Chips and dip.
Ruffles and onion dip, to be precise. Yeah. I could go for some of that right now.
Seems like every afternoon I’m seeking something salty. The latest food craving.
Other times it’s ice cream after I get my daughter in bed. Sometimes it is pasta.
While I don’t believe in abstinence — meaning if my body feels like eating a particular type of food, I’m likely to eat at least a little bit of it — I don’t want to be at the whim of my cravings, either.
But food cravings are much more than a desire to chow down on chips. Three regions of the brain are activated when we are craving something, including our memory centers, which associate certain foods with rewards.
Aside from the biological changes, cravings also are a way to manage emotional stress and anxiety, says Adam Drewnowski, the director of the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition.
Often we crave food high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. These can have a calming effect, Drewnowski says. Foods high in those items also can boost the hormone serotonin while reducing stress-related hormones. Though cravings may be a way to soothe ourselves, they can also lead to weight gain, high cholesterol and other health risks.
But completely restricting the foods you crave isn’t going to help ease the craving. Satisfying every craving by eating a half-gallon of ice cream isn’t a healthy solution, either. So what do we do?
Until I become more mindful of what I’m craving and why, I simply don’t keep certain snack foods in the house. Right now, there are no chips in the pantry. A few salty Greek olives with a small piece of feta helped me feel 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 such as French fries. 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 pictures of food people looked at the more likely they were to become sick of that food.
Another way to ease afternoon cravings for junk food 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 later.
In another study, a brisk 15-minute walk was shown to end the urge for sweet and sugary snacks. Cravings often occur when we are under stress and we want to fill up on the foods that comfort us. Go for a walk instead and the exercise will help diminish your stress and the cravings.
Finally, distracting your brain 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 such as video games or tapping your imagination to think about stunning visual displays can defeat the cravings, too.
If they do return, Brown University researcher Kathryn Demos says that focusing on the long-term impacts of our food choices can keep us from indulging.
With a few of these strategies, we can take charge of our cravings, rather than letting them control us.
Larson, J.S., Redden, J.P., & Elder, R. S. (2014). Satiation from sensory simulation: Evaluating foods decreases enjoyment of similar foods. Journal of Consumer Psychology, Vol. 24(2), 188-194.
Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2014). Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings. Appetite, Vol. 76, 161-165.
Hoertel, H.A., Will, M.J., & Leidy, H.A. (2014). A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs. high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese “breakfast skipping”, late-adolescent girls. Nutrition Journal, Vol. 13:80.
Ledochowski, L., Ruedl, G., Taylor, A.H., & Kopp, M. (2015). Acute Effects of Brisk Walking on Sugary Snack Cravings in Overweight People, Affect and Responses to a Manipulated Stress Situation and to a Sugary Snack Cue: A Crossover Study. PLoS ONE 10(3): e0119278. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119278
Chips and dip photo available from Shutterstock