Because digestion begins in the brain, the very thought, memory, sight or smell of food can trigger cravings.

In conjunction with physiological and emotional imbalances in the body, these triggers can lead to cravings and overeating. As described in section 4, high-glycemic and processed foods are similar to other addictive substances: they act on the reward pathway in the brain to generate endorphins, dopamine and serotonin the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters.

The sustained and repeated consumption of processed and high-glycemic foods can cause adaptive changes in the brain’s neuropathways. These changes can create a physical and emotional addiction because the increased neurotransmitters give rise to temporary feelings of renewed energy, physical relaxation or well-being. Like alcohol cravings, food addiction cravings result in part from the body wanting more of the feel-good substance.

Another aspect of cravings is withdrawal, which occurs when the substance leaves the bloodstream and neurotransmitter levels begin to decline. The length of time that food provides the desired sense of well-being determines the length of time until we experience the next craving. Once the craving re-occurs, we have a strong desire to consume more of the substance in order to ‘feel good’ and also to eliminate the physical and emotional discomforts of withdrawal.

Food cravings can be mild, moderate or intense, depending on our genetics and our individual bodies. Severe cravings can trigger anxiety, irritability, confusion and a shaky feeling from low blood sugar and withdrawal. A quick way to temporarily escape the withdrawal symptom is to keep satisfying the cravings. It’s understandable how some of us get caught in this unhealthy cycle of overeating.

What are addictive cravings?