Wouldn’t it be simple if people only ate because they needed calories? unfortunately, that is not the case, it is all too easy to give in to temptation, however, science offers promising strategies to resist food cravings.
We all know the struggle… the sneaky snacks, the irresistible dessert, the aimless searching through kitchen cupboards, the unnecessary but yummy donut, and of course… binge eating through your favorite Netflix show.
The intense desire to eat a particular food is what we refer to as ‘craving’. Typically, people crave foods that are energy-dense, such as chocolate, sweets, and savories, because of the high-calorie content.
The research indicates food cravings are more likely to occur in the afternoon and evening, and interestingly, studies show the human craving for healthy food decreases throughout the day, while our craving for high-calorie food intensifies.
Its bad news for some cultures, craving certain foods may be seriously influenced by our cultural background. For instance, one study found American women typically craved chocolate, whereas women from a diverse background (foreign-born) were significantly less likely to desire high-calorie foods. This study, published in Appetite, found rice was the most craved food by Japanese women. Another study reported American women were more than twice as likely to crave sweet foods than their male counterparts, whereas, in Spain, the authors found no such sex differences in craving. This indicates that our cravings are heavily dependent on our cultural background.
Here is the good news: you can learn to control hunger, and avoid reaching for those unhealthy snacks. We are constantly bombarded with the latest “nutrition guidelines”, “best diet plans” and “hunger blocking supplements”, but in reality, the only way to resist unnecessary craving is to gain control of your appetite, to achieve this, it is first necessary to understand hunger and the enteric nervous system.
What is hunger?
In a nutshell, hunger is the absence of fullness, that is, an empty stomach. However, the biological control of appetite is much more complex because it engages several tissues, organs, hormones, and neural circuits in a feedback loop between the brain and body.
So, without getting too technical, the next section will describe hunger in laymen's terms. There are two types of hunger – homeostatic and hedonic.
Homeostatic hunger is the one that keeps you alive. It’s that grumble in your stomach when it is empty. This is the body urging the brain to act by feeding it calories for energy. This process involves the hunger hormone (Ghrelin) rising in the endocrine system and signaling that the energy stores are low, and as soon as the body receives food this hormone will be suppressed.
In the brain, there is a hunger-stimulating hormone referred to as “orexigenic peptides”, these tell you “I’m SOOO hungry!”. We also have hunger-suppressing hormones called “anorexic peptides” which let you know when you're “I’m stuffed”.
The stomach's muscular wall is surrounded by masses of nerve endings, and when full, the stomach expands, and the nerves send signals along the Vagus nerve, to the part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which among other things, is responsible for maintaining homeostasis in the body. Homeostasis is the tendency towards equilibrium, for instance: When it’s hot we sweat to cool down, when it’s cold we shiver to warm up, when dehydrated we feel thirsty, and when our energy levels are depleting, we feel hunger.
But it is not that simple, there are plenty more inputs that the brain interprets for hunger control. For instance, the digestive system has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system which has over 100 million nerve endings, these respond to the presence of specific nutrients in the bloodstream, digestive tract, and gut, such as glucose, fatty acids, vitamins, proteins, etc. Also, there are over 20 gastrointestinal hormones involved in regulating our appetite, hence the complicated nature of this process.
This was a very simplified rundown of the deeply complicated process of appetite regulation. For a more concise understanding, check this review published in the journal Obesity.
Unless intentionally fasting, we are not interested in fighting homeostatic hunger; we just hope it does its job and keeps us eating and tells us when to stop. The best way to deal with homeostatic hunger, is to eat… simple. Hedonic hunger is where we run into problems.
“Your eyes are bigger than you belly”, ever heard this saying?
This is hedonic hunger, it refers to all those times you desire food even when you don’t need the calories, in other words, when your energy levels are satisfactory, but you can’t resist an extra slice of pizza.
Hedonic hunger has much more to do with seeking pleasure from food, than seeking calories. Having said that, pleasure is an important factor in both hedonic and homeostatic hunger, but the need for calories is exclusively homeostatic.
The evidence is very clear, hedonic hunger drives people to seek pleasurable foods that are often unhealthy and high in calories, this leads to weight gain and has a negative impact on physical and mental health. The reward-seeking nature of hedonic hunger has been likened to the psychological characteristics of gambling and drug addiction.
The goal is to eat less than wanted rather than less than needed. Many people are seeking the "magic bullet" to help them stop eating, sorry to say, but they don't exist. However, there are several evidence-based strategies to fight food cravings and stop you from eating more than necessary.
#1 - Control the Crave
This simple technique will guarantee to help you reduce unnecessary snacking. All it requires is recognition of which type of hunger is driving your crave. To do this, attend to your gut. That’s it.
Research published in Appetite found body scanning reduces hunger craving. This means bringing your awareness to your gut. When you find yourself craving a snack, take a moment, and bring all your senses to your stomach. Try to get a sense of its condition… is it full? Empty? Rumbling perhaps?
Unless your fasting, homeostatic hunger just needs you to feed the machine. But hedonic hunger is a little tougher to fight. In moments of hunger, craving, or even boredom snacking (we all do it), simply re-focusing your attention to your gut will interrupt the hedonic signals, and let you take over command.
We humans have a remarkable ability to look inside and gain a sense of what’s going on. This is known as interoception, so the next time you’re about to stuff your face with cookies, ‘eyeing up’ that donut, or reaching for the 7th slice of pizza, pause for a moment… look inside, scan your body and gauge the condition of your gut.
If you want to master these techniques, take it one step further by learning the art of mindfulness. The research on mindfulness mediation has long been known to effectively manage cravings.
The ancient Buddhists understood this long before we did, according to ancient texts, craving that leads to suffering can be prevented with meditation... they weren't wrong.
#2 - Break Bad Habits
Research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science reported 40% of our daily behavior can be accounted for by habits. Habits are a natural reflex that are hardwired in us to respond to certain stimuli. We encounter these stimuli constantly throughout the day, where we may act on the habitual behavior or resist the behavior, in other words, we act out habits automatically, or, we try hard to resist them. Here are some examples:
Acting on habit: Automatically making coffee in the morning.
Resisting the habit: Resisting the lure of the cake stand in the coffee shop.
These are habitual behaviors that can be controlled. Check out this article for 5 evidence-based strategies to break bad habits and replace them with new helpful ones.
The following habit changes will help reduce unhealthy food craving:
Out of sight, out of mind - This is possibly the best way to prevent hedonic hunger. If the delicious, but unhealthy foods are in the shop and not in your cupboard, then your brain can’t be tempted by it.
Don’t take your bank card shopping - Instead, plan ahead and take just enough money to buy what you need. That way, if any treats catch your eye, you have no choice but to resist them.
Give yourself a test - If your craving a sugary snack, force yourself to eat a piece of fruit first, and then see if you still desire the sweet after.
#3 - The power of mental imagery
Mental imagery is your mind's secret power. It's that cinema in your head, often referred to as your minds eye, imagination or visualization. It's long been used for healing in psychological therapies, and recent research suggests it can help us fight unhealthy cravings.
One study found people who imagined themselves eating chocolate were less likely to eat chocolate when given the opportunity. This involved the participants using their mental imagery to imagine the sensation of chewing, tasting the sweet and creamy chocolate, and feeling it moving down their digestive system after swallowing - all of this without actually eating chocolate. Another study found people that imagined themselves engaging in their favorite activity when craving occurred, experienced less intensity in their desire to eat.
So, the next time your ‘facing the crave’, close your eyes and try to visualize yourself eating the desired food. Use all your senses to taste, smell, and feel the sensation of eating that food.
If that fails, try to interrupt the craving by imagining yourself doing something completely different. Some recommend visualizing a game of Tetris, that is, imagine the Tetris shapes falling down, rotating, and slotting into place. This could put a stop to the desire to eat unnecessary snacks.
#4 - Eat protein, and eat it slow
This technique is easy… just eat more lean protein, because it is substantially more filling, and slow down when you eat.
Typically, it takes 20 minutes for the food to get from the stomach to the ileum, causing the release of chemical messengers to the brain, telling it "I'm full down here". Also, protein keeps us feeling satiated for longer. So, if you can slow down, after 20 minutes, the sense of being satiated will sink in, and you won't feel like eating. And, if your digesting protein, you will feel satiated for longer.
One study found people who ate a protein-rich breakfast (i.e. eggs) lost 65% more weight and 16% more body weight than those who ate high carb breakfast (i.e bagels). A review article found people on a high protein diet, compared to those on a low protein diet, had increased levels of satiety (feeling full) and thermogenesis (the production of heat in the body, important for weight loss). They also found high protein associated with reduced body weight and increased fat loss.
Therefore, start your days feeding with protein-rich meals and take your time to enjoy them. A high carbohydrate breakfast, such as toast and cereal will seriously mess up your blood glucose levels by causing them to spike, and when they drop, your brain will misread that as a signal to eat.
This is interpreted as homeostatic hunger because of the sudden drop in energy, but in fact, it’s the brain being deceived. Once that drop-in blood sugar happens, hedonic hunger is going to demand a sugary treat. This is mostly avoidable by managing your food intake.
The Bottom Line:
Hunger is a complex signal that should not be ignored. The strategies described above are evidence-based, this means they are backed by science. This is extremely important in a world that bombards us with tempting food adverts, weight loss supplements, and hunger blockers. Many of which, do not work as advertised. The most effective method is the tune in to your body, remember that word “interoception”, it’s the lesser-known sense, that can be both conscious and unconscious. Start training yourself in these techniques, they will quickly become habit.
A last word from Upmanship:
There are many hunger blocking supplements on the market, sometimes called appetite-suppressing supplements. Approach these with caution because there is no strong body of evidence to support any of these products. Not to say they don't work, but the jury is still out.