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How To Conquer Food Cravings

When you know what causes them it becomes easier to banish them

This is an excerpt from an article by Dr. Jason Fung, weight management and diabetes specialist.

Food cravings are defined as frequent intense urges to eat specific types of food. There are people who deny their existence, but in truth, we’ve all felt them, some more than others. For example, some people have intense food cravings for sugar (probably the most common). However, salty foods, chocolate, junk food (pizza) are also common food cravings. Gary Taubes wrote about carb addiction in last week’s New York Times.

We may know very well from an intellectual standpoint that eating these foods will make us gain weight, but feel helpless to resist. This is not really all that hard to understand. Consider a substance such as alcohol. Even as drinking destroys his life, the alcoholic addict feels compelled to drink. We understand that he is the victim of alcoholism and provide support to him to reverse it. For example, he might be encouraged to join Alcoholics Anonymous without stigma that he ‘let himself go’ or that he simply had no willpower.

Unfortunately, food cravings are not free of such stigma. If you are unable to resist the call of the donut, then many people consider it your fault, and help is much harder to find. There’s an association between obesity and food cravings, and the same holds for type 2 diabetes. The most consistent offenders are sweet foods, starchy foods, high fat foods, and junk foods. But does food craving lead to obesity or does obesity lead to food cravings or both?

One theory is that food cravings develop in response to deficiencies of certain nutrients or overall food energy (calories). But, there’s a clear and obvious problem here. What nutrient are we talking about? In the case of most junk foods, sweet foods and starchy foods, there are no essential nutrients contained here, so the body cannot ‘crave’ these nutrients for good health.

The remaining possibility is that food cravings develop due to the consistent association of certain foods with particular stimuli or social contexts (special occasions). This suggests that food cravings are largely a conditioned response (like Pavlov’s dogs). If this is true, then part of the solution is to break these responses. That is, if we can stop taking certain foods for a long time, then those cravings should slowly improve. Is this true? According to one study this is indeed the case.

This leads to the counterintuitive fact that eating less – much less - makes you LESS hungry, not more hungry. This effect is seen for all different types of foods whether it’s sweets, starches, fatty foods or fast food. Over time, this effect does not diminish, but persists which is great news for anyone that is looking to conquer cravings for good. Unfortunately, if you go back to eating those foods the same way again, the effect starts to dissipate.

One of the persistent myths about fasting is that you will get so hungry that you will be unable to resist stuffing your face with donuts. This is why people recommend that you eat 6 or 7 times throughout the day, in order to stave off those cravings. These people obviously don’t have any practical experience, and don’t understand the research which shows exactly the opposite. If you eat constantly, you are more likely to feed those cravings. If you fast, those cravings could just shrivel away. Maybe. At least it’s worth a shot.


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