According to a recent poll by Precision Nutrition into the biggest challenges that people face in attempting to reduce their body weight, managing cravings crack the top three biggest challenges. It isn’t surprising that cravings, particularly with people who are in the midst of a rigid diet, are all that common. People often issue a threat if you are in the way of the chocolate. For that reason, cravings can be problematic for people who are looking to maintain their weight as cravings often involve high calorie dense and tasty foods. Generally, it’s pretty rare that people will have a craving for broccoli! We’ll briefly touch here on what cravings are, and what we can do to help with our own individual cravings.
So, what are cravings?
Cravings, particularly food cravings in this case, is an intensely strong need for a specific type of food. We can’t really pin down exactly how cravings emerge, however, we DO know that it is generally a complex system that includes subjective experiences, changes in physiological state, positive and negative reinforcement, and our thoughts and feelings that drive our behaviour (Brewer, et al., 2018; Hill, 2007). For example, the act of eating chips may fulfil not only the physical taste and sensations of the food, but also eating those chips may be linked to other psychological aspects, such as the chips may feel comforting or that the act of eating chips may have a strong historical connection with family tradition.
The intensity of cravings have also been linked to the strength of mental images of a particular food, such as the strength of the imagined sight, smell, and taste (Boswell & Kober, 2016). For example, a heightened imagined smell, taste, texture and so on, of say fried chicken, may elicit a stronger desire (and may even start salivating!) for that food. What all this tells us is that cravings come about through different means, and are varied from individual to individual.
It is important to note that cravings are different from hunger. Cravings are more strongly tied with emotions. For example, cravings that lead to instances of binge eating are more likely to happen due to difficult emotions rather than hunger pangs (Hill, 2007). However, you could assume that hunger, or rather an overall reduction of calories throughout the day, could influence cravings to a certain extent. You would be right, but not in the way you may think.
A reduction in calories doesn’t necessarily increase cravings. In fact, one recent meta-analysis (Kahathuduwa, Binks, Martin & Dawson, 2017) reported that eating less calories is associated with a reduction in food cravings! On the face of it, this sounds completely ludicrous and illogical. After all, if I’m using all my will to not eat the tasty and high calorie food to reduce my calories, this surely doesn’t reduce my cravings at all! And in fact I want to eat it all!
What this points to, then, is that it isn’t about the overall reduction of calories, it is more about the forced depravation of your favourite foods. For instance, if you force yourself to not eat certain foods that you like, it is likely that you’ll eventually give in and eat a whole bunch of it (Polivy, Coleman & Herman, 2005). Therefore, an increase in cravings is more about psychological factors (i.e., not allowing yourself your favourite foods) rather than true caloric restriction. Couple your restriction of your favourite foods with difficult emotions (such sadness or stress), it can greatly increase your cravings and subsequent chances of uncontrolled and binge eating (Fahrenkamp, Darling, Ruzicka & Sato, 2019).
While we have a limited grasp of the development of cravings, we know that cravings, and ensuing binge eating, can result in some pretty hefty consequences.
For example, cravings have been connected to obesity, disordered eating (such as bulimia nervosa), anxiety, and a decreased quality of life (Forman, et al., 2007; Kemps & Tiggemann, 2010).In fact, the lack of success in overweight individuals in weight loss programs may be due to difficulties in managing strong cravings (Lowe, 2003). The need to curb cravings then, can be viewed as important in order to maintain a healthy relationship with food.
That's all well and good guy, but what can I do about it?!
I’ve listed below a number of strategies that you can do to help with some of your cravings. Some of these may work better than others, but have a play with some of them and see what works for you! All these suggested strategies have much much more to it than what is described below, but I have summarised them for simplicity's sake.
1. Don’t deprive yourself of your favourite foods!
If I say to you “don’t think of a pink elephant…”, it’s unlikely that you’re not NOT thinking of that pink elephant. In much the same way, if you are continually tasking yourself to not eat certain foods, it is likely that the thoughts and cravings will increase in intensity (and now that’s all I can think about!). This may lead to binging on those foods. Instead, allow yourself to have moderate amounts of these forbidden foods in order to prevent craving and overeating.
2. Thought alterations
See if you can challenge or restructure some of your thoughts that relate to your cravings. If you really need a certain food group, perhaps see if you can challenge this idea. Included in these thought alterations is to try and mentally distract yourself from your favourite foods.
3. Use acceptance-based strategies
These strategies can seem opposing to that of thought alterations. Particularly, acceptance-based strategies consist of noticing your internal experiences and thought processes, and to accept them without trying to change them in any way. Try to step back from these thoughts (or diffuse from these thoughts) as these can reduce the unpleasant experience of wanting something forbidden.
4. Change your environment
Alter your house/work/living space that reduces the likelihood of you continuously eating these high calorie foods. This may involve reducing the amount of chocolate in the household or buy individually wrapped items to make it more difficult to binge. A word of warning though: while it may work in the short term to eliminate all these foods from your household, this may actually induce stronger cravings and an inability to manage cravings when you’re out at your next party, with all your favourite foods and drinks on display!
5. Examine your emotions
Investigate and determine your difficult emotions and how these contribute to your cravings. Emotional eating is a big topic, and we’ve touch on some aspects of emotional eating here. It may be worth contacting us to take a look at how you can better manage some of these emotions and subsequent craving and binge eating.
I hope the above information helps, and let us know if any or all of the above has worked for you! Also, if you have any burning questions in anything exercise and psychology related, let us know at info@Dualist.com.au and we may turn it into a future article! If you would like further assistance for this or other psychology/exercise issues, please Contact us!
|David Simich is the principal exercise psychological specialist at Dualist. He is a fully registered psychologist and qualified personal trainer. Additionally, David is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society and World Obesity, and is internationally recognised for his obesity management expertise through the Strategic Centre for Obesity Professional Education. David’s qualifications consist of a Master in Applied Psychology (Murdoch University) and a Master in Exercise Science (University of Western Australia).|
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Forman, E. M., Hoffman, K. L., McGrath, K. B., Herbert, J. D., Brandsma, L. L., & Lowe, M. R. (2007). A comparison of acceptance- and control-based strategies for coping with food cravings: an analog study. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45, 2372-2386.
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