Consumed by your cravings? Blame your brain not your stomach!

Thursday, June 01, 2017. Author Geraldine Campbell

Cravings; the intensified motivation towards the consumption of a specific food.

The summer season is nearly upon us and everyone is trying to reach their ideal ‘summer body’. No more junk food we tell ourselves…but then those pesky cravings kick in and resisting that donut becomes a whole lot harder.

Cravings are an intensified motivation directed towards the consumption of a specific food.

Hunger on the other hand is a non-specific drive to eat food in general; and emerges from a different brain circuit to that of cravings.

Cravings are associated with overeating and can lead to unsuccessful weight management or failed weight loss efforts because most craved foods are high in sugar and fat!

What causes cravings?

The brain is a fascinating thing. It has been hard-wired to be motivated by goals that aid survival. We soon learn the most effective ways to achieve these goals, and this learning process is controlled by a key mechanism involving a substance called dopamine. Dopamine is integral to reinforced, repetitive, behavioural learning. Dopamine is released in response to goal accomplishment and leads to the rewarding sensations felt when a piece of chocolate is eaten.

The sensory cues of the situation such as the sound, smells or location in which you developed this response behaviour will generate the intensified motivation to repeat that behaviour – this is the development of cravings. Our bodies and brains begin to build these associations between the specific components of foods (high sugar, high fat) and the surge in dopamine and reward experienced; even if short lived.

In simpler terms...

You eat your first piece of chocolate. It sends signals to the brain saying this food contains the high levels of fat and carbs your brain loves. Your brain releases dopamine and remembers the environment and taste/smell/texture of that chocolate. This builds an link between that chocolate and the pleasure it led to. Now if anyone mentions chocolate, you see chocolate, or you are in a certain environment or mood; the saliva will begin to flow as the chocolate craving kicks in!

Previously this physiological mechanism was beneficial for survival when calorie-dense food was less abundant. However, our world nowadays has an excess of these dopamine-inducing calorie-dense foods (and at a cheaper price than more nutrient dense, health-promoting foods). Implementing effective strategies to help control these cravings is important with mindfulness practices emerging more and more as the top intervention. Grasping mindfulness and its concepts such as acceptance, distancing and willingness isn’t a straight forward task; and will take lots of repetition and practice.

One simple strategy to reduce cravings

Sleep is an important part of our health and holds the key to many issues faced such as poor recovery following exercise, blunted weight loss and increased cravings. Prioritising your sleep and formulating a night-time routine that looks to optimise your quality and quantity of sleep can be an easy to implement strategy to manage your cravings. At FitnessGenes, we test for the CLOCK gene which is associated with disturbed body clock (circadian rhythm). We also provide a post-workout recovery and sleep recommendations based upon your genetics and lifestyle information. 

If you enjoyed this blog, you can read my other posts here:

Your lunch break is not just for eating… upgrade it to a runch!

Resistance Band Training

Get to know your heart 

How Alcohol May Be Limiting Your Progress

Running and Genetics 


Genetic Dominance of East African and Jamaican Runners 

Sprint and Power Performance

The Nordic Diet


Oxidative Stress


Weingarten, H.P. and Elston, D., 1991. Food cravings in a college population. Appetite, 17(3), pp.167-175.

Sclafani, A. and Ackroff, K., 2012. Role of gut nutrient sensing in stimulating appetite and conditioning food preferences. American Journal of Physiology-Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 302(10), pp.R1119-R1133.

de Araujo, I.E., Ferreira, J.G., Tellez, L.A., Ren, X. and Yeckel, C.W., 2012. The gut–brain dopamine axis: a regulatory system for caloric intake. Physiology & behavior, 106(3), pp.394-399.

Glimcher, P.W., 2011. Understanding dopamine and reinforcement learning: the dopamine reward prediction error hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(Supplement 3), pp.15647-15654.

Schlundt, D.G., Virts, K.L., Sbrocco, T., Pope-Cordle, J. and Hill, J.O., 1993. A sequential behavioral analysis of cravings sweets in obese women. Addictive Behaviors, 18(1), pp.67-80.

Drewnowski, A., 1991. Obesity and eating disorders: Cognitive aspects of food preference and food aversion. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 29(3), pp.261-264.
Basdevant, A., Craplet, C. and Guy-Grand, B., 1993. Snacking patterns in obese French women. Appetite, 21(1), pp.17-23.

Pelchat, M.L., 2002. Of human bondage: food craving, obsession, compulsion, and addiction. Physiology & behavior, 76(3), pp.347-352.

Forman, E.M., Hoffman, K.L., McGrath, K.B., Herbert, J.D., Brandsma, L.L. and Lowe, M.R., 2007. A comparison of acceptance-and control-based strategies for coping with food cravings: An analog study. Behaviour research and therapy, 45(10), pp.2372-2386.

Gibson, E.L., 2006. Emotional influences on food choice: sensory, physiological and psychological pathways. Physiology & behavior, 89(1), pp.53-61.

St-Onge, M.P., Roberts, A.L., Chen, J., Kelleman, M., O'Keeffe, M., Roy Choudhury, A. and Jones, P.J., 2011. Short sleep duration increases energy intakes but does not change energy expenditure in normal-weight individuals. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 94(2), pp.410-416.

3 Easy Ways You Can Get Started

Sign up for a free account to take a look at truefeed® but note it is not personalized to you - we need your DNA for that!
Sign up
Upload your existing DNA results to see your personalized truefeed®
Buy now
Take a FitnessGenes DNA Analysis to see your personalized truefeed®
Buy now

Need help choosing a plan?

Discover which plan best fits your needs by answering a couple of questions.