Deconstructing our Cravings

After giving a recent workshop on this topic, I thought it would be fun to break it into a few pieces and share with you, too.  Cravings are one of my favorite topics.

So many times we have great intentions for cleaning up our diet and we know WHAT to do, but we don’t follow through and do it.  We can all relate, right?

If only it were as easy as setting the intention.  And if only our mind and bellies always agreed! There are so many reasons for this, but cravings are a big one.

I like to break it into three major reasons that we crave particular foods (or overeat, snack when we’re not hungry, etc).

Deconstructing our cravings

Let’s start with the first reason:


There are some very real addictive properties to some of the food we eat.  One of the most powerful is sugar or high fructose corn syrup.  Eating foods sweetened with either of these has the same affect on our brain as a drug- and just a small taste leaves us wanting more! In fact, sugar has been shown to be twice as addictive as cocaine.

If you’ve ever tried to quit sugar cold turkey, you may have experienced withdrawal symptoms- headaches, moodiness, fatigue, etc.  But giving it up is one of the best ways to get your cravings back under control if you believe you are addicted. (And my sugar detoxers can attest to the fact that it gets easier with each round!)

There are other foods that have addictive properties as well- many processed foods are packed with preservatives that are addicting.  Carbohydrates create a high with the release of dopamine.  Fat coupled with either salt or sugar (think chips or donoughts) is a double whammy as fat is another extremely pleasurable food.  The casein in cheese can be addictive as it releases casomorphins that can have an opiate effect.

Michael Moss wrote the book Salt Sugar Fat, in which he dissects the $1 trillion processed food industry. Sugar, salt and fat are the top three substances making processed foods so addictive. In a Time Magazine interview discussing his book, Moss says:

“One of the things that really surprised me was how concerted and targeted the effort is by food companies to hit the magical formulation. Take sugar for example. The optimum amount of sugar in a product became known as the ‘bliss point.’ Food inventors and scientists spend a huge amount of time formulating the perfect amount of sugar that will send us over the moon, and send products flying off the shelves. It is the process they’ve engineered that struck me as really stunning.

When it came to fat, it was the amazing role of what the industry calls the ‘mouth feel.’ That’s the warm, gooey taste of cheese, or the bite into a crisp fried chicken that you get. It rushes right to the same pleasure centers of the brain that sugar does…

When it comes to salt, what was really staggering to me is that the industry itself is totally hooked on salt. It is this miracle ingredient that solves all of their problems. There is the flavor burst to the salt itself, but it also serves as a preservative so foods can stay on the shelves for months. It also masks a lot of the off-notes in flavors that are inherent to processed foods.”

A little disconcerting, isn’t it?

Be a little kinder to yourself- sometimes there is more going on than your inability to turn down a particular food! I’ll discuss the other major reasons in follow up posts.

Part two: Nutrient Imbalance

Do you think you might have an addiction to any of the foods listed above?

Have you ever experienced withdrawal symptoms from trying to break a sugar habit?

64 thoughts on “Deconstructing our Cravings

  1. This is really interesting. When I was doing the 21 day Sugar free diet detox, after about 2 weeks I stopped craving things I used too. I was no longer craving all the sweeter foods. As I near the end I find myself craving more savory foods. I agree though, I think it’s really interesting.
    Hollie recently posted..Treadmill Base Building (70 miles)My Profile

  2. That was an eye opening book! I also think cravings are related sometimes to dehydration and lack of proper nutrients/vitamins/minerals. I find when I am taking a B Complex I am a little more even keeled in the craving department.
    Tara Newman recently posted..Reverse Bucket ListMy Profile

  3. I’m fascinated by cravings, too, but mostly because I don’t really have them!

    That’s why I get such a kick out of pregnancy. I’ve been craving meat like it’s nobody’s business lately and it’s so interesting to me to feel this NEED for a food.

    I used to get cravings when I ate more unhealthy things, like fast food, so I totally believe that they put things in the food to make it more addicting. I think by switching to a cleaner diet over time, I’ve been able to mostly rid myself of cravings.
    Brittany (Healthy Slice of Life) recently posted..The Anatomy of a Weekly Meal Plan {How To}My Profile

  4. That is so scary, but you know they do it! It’s interesting how people are drawn to one more than the other – I have a co-worker that can drop sugar no problem but she can’t stay away from the salt.

    I’m a sugar girl, but I don’t think I necessarily am addicted. I’d call it a habit. I have to go cold turkey for a few day to re-set after holidays and the like.
    Laura @ Sprint 2 the Table recently posted..Skinny Limits Juice Cleanse ReviewMy Profile

  5. I love having a little something sweet after dinner… that said I also love to bake healthier treats.. ones with natural sugar and that are gluten free so at least if I indulge I don’t feel as bad… I do need to just cut back on the sweets though… thanks for this post! Great reminder!

  6. I have never been one to crave sweets, but salt? um, yes! Do you think that is my thyroid condition? Could I be craving iodine? I have to say that now that I’m not training for a marathon, I crave sodium a lot less.

    • Distance training has a huge impact on our cravings, doesn’t it? :) Yes- it definitely could be an iodine craving, that’s one of the most common reasons for salt cravings. But since iodine is removed from table salt, you can get it through sea vegetables (dulse flakes are great!) and some sea salts as well.
      Laura recently posted..Deconstructing our CravingsMy Profile

  7. Love this Laura! So interesting. Giving up sugar was one of the best decisions I have made for my health/diet/fitness. I still have it on occasion but I truly believe that I was addicted. I would have something with HFCS in it and would not be able to stop. It was hard to cut these things out and I don’t even know exactly how I did it but now I would much rather have a piece of fruit than an Oreo. Great post.
    Amy @ The Little Honey Bee recently posted..Happiness, Montreal & Muffin Tin FrittatasMy Profile

  8. Though I had cut out HFCS awhile ago, in my first sugar detox last year, I really struggled. It was eye-opening to learn about the blood sugar rollercoaster I was on! First thing I did was exchange as many processed sugars as possible with natural sugars like local honey and maple syrup, and raw coconut. Then I spent several more weeks cutting back on quantities of those.

  9. I know that I am addicted to sugar! From the sheer amount of times I’ve tried to unsuccessfully quit eating it. It’s a huge problem for me.

  10. This is so interesting! I am really making an effort to eliminate processed foods – I find things like crackers (for my soup) and granola bars the hardest to shake because of convenience. It’s scary to see this in print, and a good reminder that it’s just not worth it!

  11. Thank you for sharing your findings with us! This is so interesting. I’ve always been concerned about my health & wellness, but, now as a mother, I’m even more interested in learning about the impact of certain foods and additives on our bodies. My husband and I are fighting a battle with daycare right now about the amount of processed, sugary ‘snacks’ that our girls are fed daily. So frustrating!
    Nicole @ Work in Sweats Mama recently posted..State of the RunionMy Profile

    • Oh my goodness, I know!! Daycares (and preschool) are the worst sometimes. I was reading an article on the ten things French children do that are healthier and it was really eye-opening how behind we are with our kids healthy eating habits…
      Laura recently posted..Deconstructing our CravingsMy Profile

  12. The only time I truly have sweet or salty cravings is right before my period, so I let my body have some. Otherwise, I try to make the majority of my foods from scratch so I can control what goes in. IE- Most cookie recipes call for 1 tsp of salt. I’ve always skipped the salt.
    Karen recently posted..One Week Until the TaperMy Profile

  13. I read and LOVED that book. It was such an eye-opener. Even though you KNOW food companies are doing this, it was still somewhat shocking to read to what extent! The only thing I’ve ever had withdrawals from is caffeine. When I was pregnant I tried giving it up cold and got massive headaches! My doctor told me to drink soda!! Seriously? I went back to one cup a day.
    Allie recently posted..The Rundown: Hell WeekMy Profile

  14. This is really great Laura and I so appreciate that you share this information with us. I am totally addicted to sugar. It’s definitely my downfall. It’s really interesting how our body responds to all of these different inputs AND how the food industry manipulates it all.
    Christine @ Love, Life, Surf recently posted..On TeachingMy Profile

  15. I absolutely believe I have a sugar addiction. At the end of the day, I can’t focus on anything until I’ve had my chocolate fix. I really need to get it together and commit to cutting it out cold turkey, but I just haven’t found the motivation yet! No excuse, but for whatever reason, I haven’t been able to talk myself into really going for it.
    Alexis @ funrunning4life recently posted..Weekly Eats and WorkoutsMy Profile

  16. So I just read this post again because it is so good and interesting. Can’t remember if I commented before but I was/am? pretty addicted to sugar. I had horrible withdrawal symptoms the first time I did a sugar detox with you, but it certainly has gotten easier each time. Except for week 3 of our 21 day reset when I made a homemade type of dessert I haven’t had anything sweet except for some Lara bars with choc chips. I’m not really even craving it. Though I doubt I would turn down a warm chocolate chip cookie-but I’m just not going there-ha! I need to get that Michael Moss book to read, but you have taught me so much about the way I eat-I can’t thank you enough!!

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