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The best way to beat food cravings? Fill up on the objects of your desire

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Research has shown that dieters’ attempts to resist eating certain foods appear to lead to cravings for those foods.

Food cravings are a common phenomenon. Most of us have an intense desire to eat a specific food at some time, not always linked to hunger. So, what’s the cause?

A popular view is that food cravings result from a bodily need for certain nutrients, and in the body’s wisdom, we’re driven to eat the particular foods that can nourish us. As an intuitive-eating advocate, I believe that our body does guide us in our eating. But when it comes to cravings, there is more to this than meets the eye.

For example, chocolate and sweet items in general tend to top the craved-foods list in Western countries. With their high sugar and fat content, they tend to cop a lot of negativity.

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Add to that ominous headlines such as “Food cravings linked to impulsive eating and overeating” and “Cravings the link between stress and weight gain” and the overarching message is that such urges are a problem and should be resisted. The reality, though, is that cravings are probably a symptom of an underlying problem.

Researchers have found the craving experiences of dieters are stronger, more difficult to resist and slower to disappear than those of non-dieters. A 2007 review in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society reported that dieters deprive themselves of not only food energy but also foods they enjoy, and sacrifice variety as they follow prescribed diet plans.

What we now know is that monotony and self-restriction lead to increased food cravings. This has been shown by feeding adults a nutritionally adequate but totally boring liquid diet for five days. Unsurprisingly, trial participants craved the very foods they were being denied.

Researchers have also found that dieters’ attempts to resist eating certain foods appear to lead to cravings for those foods. In one study, 70% of cravings were for foods dieters were restricting.

This has been demonstrated in clinical trials: when protein-rich foods were limited, the participants wanted protein-rich foods; if complex-carbohydrate-containing foods were limited, the participants craved those foods; if they were given only vanilla-containing desserts during a trial, they craved the withheld chocolate desserts.

In other words, we want what we can’t have. That may be partly explained by ironic process theory, which says that the more we tell ourselves not to think about something, the more we think about it.

For example, when researchers told a group of students to stop eating a favourite food for a period of time, the students reported more thoughts about the restricted food. Tell a dieter not to eat chocolate, then all they can think about is chocolate.

In our correspondent’s case, perhaps she thinks she shouldn’t be eating so much salmon, which drives her to eat more.

The best advice for cravings is, first, ensure you’re eating for physical rather than emotional hunger and, second, give yourself permission to eat any food you want by removing all mental and physical food restrictions.

You may behave like a kid in a candy store at first, but just like the candy-overloaded kid, eventually you’ll tire of the freely available food and move on with your life with fewer cravings.

This article was first published in the February 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.