What is Santa going to leave you in your stocking? Gourmet cupcakes? Chocolate? Gift certificates for a double cheeseburger? Chances are that if you are on a diet right now, you experienced some cravings based solely on the food words printed above. The universal thing about cravings is that the more monotonous the diet you are on (think chalky protein shake) the more cravings you’ll experience. The most identifiable thing about the foods people crave is that they are high in calories.
Some research shows that cravings may have less to do with biology and more to do with psychology. In one study, researchers used MRIs to investigate which areas of the brain are involved in food cravings. The brain scans completed during the study, showed that parts of the brain involved in cravings—the hippocampus, for one—are identical to those involved in drug addiction. This helps reinforce the reward-seeking behavior that causes us to crave.
What are your favorite holiday memories? Memories of savory foods- like turkey, sage dressing, and homemade pecan pie? Or memories of stimulating conversation, serene church services or silly relatives wearing bows on their head? Wouldn’t you like to preserve these precious memories? The hippocampus is also important for memory. Newer research shows that exercise increases the size of the hippocampus and can help you hang onto your favorite memories. Exercise also increases blood flow to the brain and helps stave off dementia with its resulting memory loss.
Just say “no” to cravings and poor lifestyle.
Hormones are also involved. As an enjoyable food is consumed, the pleasant feeling of the experience is determined in part by hormone receptors. Over time, these receptors may become less sensitive to the hormones produced when we enjoy a particular food. Eventually, we may need to consume more and more of that food to have the same pleasant experience, similar to the reward circuit seen in drug and cigarette addictions.
Other things that can send you on an M&Ms run to the vending machine include stress, being in a particular place and reaching a particular time of day. Perhaps not surprisingly, research done at the Medical University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago indicate that these conditioned responses are stronger when we are hungry or dieting.
But do those diet-induced cravings stick around? Maybe not. Research from the HNRCA suggests that cravings may peak during a diet. In a study published in the October 2013 issue of Appetite, participants reported the frequency and intensity of their cravings during a weight-loss program. At the beginning, they reported desiring sweets, carbs and fast foods. However, as participants lost weight, their hunger levels decreased, along with their cravings.
The good news? Understanding that memory and hunger have such large roles in eliciting cravings makes creating a toolbox to manage them that much easier. Next time you have a craving you want to beat, try one of these tricks:
Try beating the craving at its own game. Cravings use working memory, specifically the parts of the brain involved in sights and smells. Visualizing a vivid picture, such as a detailed rainbow, uses that same working memory. A study at McGill University showed that engaging in memory activities that use the imagery sections of the brain reduced cravings. Using imagery was key: Visualizing a favorite activity worked for the participants, while saying the alphabet backward did not.
Smells are strongly tied to our memories and emotions. When you smell something that is associated with a happy time, the brain perks up. The smell cues a desire to experience the pleasure again, and we may consequently crave an associated food.
Fortunately, we can outsmart our brains here, too. It seems that smelling a nonfood odor may help to defeat that craving. A study from Flinders University in Australia showed that after smelling jasmine, college-aged women reported their craving for chocolate lessened. The theory is that smelling a pleasant—but not mouth-watering—odor may once again monopolize the working memory.
For this trick, you can accomplish two healthful things at once: calm the craving and get in a workout. A British study in the journal Appetite showed that women who walked on a treadmill when a chocolate craving hit reported a reduction in their desire for the sweet. This supports the idea that engaging in any physical activity will help curb cravings.
Roberts suggests including only a few unhealthy items in your diet to help control cravings. “Pick the ones that you love and have [just] them, not a wide variety. And then have them occasionally, not all the time.”
In fact, surrendering every now and then may be beneficial—if you do it the right way.
“The best thing is to have a similar flavor that addresses the cravings, but in a food that is more satisfying,” says Roberts.
Cravings are also culturally driven. In the United States, no food is considered more crave-worthy than chocolate, especially among women. Even the idea that women are physiologically driven to crave chocolate when they’re premenstrual has a lot of cultural acceptance. Yet women from other cultures do not report similar hankerings, researchers have found. And a 2009 study of pre- and post-menopausal American women conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that self-reported chocolate cravings did not appear to abate after menopause to the degree that would be expected if the cravings were hormonally driven.