The Neurobiological Reasons We Have Food Cravings

In order for us to understand our behaviour when it comes to food, we must look at the evolution of the brain.
If we examine the brain, it helps us to understand why and how we eat. We can then understand a little more about why we crave food even when we are not physically hungry. At BreakFree Eating, we look at both the physical and the psychological reasons why we overeat. As we say…

There’s a reason why many of us struggle with food and it’s not all our fault…

So, let’s first look at the three areas of the brain that carry out different functions for us:

The reptilian (primitive) brain – the oldest part of the brain. It’s reliable, but tends to be somewhat rigid and compulsive in nature.
The reptilian brain is the primitive centre. It is the centre of our basic drives for survival. It looks after hunger, thirst, sexuality, temperature control and the flight, fight, freeze or fawn fear responses. The reptilian brain is largely unconscious, very automatic, and is highly resistant to change.

The limbic (emotional) brain – this part of the brain is the centre of our emotions, memory, and motivations.
It contains the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus and the singular cortex. It is the centre of our emotions, memory and motivations. The middle brain is the seat that holds the judgments that we make and has a very strong influence on our behaviour. As the emotional part of the brain, it also has memory formation. It’s here that dopamine is created.

The neocortex (conscious) brain – the conscious brain is involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, spatial reasoning and problem solving. It carries out higher mental processes such as conscious thinking, abstract thought and imagination.
We also use the neocortex for making simple decisions, such as when or what to eat, and to decide on basic food choices throughout the day.
The three parts of the brain do not perform separately, rather, they mostly support and influence each other. Understanding this starts to help us understand how and why we eat.

It’s not your fault – it’s your brain… Willpower has nothing to do with it.

Basically, our brains are wired for survival, pleasure and safety. Back in ancient times, people used their reptilian brains to survive and evolve. Senses like taste and smell helped them to tell what was bitter, spoiled and poisonous.

One thing they found was that a sweet taste and a fresh smell meant something was safe and good to eat. They quickly learned and remembered that when something was sweet, it was safe, it gave pleasure and they survived.

No wonder we are wired for sweetness and pleasure…

As humans, it is also natural for us to move toward pleasure and away from pain. We have subsequently learned that when we hit the pleasure centre in our brains, dopamine is released in the reward system and it makes us feel good. And we also know sweet foods help us move towards that feeling of safety and pleasure, because they quickly trigger the hormone dopamine.

Let’s talk about the reward pathway to the brain for a minute.

Think about the times you get a warm hug from someone. You might be pleasantly surprised, even delighted and this triggers a feeling of happiness. That happiness creates pleasure, which triggers the feel-good hormone dopamine. And for a while you feel wonderful.

Happiness + pleasure = triggers dopamine

If we get a loving hug from someone or eat sweet things then we experience pleasure, and we feel safe and happy – triggered by the hormone and neurotransmitter dopamine. It spikes when pleasure is felt, or we feel excited, or when we anticipate a reward.

Is it surprising then that many of us struggle with being overweight, when sugar quickly stimulates the brain’s dopamine?  No wonder we crave more … and often we just can’t stop eating more of those lovely sugary things.

In some ways, all this has all worked against us. We are now pre-programed to seek things that are safe, that give us pleasure and prevents us from starving. Unfortunately, modern foods are full of those things; like salt, fat, milk and sugar. So much so, that we can easily become addicted.

If you overeat it could be the result of a food addiction.

This is where psychology comes into the picture too. If we are feeling a bit vulnerable, a bit sad or even a bit unloved (this is often unconsciously) – then sugar and fatty foods give us a moment of feeling safe and good.

The brain remembers the feeling of safety, happiness and even euphoria when we eat things like sugar. As soon as we feel a bit low again, perhaps a bit stressed, unsafe or unloved… guess what the limbic brain says…? “I remember when I felt like this before. I’ll have a slice of cake, a doughnut or a sweet bun.” Then the emotional amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotions) says, “I love this, I feel good now and I want more…”

Can you see how it’s more than willpower, and just physical hunger?  Read about the deeper meaning of emotional eating. We are hard-wired. There’s a whole neurological science behind overeating, and we explore and use this to understand and resolve overeating in the BreakFree Eating program.

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