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Can you outsmart your cravings?

Yes! Karen Fittall has sought out expert advice on overcoming yearnings for chocolate, biscuits, chips and more.

Cravings are defined as a ‘strong desire for a particular food’ as opposed to general hunger, when any type of food will fit the bill. When cravings hit – and many of us experience them frequently – they can seem like an unstoppable force. This is all perfectly normal, say the experts, with research showing that as many as 97 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men experience food cravings. Females aged between 18 and 35 have been found to be particularly susceptible.

The big question is why? Dr Peta Stapleton from Queensland’s Griffith University is undertaking a study investigating how to overcome food cravings, and says there are likely to be a number of things at work. “There’s no one answer. Certain physiological and hormonal factors have been shown to have a role, then there are psychological aspects to consider. Then there’s the fact that, for some people, exposure to environmental cues is enough to trigger a craving.”

Whatever the reason, don’t fall for the myth that ‘it’s your body’s way of telling you it needs something’. Researchers worldwide have debunked that theory, finding that a nutritional deficiency isn’t necessary for a food craving to be present (which probably explains why we crave chocolate rather than something good for us, like carrots). So what’s really to blame?

Less than 40 per cent of cravers say they're actually hungry when a craving strikes. On the habit side of things, researchers from Philadelphia, US have discovered when food cravings take place, they activate a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is also instrumental in habit formation. What that means is that we learn to associate certain foods with certain situations, which explains why we may crave popcorn as soon as we step into a movie theatre – even if we're stuffed from just eating dinner. It's a habit.

"People completely under-estimate how much their environment impacts on their behaviour, and particularly eating behaviour," explains Dr Leah Brennan, a clinical and health psychologist who specialises in weight and eating behaviour. "We're very influenced by our environment," she says, and also by foods which evoke happy memories. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that the foods we crave are often those that trigger happy past associations, or feelings that a person wants to recapture.

How to beat it

Dr Brennan's tip is to start recognising your triggers. "Keeping a food diary, noting down what you eat, in which situations, with which people, and how you were feeling at the time is a good start.

"It'll help you develop an awareness of the fact that, for example, you tend to eat chocolate whenever you're in front of the TV, and awareness is the first step to making a change." This theory is backed up by British research, which found that consciousness of eating habits, encouraged by diary keeping, is associated with lower consumption of high-fat snacks.

Once you've figured out your craving triggers, don't rely on willpower to overcome them or you may be setting yourself up for failure. Instead, you may need to change your routine.

The need for this was shown by American researchers who found that physical locations are some of the most powerful cues to behaviour. Actually changing the environment is a better tactic than just relying on willpower alone to overcome a craving.

Most of us know how it feels – craving chocolate (or anything) as a result of stress. And researchers from Leeds University have proved that stressful situations can indeed make people opt for high-fat, high-sugar snacks, rather than healthier food choices. Their study showed how stress caused by events such as arguing with a colleague or friend, a meeting with the boss, missing a deadline or even something like losing keys, was enough to cause people to eat more in-between-meal snacks.

But stress isn't the only emotion capable of causing cravings. When another group of researchers in the US monitored two groups of people – one watching a happy, feel-good movie and the other watching a sad flick – they found those in the sad flick group consumed 36 per cent more popcorn as a result. Even your gender can influence which emotions spark a craving. While women are more likely to crave a particular food when they are depressed or sad, it's when men are happy that their cravings usually escalate.

How to beat it

Find other ways to deal with your emotions. Dr Brennan explains: "Once you've recognised which emotions might be triggering your cravings with the help of a food diary, try to add some other coping mechanisms to your repertoire, so you've got things to turn to other than food when you experience the emotions which typically cause you to eat."

So what's the best coping mechanism to choose? Exercise, say British scientists, who found that a simple 15-minute walk was sufficient to significantly reduce food cravings for chocolate, even when people were tempted by being asked to unwrap a sweet treat.

It seems that old saying about wanting what you can't have is true. Canadian researchers have found people deprived of chocolate experience more food cravings than unrestrained eaters and they are more likely to subsequently eat the craved food when they're finally exposed to it. It gets even worse for those people cutting carbohydrates in an effort to lose weight. Women who were asked to cut carbohydrates for three days reported stronger food cravings, which then translated into them eating 44 per cent more kilojoules from carbohydrate-rich foods on the fourth day.

How to beat it

Do two things. First, says Accredited Practising Dietitian Emma Stirling, work out how to incorporate your food of choice into your diet, without letting it get out of control.

"So practise portion control," she says. "Allow yourself to have a little piece of chocolate each day, enough to satisfy your craving – in terms of long-term success, it's much better than trying to go cold turkey."

Don't just try to turn a blind eye to your cravings. At least two studies have shown how people who try to quit thinking about chocolate wind up eating more – sometimes 50 per cent more – than those who verbalise and acknowledge their desire.

And mainly about the food in question. Research from Adelaide has confirmed that even when environmental or emotional cues aren't present, just thinking about the food you love is enough to spark a craving. The Flinders University study asked participants to recall and rate a previous food-craving experience and then to imagine themselves eating the food they typically crave. Not only did the researchers discover that mental imagery is a key element in sparking a food craving, but the better your ability to recall and imagine a food, the stronger the urge to eat it in real life.

How to beat it

Think about something else. It sounds simple, and it works. The same Flinders University team asked study participants who were craving chocolate to imagine smelling something non-food-related, such as freshly mown grass or clean, tumble-dried clothes. Just this simple act reduced their cravings by about 30 per cent. If that doesn't work, try sniffing some peppermint. US research found people who were regularly exposed to a peppermint aroma were better able to ward off those daily 'slumps' that cause us to seek out a sugar hit. Avoiding these cravings equated to eating at least 11,500 less kilojoules a week! Reason enough to keep some peppermint close by.

It turns out one person’s chocolate is another person’s cheese – in other words, different people crave different foods. And, according to researchers from the University of Illinois, whether you’re male or female may have a lot to do with it. It’s no surprise to learn that men find most comfort in warm, hearty, meal-related foods, such as steak and casseroles, while women tend to prefer snack-based options, such as chocolate and ice cream.

As for whether you crave sweet or salty foods, French researchers say that while the majority of food cravings aren’t linked to actual hunger, a penchant for salt is more likely to indicate your body wants a real meal, compared to a craving for chocolate.

But, regardless of the flavour of your craving, at least one study has confirmed that it’s more likely to be high-kilojoule food or fat which acts as the drawcard.

Potentially a lot, if a small study from the University of Chicago is anything to go by. Researchers found that after just two nights worth of poor sleep, where people had four hours of shut-eye rather than eight, the hormones that control appetite became confused. While leptin, the hormone responsible for telling the brain there’s no need for food, decreased by 18 per cent, ghrelin, which flicks the switch to let the body know it’s food time, increased by 28 per cent. And not only did the study participants’ hunger increase, the type of food they craved changed as well – the participants wanted foods high in both kilojoules and carbohydrates, like cookies, chips and pasta.

Something called Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) has shown promise in helping people overcome food cravings. It involves tapping on the head while reciting predetermined statements which address the problem at hand.

EFT has been described as ‘psychological acupuncture’ by Griffith University’s Dr Peta Stapleton, and the first stage of a study using EFT to reduce food cravings has just been completed. Dr Stapleton says the results are promising. “At the start, most people rated their cravings as being somewhere around the eight to 10 mark. After six months of treatment, most of which they performed on themselves at home, around 80 per cent of the people who had followed the treatment as instructed, said their food cravings had fallen to a score of zero, one or two.”

Stressed? Research has shown we'll choose M&Ms over grapes when in a stressful situation. Sick of reaching for the choccie? Research suggests exercise will help.

Researchers have found that chocolate cravers show signs of having different bacteria in their digestive system than people who are immune to chocolate's allure. They hope to use the findings to influence weight-loss.

A sweet trick to ward off that after-lunch snack attack is to chew gum. Two recent studies have shown how chewing sugar-free gum can suppress appetite and reduce afternoon kilojoule intake.

Foods with a high GI cause blood-sugar levels to spike sharply – a rush that seems to stimulate the same areas of the brain involved in nicotine addiction.

Date modified: April 3 2017
First published: Aug 2009

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