Polly Campbell

Polly Campbell

Imperfect Spirituality

Easy Ways to Curb Cravings

Keeping your brain busy can help you manage the urge to eat

Posted Oct 29, 2015

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The bag of miniature Snickers is sealed in the cupboard 20 steps from where I sit.

They’ve been there for three days, which, in my world, is a major accomplishment. But, I’ll probably have one or two before the weekend, because one way I’ve learned to manage my cravings is to have a small taste. The other things I do to manage my cravings for junk food have little to do with food. 

The Biology Behind Cravings

Food cravings activate three regions deep within the brain: the hippocampus, insula, and caudate, according to research from the Monell Chemical Senses Center.  And, those regions are powerfully linked to our memory, emotions, and reward centers, which can cause us to feel good – or at least better – when we eat certain foods.

In other words, certain foods can comfort us. For me it’s pasta or chips. No surprise then that my cravings for Mac & Cheese emerge most often when I’m feeling stressed or tired.

Often we crave foods like chocolate or ice cream or French fries and starches and other foods high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates -- all of which chemically create a calming effect in our bodies, says the director of the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition Adam Drewnowski.

Those foods can boost the hormone serotonin while reducing the stress-related hormones like cortisol. All this helps us soothe ourselves. A good thing, to be sure. But too much of a good thing can also contribute to weight gain, high cholesterol and other health risks.

So, the key comes down to craving management.

Managing the Craving

Completely restricting the foods you crave isn’t the answer, yet satisfying every craving by eating a half-gallon of ice cream isn’t a healthy solution either. So, what do we do?

The easiest way for me to put off the craving – until I become more mindful of what it is I’m craving and why – is to not keep certain snack foods in the house. Right now, there are no chips in the pantry. So, I had a few salty Greek olives with a small piece of feta and felt satisfied.

Others find that their chocolate craving can be satisfied with a few M&Ms or a taste of another sweet.

But one interesting piece of research says looking at pictures of the food we crave, can keep us from it. 

In one experiment half of the participants looked at pictures of salty foods like French fries and the other half looked at images of ice cream and chocolate. The more pictures they looked at, the less pleasure they got from the actual food, says researcher Ryan Elder, who led the study.

It’s a little like eating that first chip – it always tastes so good -- but by the time you hit the bottom of the bag, you’re sick of chips. The more food pictures people looked at the more likely they were to become sick of the food, even before eating it.

Three Ways to End Cravings

Another way I can ease my craving for junk food in the afternoon is to eat a good breakfast with fruit and protein and usually a whole-grain piece of bread or cereal. Research backs this up.

In a study, Heather Leidy and other researchers found that those who ate a good breakfast were less likely to crave sweets later in the day and those who ate a high-protein breakfast were less likely to want high fat foods. 

Works for me.

Walk to End Chocolate Cravings

Craving chocolate? Go for a walk. A brisk 15-minute walk was shown in an experiment to end the urge for sweet and sugary snacks, perhaps because the exercise diminishes the stress that can fuel cravings

Keep Your Brain Busy

Finally, distracting your brain with other things may be the easiest way to thwart cravings for the sweet and savory. In one study, just three minutes playing the video game Tetris helped curb the urge to eat. 

Immersing yourself in dynamic visual activities – like video games – or tapping your imagination to think about stunning visual display can take our mind of the cravings until we no longer have them anymore.

And, if they do return, a focus on the long-term impact of our food choices can keep us from indulging and make it easier for us to make healthier choices, according to Brown University researcher Kathryn Demos.

With a few of these strategies we can take charge of our cravings rather than letting them control us. And yes, the Snickers are still there, in the cupboard, 20 st

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