Why Food Cravings Can't Torture You Forever

The biology of cellular responsiveness means cravings decrease over time.

Posted Dec 22, 2018

Are you frightened you'll be tortured with cravings forever if you don't indulge?  But this is not  the case.  Let go of a particular treat (or cut way down on it) and your cravings should decrease with time.  If you do indulge, on the other hand, your cravings increase!

The reason has to do with two fairly well studied mechanisms called "down-regulation" and "up-regulation."  Down-regulation is the process by which a cell, for example a neuron in the pleasure center of your brain, decreases the quantity of a component such as RNA or protein in response to an external stimulus.  In plain English, the cells that make you feel pleasure in response to food become less responsive the more intense that food is, and the more frequently you eat it.

So, for example, eat a chocolate bar every day and the pleasure center in your brain will down-regulate its response over time.  So will your taste buds, which means the natural sugars in an apple will cease to taste nearly as good as they used to.  And sadly, you'll require progressively more chocolate and sugar to get the same effect.  In the extreme, you might feel you need chocolate just to feel "normal"... you actually feel displeasure without it.

But the good news is, stop eating that chocolate and within a few weeks your taste buds and the circuitry in your pleasure center will up-regulate to become more responsive once again.  And this happens a lot more quickly than most of us believe.  It often begins within just a few weeks.

What's the rub?  You won't be tortured forever.  Ignore a craving and it should be slightly weaker tomorrow...even more so the next day.  (Which, by the way, is why you should be thankful for your cravings - you can't extinguish them without having them!)  "Might as well just indulge today and tomorrow" is the wrong advice because every food choice we make either helps reinforce or extinguish our addictions.   So if you're in a hole, stop digging!  

It's a simple formula really - "that which fires together wires together" (neuroplasticity).  Feed a craving and it gets stronger.  Starve it and it gets weaker.  Until, within a few months it's virtually non-existent.

I haven't eaten chocolate in years and I can't remember the last time I had a craving.  I literally walk by the smells, sites, and sounds of chocolate in the supermarket and think nothing of it.  I don't even have to remember why I don't eat it because chocolate simply doesn't look like a treat to me anymore, it looks more like chemicals in a brown wrapper.  (Might as well be pooh as far as I'm concerned because I have no desire for it either way.) 

But when I first thought about giving up chocolate the internal noise in my head was louder than ever. I thought it would be literally impossible. I thought I'd go out of my mind from the cravings.  (Ever heard the phrase "Just hand over the chocolate and nobody gets hurt!?")

But once I decided give it up, those cravings went away much faster than I expected.  Now, I'm not saying everyone should quit chocolate - I'm just illustrating how down-regulation and up-regulations work so you can more effectively take control of your food.   They work on a continuum too - so if you are the kind of person who can have a little chocolate without getting carried away with it, for example, you can just cut way back and you'll still get some of the up-regulation effect.  

You won't be tortured forever.  Freedom is a lot closer than you think.  Every food choice is an opportunity for either self-harm or self-love... and you can always use the present moment to be healthy.

References

Walker DM, Nestler EJ (2018). "Neuroepigenetics and addiction". Handb Clin Neurol. 148: 747–765