Cravings : What causes them and how to beat them



By Murtaza Ahmed MD

Cravings are probably the biggest reason why diets fail, so it prudent we should spend some time discussing them.  I am actually writing this piece because I myself just spent the past hour battling a craving for chocolate.  It goes without saying that I beat it and settled for some fruit and I want to share with you the techniques available for fighting them off so your diet too can be a success.

The first thing you should realize is that cravings affect everyone, yes everyone.  You should not feel weak if you suffer them on a daily basis or constantly falter and give in to them.  They are incredibly powerful and have the ability to make you believe that you actually need the snack or treat.  Luckily, as with most things, once you understand the mechanism behind them you can develop ways to combat them and stop the resultant disappointment to which they inevitably lead.

The human body is designed to survive.  For many years the human race has had to survive in a variety of harsh environments where food may not have been plentiful.  One of the ways it managed to do this was by ensuring that when there was food available it was consumed and stored so it could be used in harder times.  This was achieved through the development of a complex neuro-hormonal system.  As a result when we see food we trigger mechanisms that tell us to eat it so that we can keep our stores of energy topped up.  As we discussed previously the most dense energy source is fat which is highly desirable for this reason, and as a result often stimulates strong cravings.

In the past this didn’t result in a problem as everything balanced out.  Sometimes we would eat and put on weight and other times we would starve and lose it again.  The problem in these modern times is that food has become too readily available for this system to work.  The endless availability of the energy dense foods that now surround us has happened over such a short period that our bodies have been unable to adapt.  We have not yet learnt that the period of starvation is not coming and still feel that in order to survive we must eat the food available to us.  This can result in constant weight gain over the years as we continue to wait for the famine that isn’t coming.

As I mentioned this is all controlled by neuro-hormonal mechanisms.  You may have heard of the hormone leptin, released from the fat stores in our body, which is responsible for our feeling of satiety (feeling full).  Well there is another hormone that does quite the opposite and it’s called grehlin.  This hormone is released from the stomach and causes us to feel hungry.  Naturally it is most active before we eat, so when we are dieting and eating less it becomes more of a problem, as it doesn’t quite turn off, leaving us more prone to hunger and cravings.

A similar thing happens when we put calorific foods in our mouths.  The taste buds detect these foods and send instant signals to the brain that make us feel happy.  This however is a purposefully short-lived sensation and soon after we swallow we feel the need to taste more.  This can result in us filling up on copious amounts of a food as before the stomach has realized that it is full (this feeling can take tens of minutes) we have consumed more than we initially intended.  Have you ever sat down to a meal and kept eating until you felt full, only to find later you felt like you’d eaten too much?  This is the mechanism responsible.  There was a time when this was advantageous as it allowed us to eat lots of a calorific food when we came across it in nature (which may have been several days apart), but now it just results in us overeating on a daily basis.

The point I want to make is that these neuro-hormonal systems have developed over tens of thousands of years and are here to stay.  We have rapidly altered the environment around us without allowing the body time to catch up and until someone develops a drug that can fundamentally alter the way we function, we must do what we do best and find ways to adapt.

So what can you do to help reduce cravings or deal with them when they do strike?

  •  Remove tempting items from your immediate vicinity.  As I mentioned the urge to eat food can be triggered by its availability.  If you see something in front of you or know it is a short reach away then you will know it is available and the cravings will begin.  This is why advertising of junk food and confectionary works so well.  You see an advert of a tempting item and then suddenly crave something you previously weren’t even thinking about.  Empty your cupboards of tempting items and momentarily flick over the channel when someone’s trying to tempt you.  If it’s not there you’re less likely to crave it.
  • Have healthy alternatives readily available.  This works well for several reasons.  If something healthy is available you are more likely to eat it instead of junk as opposed to when there is no viable alternative.  This also works well even if you don’t particularly want the healthy item, as after you have eaten it, even if it doesn’t satisfy the immediate craving,  the stretch it applies to the stomach will reduce hunger allowing the craving to pass.
  • Remember back to when you last succumbed to a craving.  Ask yourself did giving in satisfy you for long and how did you feel afterwards?  The chances are that you ate something bad, felt great for a short while, but then this feeling turned to guilt and before you knew it you were actually craving again!  The satisfaction is generally short lived and not worth how it makes you feel later.  Remembering how giving into cravings in the past made you feel can give you strength when tackling one in the present.
  • Keep yourself occupied.  Cravings will strike when you are bored.  Think about it, when you are busy you barely have time to think about eating but when you are sitting around doing nothing your mind wanders to thinking about what food you could be having and how to go about sourcing it.  It is strange really, the less active you are the more you want to eat, but sadly it’s true.
  • Exercise!  After you physically exert yourself you actually feel less hungry.  This is great as you burn calories exercising and also eat less afterwards.  It also makes you more wary about eating junk as after you put in all that effort exercising you think twice about wasting it by eating a bar of chocolate.
  • Indulge every once in a while.  Cravings are often cumulative.  Over time they will build and build until they are so strong that you give in.  If the craving was strong enough, you may react disproportionately and break your diet altogether and you will feel guilty afterwards which will ruin the nice feeling you momentarily gained.  If you allow yourself to give in every once in a while you will likely control the amount that you consume and also you won’t feel guilty afterwards as it was allowed.

So from now on take steps to stop cravings taking a hold and when they do strike, don’t react impulsively but instead take time to understand why you are feeling them and take steps to beat them.  Importantly if you do give in, don’t be disheartened but instead learn from the experience, try again, and you’ll get the hang of it eventually.

About Murtaza Ahmed MD

Dr Murtaza Ahmed is a General Practitioner sub-specializing in the field of Sports, Exercise and Nutritional Medicine. He graduated from The University of Nottingham, England, and in addition to his medical qualification he holds a Masters in Sports and Exercise Medicine (MSc), Bachelor of Medical Sciences (BMedSci) and Membership of the Royal College of Physicians (MRCP London).
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