How many of us have found ourselves at a convenience store at some ungodly hour of the night and literally prayed that no one we knew would see us? Because if they actually did see us, then we’d have to make up an excuse and walk out with a bottle of Tylenol instead of a family-size bag of M&M’s? When you eat a single piece of chocolate, do you feel like a shark tasting blood? Does that single piece just make you want to have 20 more? We feel your pain.
“…I believe a Milky Way candy bar will make me feel better because it has done so before. That expectation drives my action. I’m caught in a cycle of craving satisfaction, and more craving. Conditioned hypereating takes on a momentum of its own.”
This excerpt from former FDA commissioner David A Kessler, MD’s terrific book The End of Overeating (1) describes what so many people feel. You crave what you know has made you feel better before. So what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with wanting what you know will help you feel satisfied, comforted, and soothed? Well, as we wrote about before in “The Comfort Food Circle of Hell,” that satisfaction, comfort, and soothing are short-lived. You know that. What’s wrong with giving in to cravings is that they end up making you feel physically and emotionally worse, not better.
Scientists tell us something that you could have told the scientists: most cravings consist of chocolate or other sweets or fried foods (2). In fact, evidence has accumulated over the years that for some people, sugary foods, especially when combined with fat, can trigger addiction-type responses (3). Addiction? Really? We’ll address the issue of food addiction soon in another post, but the evidence reinforces what you already know: cravings are incredibly powerful.
It isn’t fair, but overweight people tend to experience more intense cravings, (although it’s possible that it’s the intense cravings that lead to the extra weight in the first place). To make matters worse, obese people, but not non-obese people, tend to crave and eat more unhealthy food when they’re in a bad mood (4). Big surprise.
Why is this? We have learned from functional MRI studies that overweight people have a greater “reward region” in the brain that makes them more responsive to crave-worthy foods (5). So what can you do? Feeling like a slave to cravings is emotionally and physically unhealthy. It’s horrible to feel so out of control, but we really believe change is possible.
Yes, You Really Can Stop Taking Orders from a Milky Way
In that same MRI study, the investigators go on to report that “thinking of the long-term costs of eating the food and …focusing on the long-term benefits of not eating the food” actually increases the activity in the part of the brain that inhibits our responses to food. Which of these two strategies was the best? The second one: focusing on benefits. We've talked about this before — when you switch to being compassionate toward yourself and to thinking positively about your ability to make changes, you’re more likely to achieve success And now there are studies of the brain to prove it. By the way, in this same study, the authors found that trying to just suppress cravings doesn’t work very well.
Let’s repeat that: trying to just suppress cravings doesn’t work very well. One study showed that people trying to avoid the foods they craved actually experienced even more cravings — but that was true mostly for people who associated changing their eating habits with deprivation. The good news is that you are much, much less likely to feel deprived when you’re eating in a healthy way that you have chosen. You’re the one who’s in control now, not the food. There’s more good news: there is evidence that as people lose weight and avoid the unhealthy foods they crave, the cravings actually decrease over time (6).
It’s also encouraging to realize that cravings usually last around twenty minutes (7). When you’re in the middle of craving something intensely, it feels like you will never get over it; it feels like you have to have the food you crave right now. The reality is, you don't need that food to survive. Instead, you want to redirect yourself until that feeling of desperation eases. First, get out of the kitchen or whatever space you’re in that has the food. Next, take a proactive step — maybe call a friend, or go for a walk, or take a shower, or clean out a drawer, or go on Facebook, or knit a scarf... the possibilities are endless. The craving will pass.
Janice — having said that, do I still have cravings? I’ll tell you the truth: as I sit here and write this, if there were a box of cookies next to me, it would be empty an hour from now. I’ve given up trying to fool myself. I can't have everything I want. I still wish that I could eat unlimited amounts of chocolate, but I also wish that I were tall and graceful. I’ve had to let go of those things – and ultimately, the reward has been so much richer than the chocolate. Almost always.
In a piece in the New York Times last week, the investigative journalist Gary Taubes, author of the powerful book The Case Against Sugar (a book which we’ll be discussing in a later post on the role of the food industry), writes the following:
“What I’ve realized is that eating a little of a tasty dessert or a little pasta or bread fails to satisfy me. Rather it ignites a fierce craving for more, to eat it all and then some. I find it easier to avoid sugar, grains and starches entirely, rather than to try to eat them in moderation.
Ultimately, any successful diet is by definition a long-term commitment. We tend to think of diets as something we go on and off. And if we fall off, we think the diet failed. But if we buy into the logic of carb-restricted diets, then it implies acceptance of a lifetime of abstention. As with cigarettes or alcohol, if we fall off the wagon, we don’t give up; we get back on” (8).
Yes, cravings are really, really powerful and intense desires but don't forget that is all they are. They are not commands. You can choose to switch the paradigm: you can choose to focus on wanting to be successful at making a really good choice about what you put in your body, rather than on wanting something sweet or fatty to eat. Instead of feeling disgusted with yourself for eating junk, or instead of feeling deprived — which usually merely postpones giving in to the craving — now you can feel happy and proud and optimistic. This is what will help keep you going. How long has it been since you’ve felt happy and proud and optimistic about your relationship with food?
(1) Kessler, David A. The End of Overeating. New York: Rodale, 2009. p.155
(2) Gilhooly, CH et al. Food cravings and energy regulation. The characteristics of craved foods and their relationship with eating behaviors and weight change during 6 months of dietary energy restriction. Intl J Obes 2007; 31(12):1849-58.
(3) Joyner MJ et al. Food craving as a mediator between addictive-like eating and problematic eating outcomes. Eating Behaviors 2015, 19:98-101.
(4) Udo T et al. Modeling the effects of positive and negative mood on the ability to resist eating in obese and non-obese individuals. Eating Behav 2013; 14:40-6.
(5) Yokum S, Stice E. Cognitive regulation of food craving; effects of three cognitive reappraisal strategies on neural response to palatable foods. Intl J Obes 2013; 37;1565-70.
(6) Batra P et al. Relationship of cravings with weight loss and hunger. Results from a 6-month worksite weight loss intervention. Appetite 2013; 69: 1-7.
(7) Massey A, Hill AJ. Dieting and food craving. A descriptive, quasi-prospective study. Appetite 2012; 58:781-85.