Image: Chocolate bar
Elise Amendola  /  AP file
Research shows that 92 percent of self-described chocolate addicts are female.
updated 10/3/2008 8:22:05 AM ET 2008-10-03T12:22:05

Odysseus lashed himself to the mast of his ship, plugged his men's ears, and gave strict orders that no matter how much he begged, no one was to cut him free and let him run to the Sirens — seduced as he was by their mellifluous singing.

If only you could work out the same kind of setup: tying yourself to your Eames task chair, telling your office mate to tighten the straps, and not letting yourself get lured by the vending machine every afternoon. Homer might not have set the concept to verse, but you know this one by heart: One little craving can launch a thousand chips.

Maybe chips aren't your weakness. Maybe you're drawn to a big bowl of pasta, a scoop of ice cream, or a sloth of Gummi bears. Virtually everyone has, at some point, experienced a food craving — a desire for a very particular delicacy.

"A craving is different from a meal decision," says Marcia Levin Pelchat, a food psychologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. "It's something you will get dressed and leave your house in a snowstorm for." A craving isn't the same as hunger, either — although the latter definitely intensifies the former.

Women are especially prone to these longings: 18- to 35-year-olds are more likely to experience cravings than any other age or gender group, Pelchat says. Most of the foods they crave (60 percent) are sweets; 92 percent of self-described chocolate addicts are female. As notable as it is that these women are of childbearing age, Pelchat points out that "no one really has a handle yet on the mechanism" that can link cravings to the menstrual cycle or PMS. (There goes that excuse, huh?) But researchers do know that food cravings come from the same part of the brain as an addict's drug jones, according to a study Pelchat did with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania.

Considering how common cravings are, they're nothing to be ashamed of: As Stephen Gullo, a New York City psychotherapist and author of "The Thin Commandments" (Rodale), puts it, "A craving is just a feeling — not a demonic possession." It is also not necessarily something you have to conquer or quash. In fact, a recent study found that women who were told specifically not to talk about chocolate ate nearly one and a half times as much chocolate as women who were allowed to speak freely about it. "The results might have been identical if we had used French fries or chips," says lead researcher James Erskine of the psychology department at the University of Hertfordshire in England. "The important thing is, people were motivated to eat the food that they tried not to think about."

So go ahead and have a few chips or M&M's. Or better yet, consider where the craving is coming from, and if you can't curtail it completely, try feeding it a smarter alternative. "The human psyche hates 'no,'" Gullo says. "But it does like a substitute." And isn't that music to your ears?

Temptation triggers
A craving is not your body's version of a car's "check engine" light: It doesn't blink red all of a sudden as your body dips low on sodium or magnesium or vitamin A, as if it knows exactly what will refuel the deficiency. Pelchat ran a study in which people's caloric and nutritional needs were met by a liquid diet; although the participants weren't hungry, they still craved variety. (Their diet shake was vanilla-flavored, and they craved nonsweet foods, including red meat and pizza.) "Your body will want something different," she says.

Which explains the idée fixe that pommes frites can become for anyone who has embarked on a strict diet plan. But cravings don't have to put the kibosh on weight-loss efforts. In an ongoing study at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, 91 percent of the subjects reported having cravings after starting a restricted diet, and that number went up to 94 percent after six months. Yet people were still able to shed pounds. "Those who did best at weight loss didn't lose their cravings; they just got better at managing them," says Susan Roberts, director of the energy metabolism laboratory at the center. "Giving in less often seemed to be the most reliable strategy." 

Most cravings are for high-calorie foods, of course. ("Could we get someone to crave spinach?" Pelchat asks. "Maybe. If we forbade it.") It's often said that people compulsively eat carbohydrates, but "nobody craves pure sugar," Roberts points out. Cravings are "typically mixtures of fat and carbohydrates, and occasionally also protein. Everyone seems to have something different that they love, though chocolate and salty snacks are common."

In large part, cravings are governed by memory and reinforced by habit. A survey by the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University found that people craved foods that were related to happy memories. The snack has to match the memory in order to satisfy the urge, which can make the impulse feel stubbornly intractable. A craving, then, is perhaps best personified by the bratty teenage girl who wants the rhinestone-encrusted Razr cell phone in pink — not red (duh!) — and pouts until she gets it. And she probably has a tantrum at the same time every day. "So many food rituals are habitual," says Lauren Slayton, a nutritionist and founder of Foodtrainers in New York City. "Clients who have a frozen treat or cookie after dinner start to reach for it without thinking. I have them wait 15 to 30 minutes before indulging to assess whether they can pass on it. Once you take the automatic away, a lot of progress can be made."

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It also helps to take away visual and sensory cues. A study in The Journal of Neuroscience found that some people's brains predispose them to intense cravings and make them susceptible to images of food. "Pictures easily induce cravings," says Marika Tiggemann, a professor of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, who has found that food imagery and scents intensify desire.

How you deal with the longing is more important than what prompted it. "There are many ways we can be triggered to crave a food — scent, memory, mood — but the key is to remember that there are easy substitutes for all types of cravings," Slayton says. And not just pathetic knockoffs: "No one needs me to tell them to eat lean turkey wrapped in lettuce," says Lisa Lillien, author of the new "Hungry Girl" (St. Martin's), an offshoot of her popular daily e-mail bulletin on tasty diet foods. "I love onion rings and pizza, so I want a satisfying swap." 

In the future, there may even be drugs that curtail the urges. Taranabant, an obesity treatment currently being tested, aims to suppress hunger by blocking the cannabinoid-1 receptor — the part of the brain that responds to cannabis — which plays a role in spurring appetite, says Steven Heymsfield, a researcher for Merck Labs. In other words: It could reduce pot-related munchies (as well as natural cravings). Harold and Kumar go to...Weight Watchers?

Food fight
However compelling a food temptation may seem, there's a good chance it represents a desire for something other than food. "Cravings often happen when some basic need is missing," says Jennifer Warren, founder of the Physicians Healthy Weight Center in Hampton, New Hampshire. "Maybe you want sleep, privacy, or fun, but food is the easiest thing to plug in." If you're ever in an airport — the nexus of boredom, loneliness, and bad lighting — you know too well the ugly emotions that compel you to eat (even food like that nacho "queso" that aspires to come back in its next life as bikini wax). "Emotional eating always correlates with cravings," Pelchat says. "You eat when you are stressed or angry or happy or unhappy or bored."

At the office, people indulge cravings just "to pass the time," Slayton says, which is apparent "when you keep a food journal and compare weekdays to weekends." (Or, as Gullo points out, "My clients typically never gain an ounce until four in the afternoon.") The next time you're at your desk and seized by a craving at quarter past chips, Ellie Krieger, a registered dietitian and author of "The Foods You Crave" (Taunton Press), recommends asking yourself, "What am I really feeling? And is there something not food-related that I can do about this?"

Simply vowing not to give in to food cravings works as well as mapping out a strategy to manage it, a new study from Konstanz University in Germany suggests. When people both identified a goal, such as eating less of a certain food, and stated three times how they would accomplish this (even if the plan was simply to ignore cravings), they were much better at achieving their goal than those who hadn't verbalized a way to resist temptation.

Distraction is also an effective strategy. In a study at Flinders University, Tiggemann found that visual and olfactory activities were influential in reducing cravings, more so than auditory ones. "Looking at a blurry screen was a good general distraction," possibly because it scrambles the brain's images about the craving, Tiggemann says. "But watching sports would also be good, or imagining a particular visual image, like a beach somewhere." Gullo recommends sucking on a Halls Mentho-Lyptus cough drop or a Listerine breath strip, which overpowers your sense of taste and smell. Chewing gum can also tame a craving, a study from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland found last year.

You can also try anticipating your craving and stocking your kitchen, desk drawer, or handbag with a healthier, portion-controlled substitute. Gullo goes so far as to suggest pre-food journaling: Write down everything you plan to eat 24 hours in advance. Since cravings intensify when you're hungry, Warren suggests eating something small every three to four hours, "even if you end up eating a nutrition bar in the car on the way home from work," she says. It's best to keep your food stash hidden, too. "If you don't see it, you might not remember it's there," Pelchat says.

Whatever you end up eating, take your time and enjoy it. "The first few bites are always the most gratifying," Krieger says. "After a while, it doesn't taste as good as that incredible sensory experience. Remember that."

In the event that you overdo it, acknowledge the mistake and then just put it behind you like a balled-up candy wrapper. A study at Drexel University found that for people who felt that food ruled their lives, the best way to manage cravings was to accept that they happen and realize that trying to eliminate them only makes them worse. Perceiving an indulgence "as a complete failure can lead to more eating," Erskine notes.

Copyright © 2012 CondéNet. All rights reserved.


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