A craving is an environmental cue that triggers the desire to eat a specific food. Until we satisfy that craving it often will consume our every thought, making it difficult to concentrate on much else. This is a psychological response with a scientific explanation.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies on the brain, as outlined in the Tufts Nutrition article “The Craving Brain” by Katie Fesler, show that food cravings originate in the same area of the brain as drug addictions; the areas responsible for emotions and memory. Cravings result where emotions and memory create a conditioned pleasurable response. An action triggers a positive emotion, so we then continue to practice that action so we may continue to feel the desired affect.This association leads to a learned a behavior, or formed habit. In other words, if you eat ice cream and it tastes good and makes you happy, you will no doubt want to eat it again soon so you can feel happy, again.
Hormone receptors in the brain are triggered to make feel-good chemicals with the intake of various, tasty foods. The more often we tap these receptors, the less sensitive we are to the good feelings they produce, and we need more to feel the same enjoyable response, leading to over consumption of these “feel good” foods.
More often than not, cravings are for salty, sweet, highly caloric foods, as demonstrated in a study done by Susan Roberts at Tufts University. Therefore, recognizing and controlling our cravings can benefit our health, as we can control our consumption of these less than ideal foods in our diet.
All of our senses- image, smell, even sound- can trigger positive memories and emotions associated with a specific food and lead to a craving. For example: smelling fresh baked bread, seeing a billboard with a picture of a milkshake and fries, or hearing the crinkle of a chip bag. Even reading these words may be triggering a craving! Other conditioned responses include special occasions; at a birthday party we will eat cake. Or time of day; it is noon therefore I must eat lunch.
To make it worse, there are so many choices out there! The food industry produces thousands of new foods and beverages every year, and this industry is very good at playing to our senses so that we will crave their products. We want and need variety in our diets, and with too must restraint we tend to increase our cravings, however too many food product choices- too much advertisement, too much sensory overload- can lead to increased cravings and poor control of caloric intake.
Tips to Beat the Cravings:
1. Visualization. Picture or imagine a task, activity, or anything that is not food. Since cravings come from the same area of the brain as memory recall, using the brain for other purposes means you can not use it to think about or imagine food.
2. Smells. Smelling food can trigger a desire to eat, so smelling non-food will not, yet can still be pleasant. Light a candle, burn some incense, put on lotion, etc.
3. Move. Walk or otherwise get up and move when you feel a craving come on; this will change your environment and senses used.
4. Don’t deny. As stated above, we need variety, but too much can be hard to control, and denying ourselves foods can also lead to increased cravings for them. So, pick a group of wholesome foods you like and stick with these as the bulk of your diet, rotating foods seasonally. Then, pick a few indulgences, one or two, that you normally might crave and you know are not in the wholesome, healthful diet category you have already established, and allow yourself these without over doing the portions.
If your whole diet consists of these indulgences, the goal will be to cut back and replace them slowly, so it is not overly dramatic on your mood or memory!
Katie Fesler, “The Craving Brain” Tufts Nutrition. Winter 2014, p 14-17.