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4 tips to tame food cravings from doctor and 'I’m So Effing Hungry' author

Hunger and cravings are not your fault, Dr. Amy Shah says.
Woman eating a large piece of pizza.
With foods engineered to “trigger intense pleasure responses,” no wonder we experience frequent cravings.Natalie Flemming / Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

Weight loss is always an exciting New Year’s resolution, but come mid-January, people’s enthusiasm for slimming down is often overshadowed by powerful hunger and cravings.

Dr. Amy Shah, a physician and nutrition expert based in Scottsdale, Arizona, hears the complaints from patients all the time.

For many, hunger has become their “great enemy” to the point where they walk around all day thinking about their next meal, Shah writes in her new book, “I’m So Effing Hungry: Why We Crave What We Crave — and What to Do About It.”

She wants people to know constant hunger and cravings are not their fault.

So why are you “so effing hungry”?

One huge issue is that food manufacturers have engineered their products to be addictive, Shah writes in her book. Americans now get almost 60% of their calories from ultra-processed foods — like potato chips, candy, cookies, commercial bread and soft drinks, studies have found. These products are full of salt, sugar, oils, fats and additives designed to “trigger intense pleasure responses,” she writes.

“We’re so constantly hit with dopamine, which is our feel-good chemical that keeps us craving, that we almost can’t tell the difference between wanting to keep that dopamine release going and actual hunger,” Shah, who is double board-certified in internal medicine and allergy/immunology, tells TODAY.com.

“Ultra-processed foods are engineered to create a response in the brain that gives a dopamine or serotonin release. That’s very scary to me. That says almost all the food that we’re eating is giving us a chemical release that’s not found in nature.”

Ultra-processed foods cause weight gain, studies have found, but it’s hard to escape them. When researchers analyzed the U.S. packaged food and beverage supply, they found 71% of products were ultra-processed.

Other factors driving people to eat include emotional triggers, like stress, loneliness or boredom, and the failure of hunger and satiety signals to work properly — or to be recognized by the modern human, Shah notes.

“We are living in a world where everyone knows our brain better than we do. So now it’s time for us to take control of that mind-body connection,” she says.

Here is some of her advice:

Understand the difference between hunger and a craving

Hunger is a true biological signal for nutrients. It’s designed to keep the body from starving.

Cravings, on the other hand, are a neurological adaptation designed to make nutrient-dense foods particularly memorable, Shah says. Taking special notice of foods that bring pleasure and satisfaction was meant to help us evolve as a stronger, fitter species.

So thousands of years ago, a human who found a huge fruit tree would have dopamine and other neurochemicals released in the brain to create memories of that tree and keep coming back to it.

“In the modern day, this can be very bad. Many of us will drive across town for our favorite doughnut or cupcake. Often it’s because of a memory that was created years ago that signaled that pleasure neurological phenomenon,” Shah says.

“That is not true hunger. You’re making yourself feel good from that dopamine release.”

How to tell if you’re truly hungry

Shah recommends the vegetable test. If you feel the desire to eat, ask yourself if you would eat a bowl of raw or cooked vegetables right now. If yes, you’re physically hungry. If not, you may just be looking for food to provide pleasure or relieve stress.

The doctor agreed with the favorite advice of a woman whose weight-loss journey was profiled by TODAY.com: If you’re not hungry enough for an apple, you’re not hungry enough.

Hunger is sometimes just a suggestion

Ghrelin is a hunger hormone that signals we should eat; a reminder from the body that it might be good to get nutrients. It’s released on a timeline — usually in the morning, then around noon, then late in the afternoon and finally in the evening, Shah says.

“It’s a mere suggestion to eat,” she notes. “If you don’t act on it, then it just passes… so if you can pass the ghrelin release at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with just a latte instead of a big bag of cookies and chips, it will pass.”

On days when people are absorbed by a project or working on deadline, they may not even notice the ghrelin nudge to eat.

“If you get hungry or you’re craving some food and then you drink some water and you get busy and it passes, that was not true hunger. That was just a suggestion that you should eat food,” Shah adds.

Use peppermint to defuse cravings

Inhaling a peppermint scent every two hours helped people defuse cravings and eat fewer calories, a study found. The exact reasons why are unclear.

Shah keeps a bottle of peppermint essential oil in her pantry to smell occasionally or to apply to her yoga mat when she practices. She also suggests brewing peppermint tea or diffusing the oil into the air.

Work out to control appetite

“Exercising in general somehow makes your decisions about food just better. You have better control, your satisfaction levels are more balanced,” Shah says.

“Exercise will be a benefit for you in managing hunger and cravings.”

Eat walnuts to stay full

Consuming walnuts activates a brain region involved in appetite control, researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston found.

In the study, people who drank daily smoothies containing about 2 ounces of shelled walnuts reported feeling less hungry than when they drank a nutritionally comparable placebo smoothie.

Get enough sleep

This is perhaps the most important factor for appetite control, Shah says.

“We know that sleep-deprived adults have higher ghrelin levels. That means more hunger. They have less feeling of fullness and satisfaction,” she notes.

“I recommend seven to nine hours of sleep to everyone who is trying to get more in touch with their mind-body connection.”