Psychological Strategies Can Reduce Your Cravings
Your uncontrollable craving for a bar of Snickers bar is real enough – but it is probably not because your body lacks chocolate or sugar. A health psychologist offers you tips on how to prevent cravings from turning into eating.
The vast majority of people know cravings: that intense urge for a particular food that occurs, for example, when you sit on the sofa and just HAVE to eat some chocolate.
Many believe that cravings are caused by low blood sugar, or that the body lacks certain other nutrients. In the vast majority of cases, however, cravings are due to an unconscious expectation of what is consumed in certain situations based on what we usually do.
Research shows that psychological strategies can reduce cravings or reduce the risk of eating something when you experience them. In this article, I will present some of these strategies.
What are cravings?
A craving is an intense urge to consume a particular food, and this urge can occur regardless of how hungry or full you are.
The urge can feel very difficult or almost impossible to control, and it can be problematic for several reasons.
Firstly, research has found a link between cravings and BMI – people with higher BMI generally experience cravings more often, and the more often you crave a certain kind of food, the more often you end up eating this food.
Cravings can thus contribute to both creating and maintaining the condition of being overweight and obese.
Secondly, cravings can be uncomfortable in themselves because thoughts and mental images of food, and the struggle not to start eating, can disturb everyday life.
The vast majority of people experience cravings. Chocolate usually comes out on top when investigating what people in Western countries most often crave, and after this come foods high in fat and/or sugar – the picture changes, however, depending on culture and (in some studies) gender.
Cravings are expectations
It can feel as if the body really lacks chocolate. However, research does not support the claim that certain foods are craved because the body lacks nutrients found in this food.
On the contrary, research points to a longer psychological processas an explanation for why cravings occur.
If you usually enjoy a particular food in a particular situation (for example, chocolate in front of the television), you can subconsciously begin to form an expectation that this situation and the consumption of this particular food occur together.
Gradually, our senses begin to pick up signs that a 'watch TV and eat chocolate' situation is on the way long before we have entered the living room in the evening – and this happens completely unconsciously.
The sight, sound and feeling of the things we usually do before we go into the living room in the evening will result in a message being sent to, for example, the brain's 'reward centre', stomach and mouth to get ready – still without us having conscious thoughts about the chocolate.
If the TV viewing is not immediately accompanied by chocolate eating (for example, because you are trying to cut back a little), the conscious thoughts will gradually begin to register: 'do we have a little something...?'
If the chocolate still does not come, thoughts can develop into vivid imagery – a kind of 'pre-living': you can taste the chocolate, smell it, feel the nuts crunch, etc.
The thoughts and pre-living can now amplify and deepen each other. If the expectation of chocolate is still not met, the craving itself can occur: it is now experienced as an intense physical urge – as if the body must have chocolate now.
You could say that the whole process is about the brain shouting louder and louder to meet its expectations of enjoyment in this particular situation, and the expectation is created by the fact that the situation and the consumption usually go together.
Breaking the expectation
Because cravings are the result of a learnt connection between the situation and the consumption, the intensity and frequency of the cravings can be reduced overall by being put into this situation again and again and again – but without eating the usual food.
Several studies have even found that when participants consumed fewer calories overall, cravings for specific foods also decreased.
In addition, a team of researchers found that cravings were perceived as less challenging if participants thought that the food they were craving was not actually available.
This finding backs the argument for trying to make it very difficult for yourself to get hold of the chocolate by not having it in the house, for example.
In addition, cravings come in waves, and this means that if one can hold off for a while (research points to about 10 minutes), the craving eases off and becomes absent for a period.
This means that you do not need to fear that the unpleasant feeling and preoccupation will just become more and more intense as you sit on the couch and try to concentrate on the film – it starts, rises, peaks and eases off.
Can we deflect our attention and change the content of our thoughts?
But should you just make sure that you do not have chocolate in the house and then use raw self-control to persevere, night after night, until the craving becomes less frequent and intense?
The answer is no. Fortunately, there is a great deal of research into what one can try to do.
Control-based strategies are about steering thoughts or attention somewhere else, or changing the content of thoughts so that the food is no longer so attractive.
An example of attention control is distraction; for example, playing Tetris on the phone for five minutes or solving word puzzles.
Attempts to change the content of thoughts have been tested by, for example, encouraging research participants to think about the negative consequences of eating, or by thinking of the food as 'ruined' (for example, by imagining that someone had sneezed on it).
However, both distraction and negative thoughts about food have had mixed success in the various research studies; changed thoughts still focus on the food, and distraction is mainly effective if the craving process has only reached the stage of thinking about the food and not pre-experience or real craving.
Investigations have also been made into whether pre-living other activities than eating (e.g., a walk where you can almost smell the forest, hear the leaves rattle, feel the fur collar of the winter jacket) can overload the parts of the working memory that would otherwise be used to pre-experience chocolate.
Accept your cravings
Research has also been made into a third way to go: acceptance-based strategies.
These concern turning attention to thoughts, feelings and physical sensations and accepting them as transient states.
Through training, you learn that thoughts and cravings are not something you need to escape from or change, but you also do not have to take them as truths that you simply must act on.
Research on acceptance-based strategies is relatively new, and there is therefore a gap in the knowledge when it comes to how much training it takes to achieve longer-lasting effects on both the craving and the consumption.
This training can be more time consuming and is typically carried out by specially trained psychologists as part of programmes on mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Generally speaking, it seems that different strategies work depending on how advanced the craving process is: thoughts about food can be impeded by distraction, while the pre-living of eating can be interrupted by pre-living another sensory experience.
Intensive training in accepting thoughts and bodily sensations without getting lost in them or acting on them looks promising in terms of both thoughts and pre-experience; but there are still gaps in the research in this area.
So, do you lose weight?
If you want to reduce cravings because you are hoping for significant weight loss, the above strategies will probably not be enough.
In most cases, excess weight is due to more than one single reason (such as cravings for chocolate). We eat in many situations during the day – meals, snacks – and knowledge, concrete skills, temptations, cravings, norms, lack of attention, habits, price, availability and planning are just some of the factors that play into weight gain and weight loss.
Thwarting one's cravings may be a good step along the way, but most often it is the overall diet that needs to be assessed and possibly changed, for example by a dietitian.
If you experience cravings often and intensely, it is also possible that you need professional help from a specialised psychologist in order to work with experts on both the psychological and the nutritional side of eating habits and possibly weight loss.
Research also shows that people with very frequent and intense cravings are at greater risk of having an eating disorder If you have worries regarding this, the general practitioner is usually the best place to start in order to ensure high-quality assessment and specialised treatment.
Translated by Stuart Pethick, e-sp.dk translation services.
Read this article in Danish at Videnskab.dk’s Forskerzonen
'The effects of food craving and desire thinking on states of motivational challenge and threat and their physiological indices' Eating and Weight Disorders - Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity (2018), DOI: 10.1007/s40519-018-0525-y
'Derailing the streetcar named desire. Cognitive distractions reduce individual differences in cravings and unhealthy snacking in response to palatable food', Appetite (2016), DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2015.09.013