You turn to junk food for all sorts of reasons, from cravings (fries!) to frustration (late again!). Whether you eat because you're tired, bored, stressed, or ticked off (your favorite was booted from American Idol), your brain chemistry is steering you toward the kitchen, most likely for something sweet. That's why breaking the junk-food habit usually starts with breaking the sugar-reward cycle.
First the brain chemistry lesson (don't worry, we'll be brief!):
- Serotonin: It's the James Brown of neurotransmitters. It makes you feel good!
- Dopamine: This is the brain's fun house. Its pleasure-reward system helps you feel no pain.
- Nitric oxide: This is your meditation chemical. It calms you down and relaxes your blood vessels, head to toe.
So what do these chemicals have to do with why you reach for those chocolate caramels -- over and over again? Here's just one example of how the cycle works: You're stressed, so you eat some candy . . . which causes a quick release of insulin, which indirectly stimulates serotonin production in the brain, which boosts your mood and masks your stress, boredom, anger, or frustration. Trouble is, it's short-lived, so you're soon reaching for another piece of candy.
And serotonin is only one ball in play. Knowing that emotions can trigger your desire to eat helps you resist cravings and, ideally, avoid them altogether. Your goals: Keep feel-good chemicals level, so you're in a steady state of satisfaction; and avoid those highs and lows that make you search out good-for-your-brain-but-bad-for-your-waist foods.
Here are four tricks to try:
- Use foods to your advantage. Different foods have different effects on your stomach, blood, and brain. Choose chicken, tuna, or eggs to cut carb cravings. They contain tryptophan, which increases serotonin and lifts your spirits, so it's easier to resist cravings for sugary carbs.
- Take a deep breath. If you realize you're starting to eat because you're feeling edgy, do this instead: Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest. Inhale deeply to a count of five, feeling your belly expand. Exhale slowly to a count of seven, drawing your belly in. Breathing like this moves nitric oxide to your lungs, widening your blood vessels and sending extra oxygen and blood to your brain. It's tremendously calming.
Go to bed early. Getting enough sleep can curb junk-food cravings. That's because when your body doesn't get the 7 to 8 hours of sleep it needs every night to rejuvenate its supplies of serotonin and dopamine (and many other things), it tries to compensate for the shortfall by making you crave sugary foods, which help release them.
Learn more about how sleep helps you lose weight.
- When nothing else works, savor the flavor. If you've just gotta eat something sweet, make it a piece of guiltless, good-for-you dark (70% cocoa) chocolate. Then, totally enjoy it, rolling it around in your mouth and savoring every bite. There, feel better?
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