endorphin release in the brain! Studies show that a sweet taste on the tongue alone stimulates the release of endorphins in the brain, which in turn produces a calming effect.
NPY & Galanin: Another brain chemical called neuropeptide Y (NPY) kick starts the day's eating cycle by dictating a preference for carbohydrates. Waffles, toast, pancakes and fruit replenish carbohydrate stores drained after an overnight fast. Animals eat more carbs when NPY levels are high or when NPY is injected into their brains. On the other hand, storage energy is regulated by the neurochemical galanin, which rises as the day progresses and triggers a desire for fatty foods such as meats, creamed sauces on pasta, salad dressing or desserts. Galanin levels also rise when estrogen levels are high or during weight loss, when body fat is being burned for energy.
Stress adds to the food-craving orchestra. Everything from boredom to anxiety can set off a crave attack. Interestingly, the stress hormones raise NPY and galanin levels, which in turn increase food cravings, overeating and weight gain. In short, you can't will away food cravings. These chemicals go berserk when a person adopts a quick weight-loss diet.
For example, rats placed on a calorie-restricted diet and then allowed to eat at will increase their consumption of fat from a typical 35 percent of calories to as much as 60 percent of calories. People who repeatedly gain and lose weight also crave sweet fatty foods more than people who maintain their weight. It is likely that restricting these foods raises NPY or galanin levels (or lowers serotonin and endorphin levels), setting up a rebound effect that swings the eating pendulum from abstinence to binge.