What do all of these things have in common: French fries, cupcakes, cookies, pasta, pizza and bread? They all fall in the category of foods we crave. A craving is defined as a powerful desire and when it comes to food, almost everyone has had a first-hand experience. Let’s unpack the science of cravings.
Physical or psychological?
Despite a popular theory suggesting that cravings are related to nutrient deficiencies, there’s scant scientific support for this notion. That may explain why you’re unlikely to hear chatter about craving chickpeas, despite the fact that this food will supply fiber, magnesium, potassium, iron and folate — nutrients that are often shortchanged in an American diet. Still, cravings are partly driven by nature and partly by nurture.
Here’s where the physical part comes in: Processed foods are craved more often than natural, whole foods because they’re more reinforcing. Research shows that high fat, high carbohydrate foods (think: ice cream, French fries, pizza, cookies, mac and cheese, cakes) light up reward circuitry in our brain more than foods that are either high in fat or high in carbs (as nature might supply them) — and more than you’d expect given people’s stated liking for those foods. Other research suggests that sugar acts on similar pathways in the brain as addictive substances, which would explain some of our cravings, binging behaviors, and use of food as a reward.
Other biological factors come into play, too. Studies suggest that insufficient sleep can drive up cravings for less healthy fare. Sleep deprivation can make food seem more enticing, and it can lower our inhibitions, putting us less in control of our eating choices.
Eating plays a central role in just about every major life event, social activity and religious ceremony so food is very intertwined with emotions and culture.
Often, though, a craving is a learned response. Say when you were growing up, Friday night was pizza night, and everyone was relaxed and in a good mood (because mom and dad can sleep in on Saturdays, no one had to cook dinner, and dishes are pretty effortless when pizza is involved). Deep down inside, you might couple these experiences in a number of ways. Maybe Fridays roll around and you have a hankering for pizza because you’ve paired pizza with Friday. Or maybe you want to relax and chill and that triggers a craving for pizza because you’ve coupled chill time with pizza. Or maybe you watch a movie about a family and the craving strikes because you’ve unconsciously coupled pizza with a family setting. You may not be aware that you formed these associations, but once they’re linked, a similar association (fun, relaxation, family, Friday) can cue the craving regardless of how hungry you are.
Just think: Eating plays a central role in just about every major life event, social activity and religious ceremony so food is very intertwined with emotions and culture. We start to associate good feelings with the food that takes center stage in these moments.
But we also form habits around food and unpleasant feelings. Breakup? Fight with a friend? Bad day at work? We want these feelings to go away ASAP! Since food can light up pleasure centers in our brain, we might make ourselves feel good with rewarding foods and then another association is formed (bad feeling + rewarding food = momentary good feeling).
Just like Gwyneth Paltrow’s and Chris Martin’s famous conscious uncoupling, you can consciously uncouple cravings. Warning: It isn’t easy. “If you de-pair the associations, the cravings dissipate,” says Martin Binks, PhD, associate professor and Director of the Nutrition Metabolic Health Initiative (HMI) at Texas Tech department of Nutritional Sciences. He points to research among people who replace meals with shakes — in essence, eliminating food cues (sights, smells, taste) while reducing calories. Though you might expect cravings to go through the roof (because, let’s face it, this is the mother of restrictive dieting!), the research shows people in these conditions report fewer cravings, not more.
Binks was involved in research that took this one step further, looking at the brain scans of a small group of obese individuals who were shown images of food. Both groups reduced their calorie intake, but one group was doing so with meal replacement shakes and the other group was limiting their food intake. After showing them the equivalent of a food blogger’s Instagram feed, the brain scans revealed that while the shake drinkers experienced activity in their brains that deemed food rewarding, it also showed higher activity in the area of the brain that controls decision-making. Binks explains that if you take all of the mental work out of eating — no prep, no more thinking about what’s for dinner (because, it’s a shake for you!) — even if you’re staring pizza in the face and your brain tells you it wants in, it can also do the hard work of overriding that signal. The eaters’ scans did not show the same decision-making activation.
Basically, he says if you were to stop eating the craved food and remove yourself from any reminders of it, the craving would diminish. However, once a reminder pops up, the cravings return and you’re back to square one.
How to manage cravings
In real life, we eat, we go to parties (hello, dessert table), we scroll social media feeds, click through recipes online, watch TV (and therefore, view food during programming and on commercial breaks); we can’t escape food cues. Now what?
Experts caution against severely restricting your favorite foods since it can ultimately take a toll on your emotional health. If you deem M&Ms totally off-limits, the decision-making part of your brain has to work really hard every time you pass a vending machine, go through a checkout (whether at a grocery store, convenience store or drugstore), attend a party or work event, etc. All of the sudden, it seems like M&Ms are everywhere and you have to make a conscious decision to avoid them each and every time. This type of mental workout is draining, causing some people to throw in the towel and overeat, which may lead to feelings of guilt and shame.
Instead of giving your willpower that kind of demanding workout, one well-studied approach to handling cravings is to develop a mindfulness practice. At the root, mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment, and studies suggest it can help reduce emotional eating, manage cravings and put us in better control of our impulses around food. It can also increase our enjoyment of food. If you’re struggling with food cravings, here are some tips you can try today.
1. Develop more awareness
You can practice being mindful anywhere — when you’re hanging out with your family, put your phone down and engage in the moment more. When you’re participating in yoga, don’t let your mind wander and let go of any agenda you have to hold a pose for a certain amount of time or be as flexible as the person in a pretzel next to you. When you’re eating, put your fork down between bites, and ask yourself what your food tastes like. Notice if it’s crunchy, sweet, mushy. Chew thoroughly, and spend a moment taking in the sensations and experiencing the flavor. You can strengthen your mindfulness practice through breathing exercises and guided meditation.
2. Listen to your body
We talked about all the reasons we eat (joy, stress, social cues, etc.), but plugging in to your body’s signals can help you recognize what’s happening in the moment. Do you have physical signs of hunger, such as a growling stomach or an empty feeling in your belly? Are you bored? Uncomfortable? When you’re attentive, you can uncover some of the feelings that are present and notice when you’re eating because you’re physically hungry and when something else may be overriding your body’s own hunger and fullness signals.
3. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable
Sometimes we eat to blunt uncomfortable feelings. Remember, we want bad feelings to disappear and a quick and easy way to usher in some good feelings is to eat highly rewarding foods. But forcing our feelings off to the side doesn’t really address them. Studies suggest that a mindfulness meditation practice can help you observe these emotions without reacting to them, which can put you in a better frame of mind to cope with your emotions. This awareness will also help you reduce the urge to distract yourself with food.
4. Develop more helpful habits and rewards
Now that you’re developing your awareness about when you’re eating for hunger or for other reasons, you can decide what’s right for you in that moment. Maybe it’s a cup of tea or a cuddle with a pet, or maybe it’s a cupcake at times. It’s unrealistic to think that you’ll never eat for reasons other than hunger and there may be times when you want to eat simply for pure pleasure or to soothe your soul. But often, another habit may be more healthful and helpful in the long run. When you’re more mindful, you can also be more intentional instead of just obeying the call of the craving, and that can help you respond better to both emotional and physical signals.
5. Make a memory around your eating experience
The practice of being present allows you to enjoy food more fully because you’re immersed in the entire experience — how food tastes, what’s going on around you, who you’re enjoying it with. When I’m working with clients, I remind them that when food experiences are more memorable — meaning you’re taking the time to savor a meal or a treat rather than eating on the fly, in the car, or staring at your email — they’re also more physically and emotionally satisfying. When you enjoy foods that make you swoon under memorable circumstances, you may find it’s not necessary to indulge as often.
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