Food cravings are a common experience for the majority of people and over 90% report having them. However, how we handle these cravings can vary greatly. Some people indulge in their desired foods without concern, while others feel overwhelmed by cravings and end up overeating. When individuals give into cravings, they often attribute it to lack of self control.
However, in actuality - cravings are influenced by a complex interplay of brain neurons in the reward centre in our body, appetite hormones, behavioural conditioning, and easy access to tempting and pleasurable foods that reinforce the cycle of craving.
Cravings can be triggered by sensory stimuli, such as the aroma of freshly baked bread near a bakery, as well as by specific situations and emotions. For instance, after a stressful day at work, one might seek comfort in fast food. Cravings can also arise during enjoyable moments, like wanting popcorn or candy while watching a movie. Studies indicate that "hyperpalatable" foods, which combine fat, sugar, salt, and carbohydrates, can disrupt brain signals, leading to persistent cravings even when the body is physically satisfied.
Food cravings and hunger are different concepts but are connected to each other.
Food cravings are believed to initiate eating behavior and often result in consuming the desired food. In laboratory studies, it has been observed that food cravings do not always lead to excessive food consumption.
Research suggests that specific food cravings are associated with the consumption of similar foods. For example, individuals with a craving for sweets tend to consume candies like jelly beans and M&M's, while those with a craving for high-fat foods tend to consume regular potato chips.
Food Craving Prevalence
It is widely agreed upon that food cravings are common, occurring in 58-97% of adults in industrialised countries. Women tend to report more food cravings than men, and cravings and food intake often increase during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. Pregnant women, especially, frequently experience cravings, with a preference for sweet foods like chocolate, fruit, and fruit juice.On average, individuals report having around 3-4 food cravings per week, with the majority of cravings happening in the evening.
Craved foods tend to be high in energy density and fat. Chocolate is the most commonly craved food in industrialised countries, particularly among women, with approximately 90% of people reporting cravings for chocolate. In fact, chocolate cravings account for about 49-60% of all food cravings reported.
How Dieting Can Make Cravings Worse
In the 1940s, diet researcher Ancel Keys conducted a study known as the "starvation study" where 36 men were asked to reduce their food intake from 3,500 to 1,600 calories per day. This restriction led to a significant psychological change in the men, as they became fixated on food, even planning and food-related careers. In a more recent study, researchers including Dr. Traci Mann used a tempting box of chocolates to examine the effects of food restriction. Half of the participants were on a restricted diet, while the other half ate their regular diet. Despite being instructed not to eat the chocolates, the dieters ended up consuming more chocolates compared to those not restricting their food intake. This demonstrates that food restriction can lead to a loss of control over eating, increased attention to food, and heightened cravings.
How to Manage Cravings
Practice "urge surfing"
Identify the craving by acknowledging, "I'm having the urge to eat..."
Observe how the craving manifests in your body and emotions.
Be open to accepting the experience rather than trying to suppress it.
Pay attention to the craving as it rises, peaks, and eventually subsides.
Ask, "How little is enough?"
Recognise that it's not inherently wrong to satisfy a food craving unless it becomes problematic.
Develop mindfulness around eating by paying attention to every chip or bite consumed.
Notice how many chips or bites it takes to feel satisfied and gradually reduce the quantity.
Find a bigger, better offer:
Shift the focus to the taste and satisfaction derived from the food.
Replace problem foods with higher-quality alternatives that provide similar fulfillment.
Managing food cravings requires a multifaceted approach that involves understanding the underlying factors contributing to cravings, adopting strategies like urge surfing and mindfulness to navigate cravings, exploring portion control and satisfaction levels, and finding healthier alternatives.
By developing awareness, acceptance, and mindful eating practices, individuals can gain better control over their cravings and make choices that align with their overall health and well-being.
Remember, it's not about completely eliminating cravings, but rather finding a balance that allows for enjoying food while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.