NEW YORK — Food cravings are an integral part of the human experience; studies show that more than 90 percent of people have it. (By the way, who are these unicorns who never had cravings?)
But how we deal with cravings can vary widely. Some people eat what they want and don’t care, while others feel controlled by cravings and end up gorging on favorite foods.
When people give in to a craving for food, they often blame it on a lack of self-control. But cravings are caused by a complex interplay between neurons in the brain’s reward center, appetite hormones, behavioral conditioning, and easy access to tasty, enjoyable foods that reinforce the craving cycle.
The power of food cravings can be fueled by the senses, like the smell of fresh bread when walking 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 a fast food restaurant window.
Good times can also trigger cravings, like wanting popcorn or candy at the movies. And studies show that so-called “hyper-appetizing” foods that offer a tantalizing combination of fat, sugar, salt and carbs can interfere with brain signals, so we continue to crave them even when we’re full.
So what is the solution for people struggling with food cravings?
It turns out that many people deal with 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 colleague 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 attempts at distraction can actually backfire on people who struggle with food cravings and binge eating.
Now scientists are investigating surprising new strategies for coping with food cravings based on brain science. These include accepting that food cravings are normal and unavoidable 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 these types of cravings are a natural part of being a person; we’re designed that way,” said Dr. 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 have to make cravings go away, but you don’t have to eat because of them either. It is accepting rather than rejecting or suppressing them.
HOW DIETS CAN make cravings worse
One of the first studies to show a link between food restriction and food cravings was conducted in the 1940s by food researcher Ancel Keys. In what is often called a “starvation study,” Keys asked 36 men, who ate about 3,500 calories a day, to reduce their food intake to about 1,600 calories a day. (By today’s standards, this 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 but lying in bed, talking and thinking about food,” said Dr. Traci Mann, who runs the health and nutrition lab at the hospital. ‘University of Minnesota. She notes that the men even planned food-related careers like opening a grocery store or a restaurant, and remained preoccupied with food long after the study ended.
“These are 1940s men who probably never cooked a meal in their entire lives,” Dr. Mann noted. “And they started cutting recipes out of the paper.”
More recently, Dr. Mann and his colleagues used a tempting box of chocolates to study the effect of dietary restriction. The research involved 142 chocolate lovers, half of whom were asked to follow a normal diet while the other half followed a restricted diet.
In a seemingly cruel twist, all study participants were given a box of chocolates and told not to eat it until the 10-day study was over. But to ensure that each participant was constantly tempted by the chocolate, participants had to open the box daily to find specific instructions.
After 10 days, everyone was asked to send in a picture of their chocolate box. Dieters stole significantly more chocolates than those who didn’t count calories.
“Dieters’ control over their food has failed,” Dr. 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 diverting their attention from food, and have craving for food more.
Currently, Dr. Mann is studying how quickly obsessive food thoughts begin after a person begins a restrictive diet. “We are still processing the data,” Dr. Mann said. “But it seems to start quite quickly, in about 10 days.”
ACCEPTANCE VS. DISTRACTION
At Drexel University, Dr. Forman conducted a similar study, but this time with clear boxes of Hershey’s Kisses that subjects had 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 cravings as normal. A control group received no advice.
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 cravings. But of the participants who learned to recognize and accept cravings, no one ate chocolate.
In 2019, Dr. Forman published follow-up results from a larger 190-person randomized controlled trial, which found that participants who practiced acceptance and mindfulness strategies were twice as likely to have maintained 10% weight loss after three years compared to those who focused primarily on resisting temptations and suppressing thoughts of food.
“Amazingly, there was a big benefit in people’s quality of life that was somewhat unexpected,” Dr. Forman said. “It also benefited their well-being and their emotional state.”
HOW TO DEAL WITH CRAVINGS
For this week’s Eat Well challenge, try these acceptance and mindfulness techniques to focus on cravings.
- PRACTICE “URGE SURF”.
Cravings are fleeting, and some research suggests they peak around five minutes. “Urge surfing” means “riding the wave” of your thoughts, feelings, and urges rather than acting on them, and it’s an effective strategy often used to deal with substance use. Follow these four steps.
- Identify your desire. Use the phrase “I want to eat…” and fill in the blank.
- Watch it. Notice how you feel when you want to eat. Do you feel it in your stomach? Are you distracted? Anxious? Do you feel the need to move or continue to visit the kitchen?
- To be open. Don’t try to repress or get rid of your craving. Accept the experience.
- Pay attention to what happens next. Notice the urge as it rises, peaks, falls, and subsides. Note the intensity of a craving. “I want to eat crisps. It started out as a five, but now it’s a seven.”
“Our cravings inevitably rise and fall, just like waves in an ocean,” Dr. Forman said. “Trying to fight that wave will never work. It doesn’t work if you want the urge to go away. You accept that it’s there, and even that it’s meant to be there, and you co-exist – surf – with him.
- ASK: HOW LITTLE IS ENOUGH?
There is nothing wrong with eating a food you crave, unless it becomes a problem for you. Dr. Judson Brewer, an 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 potato chips while watching a favorite TV show with her daughter. .
Instead of discouraging her from eating the chips, Dr. Brewer advised her to pay attention to each chip she ate and notice how many chips it took to feel satisfied. A few weeks later, the woman reported that she had slowly reduced her potato chip habit, and now her craving was satisfied after the second potato chip.
“She could eat two and be done,” Dr. Brewer said.
Dr. Brewer said mindfulness can help people cope with food cravings without having to give up a favorite food entirely. “It’s not that we can never have a chocolate chip cookie,” Dr. Brewer said. “But when I eat one, I’m really careful. I like it and I’m like, ‘Do I need more?’ »
- FIND A BIGGER AND BETTER DEAL.
Another strategy for coping with a craving is to focus on the taste and feel of a food, then replace a problematic food with a higher quality food that satisfies the same cravings. Dr. Brewer calls it “finding a bigger and better deal.”
Dr Brewer said he was “addicted” to gummies. To break the craving, he started focusing on the actual taste of the candy and noticed that it was sweet. He searched for a better food to satisfy his craving and chose blueberries, which he found gave him even more pleasure than candy.
“Cutting yourself is not the way to go,” Dr. Brewer said. “We don’t want to live this austere life of not enjoying food that tastes good.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.