You know you’ve had that moment — that sudden desire — to eat something with no rational reason. This is the classic sign of a food craving, but little good generally comes from it.
“Most cravings are emotional, and there’s a difference between emotional hunger and actual hunger,” says Mary Beth Sodus, a Nutritional Therapist and Registered Dietician at the University of Maryland Medical Center. “They hit people above the neck as a taste for something, not actual hunger,” she says.
The desire for a particular food item can be powerful and has the ability to fully consume someone’s thoughts until satisfied. But just as easily as the mind gets you into these situations, it can get you out. “Cravings will go away if you wait them out, but people rarely do this,” says Sodus. Food cravings can encompass tastes for a range of flavors, but more commonly sugar, salty foods, hearty carbohydrates, caffeine, chocolate — its own class away from sugar cravings — and dairy products, according to Sodus. Each has its own underlying cause, she says, from a need for energy, to be alert, be comforted, have a time-out and even be anesthetized in some way in order to relax.
Their sudden nature adds a further layer to making these cravings unhealthy. They can strike suddenly and at a time when the only options available are likely to be bad for you. “People aren’t going to be cooking for an hour [to fulfill a craving], so it becomes drive-thru mode,” says Sodus. But Sodus believes people can fend off these needs by being more mindful of them.
“Mindful eating is an antidote to cravings,” says Sodus. “But you have to practice when they’re mild,” she warns. As part of her approach, Sodus recommends certain “safe-foods” that can help satisfy cravings without the added calories and eventually steer them away. These foods include a grapefruit, small red baked potatoes, carrots, and salads filled with greens and fiber. The latter examples work by filling people up quickly, but they all work by buying time, particularly the grapefruit as the slow, strategic method of eating one can lead to a craving forgotten.
“They can buy time to ride out the intense craving,” she says.
Other experts in the field of both nutrition and psychology also adhere to this idea, many of whom work in the field of weight management, where cravings play a big role in causing people to become overweight.
“One of the main reasons people overeat is due to food cravings,” says Anne Hsu, a Behavioural Scientist at Queen Mary’s University of London.
Hsu’s team have been developing their own methods of buying time for people to ride out their cravings. Instead of safe foods, however, they’re going straight into the brain — and getting people to distract themselves.
The potential for distraction
“It doesn’t work to just tell people not to eat something,” says Hsu. “All behaviors come from underlying desires and changing the root cause of that behavior could have more affect.”
Hsu wants to stop people relying on willpower to get them through a craving and instead get them using their imagination. A widely tested theory in the field of nutrition is that food cravings exist because people are imagining them, according to Hsu, and by getting people to imagine something else you can get them to forget about them.
“If you hijack that part of the brain [imagining
the food] then it can’t sustain the craving
anymore,” says Hsu.
In 2014, her team trialled an app, called iCrave, where they hijacked people’s thoughts by asking them to do certain tasks — such as
imagining a forest, or a white horse –to interfere with the food they were imagining beforehand. During the trial, 48 people used the app by pressing a button whenever they felt a craving, in order to be given a task at that moment and results showed significant reductions in both snacking overall, and unhealthy snacking.
“This proved we can redirect mental processes with another task,” says Hsu who highlights the importance of people choosing to do this themselves.
“You don’t need a phone to do this task, you can chose an imagery task for yourself,” she says. Another study recently showed that the computer game Tetris, if played for just three minutes, can weaken cravings for food, but also drugs, sex and sleep.
“Playing Tetris decreased craving strength for drugs, food, and activities from 70% to 56%. This is the first demonstration that cognitive interference can be used outside the lab to reduce cravings,” said Jackie Andrade from Plymouth University, who led the study, in a statement. The results again tie in to this idea of stopping people imagining a food item, or activity, they want to eat or do. “Playing a visually interesting game like Tetris occupies the mental processes that support that imagery; it is hard to imagine something vividly and play Tetris at the same time.”
Next time the desire strikes to reach for some chocolate, you could try setting your imagination going instead.