The Bridget Jones effect:
what we know about cravings

The gut has been called the second brain, so is it possible yours is controlling what you eat?

Everybody experiences cravings. It’s a very common thing to find yourself having eaten well all day and then before you know it you’re making a midnight journey to the off-licence on the hunt for a packet of Maltesers. In fact, recent surveys have shown that almost 100% of young women and nearly 70% of young men experience food cravings. These cravings differ from person to person – some people might only get them rarely, whilst for others they might be a weekly downfall. Some people may crave something sweet whilst others might need something salty to feel satisfied. 

But it’s not all sweets and crisps: I’ve had plenty of clients tell me they often crave food such as red meat and even vegetables. Whilst we aren’t all so lucky to crave a piece of broccoli, there is definitely a science behind cravings and even in what we crave. Think of it as your body’s way of communicating. 

However, the danger starts when these cravings start to control you.

The science behind cravings

There are two main aspects to the mechanism of food cravings: brain biochemistry and the psychology behind it. So before you try and curb your cravings, it’s important to understand the scientific reason they’re there. It’s also vital to understand that having a perfect diet without giving into your cravings once in a while is unrealistic. 

Research at the Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that three areas of the brain (the hippocampus, caudate and insula) are activated when an individual experiences a food craving.  Humans produce opioids, which are the chemically active ingredient in heroin, cocaine and other narcotics. In the body they’re derived from the digestion of excess sugars and fats - so it’s no wonder that having the brain’s reward centre release these chemicals furthers our cravings for foods that are high in sugar and fat. 

Furthermore, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that reduces pain as well as the highs of anxiety and the lows of depression – and refined foods are infamous for triggering its release. This biochemical mechanism can be considered the governing principle behind food addiction, and it works like this: insulin is released during the digestion of simple carbohydrates, lowering the blood sugar level and leading to tryptophan (another amino acid) flooding the brain and creating a serotonin reaction.  

But it’s not just the reward centre that’s to blame for cravings.  Areas of the brain responsible for memory associating specific foods with a reward are equally as important. So why do some people suffer from cravings more than others? The answer is in your serotonin level. If your level is low or functioning poorly, you are more likely to crave sugary food.
There are many factors which can affect serotonin level including stress, hormones (serotonin levels can be affected by menopause, for instance) or the health of your gut.  Though they can be random, the onset of cravings is undoubtedly linked with our emotional state. Drewnowski, a well-known researcher, even goes so far to argue that food cravings arise to satisfy emotional needs (such as calming stress and reducing anxiety).

If our memory associates fat and sugar-rich food with the sensation of the opioids and serotonin our body releases in response to them, we will naturally crave them (it would be strange to imagine Bridget Jones craving carrots after her heartbreak!). The reason why a lot of people binge on wheat is because flour breaks down into sugar very fast in digestive system. But we all know the dangers of eating these kind of foods on a daily basis – and even though a doughnut once a month won’t do you any dramatic damage, there are ways to decrease cravings and still have healthy levels of those positive neurotransmitters in your system. 

The solution

Scientific studies have found that women who ate lower-calorie, slightly smaller dishes were no hungrier than those who ate regular dishes. Furthermore, dieters liked the taste of lower-calorie dishes just as much as that of regular dishes. I’m not advising you dive into the world of artificial sweeteners and alternatives – these have their own associated problems, but instead eat a smaller portion of what you’re craving (or if you are craving both a pizza or a burger, try and see which one of your options will do the least amount of damage, but make sure it has lots of flavours and is good quality). Recently, I read an interview where Gigi Hadid (a 20 year old supermodel, of course) says her diet motto is “Eat clean, work out to stay fit – and have a burger to stay sane”. I don’t think Gigi and I have much more in common beyond that ethos, but it’s an important one I try to remind my clients. People are often surprised to hear that I occasionally enjoy fries with my meal and don’t always say no to dessert, but in this day and age where everything apart from kale has been demonised, it’s essential to stay realistic. 

Another vital habit is to not skip meals or refrain from eating when you’re hungry. Not only is this a terrible and ineffective way to lose weight, it’ll also lead to overeating to compensate. It’s when you’re experiencing this extreme hunger that you go for calorie-high quick-fix foods such as fast food or confectionary. Having regular meals with high nutrient contents is key to avoiding this state. Try and have protein (chicken, fish, turkey, tofu, quinoa or beans) with every meal.  This is a fundamental component in helping decrease the severity of your cravings. 

There are also ways to incorporate nutritious food into your diet that influence your body to release endorphins (uplifting chemicals). Low endorphin levels can be caused by certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies – particularly a lack of B vitamins (especially B12) and minerals such as iron, potassium and zinc. 

In 1907 Elie Metchnikoff showed how replacing “bad’ bacteria in gut with lactic acid bacteria (probiotics) could normalise bowel health and prolong life (he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1908 for this work). After more than half a century we all know how probiotics are important for our immune system. But in recent years there has been a lot of interest and studies concerning how our gut health might affect our mood and behavior. One of the epidemiological studies showed that food like cocoa, blueberries, pomegranate, green tea and curcumin (rich in antioxidants) can lower risk of depression. So, next time when you feel “down” or anxious instead of opening a bottle wine, open a bottle with Kefir or Riazhenka (it contains billions of beneficial live microorganisms) and make your gut healthy and happy!

Feel-good food

Pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, raw almonds, walnuts, Oats, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth,
Spinach, watercress, kale, avocados, Turkey, eggs, mussels, clams, Dark chocolate (72% and higher),
green tea, Blueberries, strawberries and bananas