But the way we deal with food cravings can vary widely. Some people eat what they want and don’t care, while others feel cravings controlled and end up gorging on their favorite foods.
When people indulge in a craving, they often blame a lack of self-control. But food cravings are caused by a complex interplay between neurons in the brain’s reward center, appetite hormones, behavioral conditioning, and easy access to tasty and enjoyable foods that boost the cravings cycle.
The power of food cravings can be fueled by the senses, like the smell of fresh bread as we walk past a bakery, as well as by situations and emotions. After a stressful day at work, for example, we might seek solace by stopping at the window of a fast food restaurant. Good times can also trigger cravings, like wanting popcorn or candy at the movies. And studies show that so-called “super appetizing” foods that offer a tantalizing combination of fat, sugar, salt and carbohydrates can interfere with brain signals so we keep craving them even when we’re full.
So what’s the solution for people struggling with food cravings?
It turns out that many people deal with food cravings the wrong way by trying to restrict, avoid, and distract themselves from tempting foods. They skip dessert when everyone is eating it, walk away if a coworker brings donuts to the office, and try to ignore their craving for ice cream in the freezer.
But increasingly, studies show that constant restriction and distraction attempts can actually backfire on people who struggle with food cravings and binge eating.
Now scientists are studying surprising new strategies for dealing with science-based brain cravings. These include accepting that food cravings are normal and inevitable and using mindfulness techniques to recognize and become more aware of your cravings and expect them, rather than trying to ignore them.
“It’s about understanding that this kind of craving is a natural part of human beings; we’re designed that way, ”said Evan Forman, professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia and director of the university’s Center for Weight, Eating and Lifestyle Science. “You don’t need to suppress the cravings, but you don’t have to eat because of them either. It is accepting rather than rejecting or suppressing them.
How dieting can make food cravings worse
One of the first studies to show a link between food restriction and cravings was conducted in the 1940s by food researcher Ancel Keys. In what is often referred to as a “starvation study,” Keys asked 36 men, who consumed about 3,500 calories per day, to reduce their food intake to about 1,600 calories per day. (By today’s standards, that calorie count is just another diet.) The restriction triggered a noticeable psychological change in the men, who became preoccupied with food.
“They stopped doing anything other than lying in bed, talking and thinking about food,” said Traci Mann, who heads the University’s health and food lab. of Minnesota. She notes that the men even planned for food-related careers, like opening a grocery store or restaurant, and remained concerned about food long after the study ended. “These are men in the 1940s who probably never cooked a meal in their entire lives,” Mann noted. “And they started cutting recipes out of the newspaper.”
More recently, Mann and his colleagues used a tantalizing box of chocolates to study the effect of dietary restriction. The research focused on 142 chocolate lovers, half of whom were told to follow their normal diet while the other half were on a restricted diet. In a seemingly cruel twist, all study participants were given a box of chocolates and ordered not to eat any until the 10-day study was over. But to ensure that each participant was systematically tempted by chocolate, participants had to open the box daily to find specific instructions.
After 10 days, everyone was invited to send a photo of their box of chocolates. Dieters had stolen a lot more chocolates than those who didn’t count calories.
“Dieters’ control over their diet has failed,” Mann said. “There are many studies that look at the thought processes of dieters, and you see the same thing. Dieters are more likely to notice food, have a harder time taking their attention away from food, and are more eager to eat.
Currently, Mann is studying how quickly obsessive food thoughts begin after a person begins a restrictive diet. “We’re still analyzing the data,” Mann said. “But it seems to start up pretty quickly, within 10 days or so.”
Acceptance vs Distraction
At Drexel University, Forman conducted a similar study, but this time with transparent boxes of Hershey’s Kisses that subjects were required to wear at all times for two days. The researchers added a twist, advising some participants to ignore their cravings while asking another group to notice and accept their urges as normal. A control group received no counseling. By the end of the study, about 30% of participants in the control group had eaten the candy, compared to 9% of those in the group instructed to ignore the cravings. But among the participants who learned to recognize and accept food cravings, no one ate chocolate.
In 2019, Forman published the follow-up results of a larger randomized controlled trial involving 190 people, which found that participants who practiced acceptance and mindfulness strategies were twice as likely to have maintained a 10% weight loss after three years than those who focused primarily on resisting temptation and suppressing thoughts of food.
“Surprisingly, there was a big advantage in people’s quality of life that was somewhat unexpected,” said Forman. “It also benefited their well-being and their emotional state. “
HOW TO DEAL WITH CRAVES
For this week’s Eat Well Challenge, try these acceptance and mindfulness techniques to focus on cravings. (Times subscribers can sign up for the Eat Well Challenge through the Well newsletter and receive additional tips by texting “Hi” to 917-810-3302 for a link to join.)
Practice “surge surfing”.
Food cravings are fleeting and some research suggests they peak around five minutes. “Riding the emergency” means “riding the wave” of your thoughts, feelings and desires rather than acting on them, and it is an effective strategy often used to treat substance use. Follow these four steps.
– Identify your desire. Use the phrase “I want to eat…” and fill in the blank.
– Observe him. Notice how you feel when you feel like eating. Do you feel it in your stomach? Are you distracted? Anxious? Do you feel the need to move or continue to frequent the kitchen?
– To be open. Don’t try to suppress or get rid of your urge. Accept the experience.
– Pay attention to what happens next. Notice the urge as it rises, rises, falls and falls. Note the intensity of an overwhelming urge. “I want to eat crisps. It started off as a 5, but now it’s a 7. “
“Our cravings inevitably rise and fall, just like waves in an ocean,” Forman said. “Trying to fight this wave will never work. It doesn’t work if you want the urge to go away. You accept that he’s there, and even that he’s meant to be there, and you coexist – surf – with him.
Ask: How little is enough?
It’s okay to eat a food you crave, unless it becomes a problem for you. Dr Judson Brewer, associate professor at Brown University School of Public Health who created a mindfulness app called Eat Right Now, told the story of a patient who regularly ate a bag full of chips while watching a show favorite TV show with her daughter. .
Instead of discouraging her from eating the crisps, Brewer advised her to watch every crisps she ate and notice how many crisps it takes to feel satisfied. A few weeks later, the woman reported that she had slowly reduced her crisps habit, and now her craving was satisfied after the second crisps.
“She could eat two and be done,” Brewer said.
Brewer said mindfulness can help people cope with food cravings without having to give up a favorite food altogether. “It’s not that we can never have a chocolate chip cookie,” Brewer said. “But when I eat one, I’m really careful. I like it and I ask myself, “Do I need more? “
Find a bigger and better deal.
Another strategy for dealing with a food craving is to focus on the taste and feel of a food, and then replace a problematic food with a better quality food that satisfies the same cravings. Brewer calls it “finding a bigger and better deal”.
Brewer said he used to be “addicted” to gummy candies. To break the urge, he began to focus on the taste of the candy and noticed that it was sickly. He searched for better food to satisfy his craving and chose blueberries, which he found gave him even more pleasure than candy.
“Cutting us off is not the way to go,” Brewer said. “We don’t want to live this austere life of not enjoying food that tastes good. “
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