Chips and dip. Ruffles and onion dip to be precise. Yeah. I could go for some of that right now.
Seems like every afternoon I’m seeking something salty. The latest food craving. Other times it’s ice cream after I get my daughter in bed. Sometimes it is pasta.
While I don’t believe in abstinence – meaning if my body feels like eating a particular type of food, I’m likely to eat at least a little bit of it – I don’t want to be at the whim of my cravings, either.
I’m working on eating more mindfully and making healthier food choices. So, when I encounter a craving, I want to use it to understand my stress, my mood, or what my body is feeling before I start snacking. Cravings are about much more than just our desire to maw down on chips.
The Biology Behind Cravings
Three regions of the brain, including our memory centers which associate certain foods with rewards, are activated when we are craving. The brain is literally lighting up with electrical impulses that contribute to our intense desire to pick up food. By satisfying those cravings, we soothe ourselves by easing stress and anxiety, according to researchers like Adam Drewnowski, director of the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition.
Often we crave foods like ice cream, chocolate, chips, macaroni and cheese. Those high fat, high sugar foods, (and others), boost the hormone serotonin while reducing the levels of stress hormones in our bodies. So, that kind of comfort food can calm us down.
Though I don’t recommend eating a bag of chips or a pan of mac and cheese every time we are stressed out, restricting the foods we crave isn’t going to work either. In fact, that kind of limitation makes us want the food even more.
Managing the Craving
The easiest way for me to put off the craving – until I become more mindful of what it is I’m craving and why – is to not keep those high-demand foods in the house. If the chips are here, I will eat them, so I rarely keep them around. Nowadays, I’m more likely to have a few salty Greek olives with a small piece of feta to feel satisfied.
Others find that their chocolate craving can be satisfied with a few M&Ms or a small taste of another sweet.
But one interesting piece of research says looking at pictures of the food we crave, can actually keep us from indulging in it.
In one experiment half of the participants looked at pictures of salty foods like French fries and the other half looked at images of ice cream and chocolate. In both cases, the more pictures the participants looked at, the less pleasure they got from eating the actual food, says researcher Ryan Elder, who led the study.
Kind of like eating that first chip. Tasty. But, by the time you reach the end of the bag, you’re pretty sick of chips. And, as the experiment went on, Elder found that the more pictures people saw of the foods, the less likely they were to want to eat it at all.
So for now, I’ll be staring at pics of chips. Then, Wednesday, I’ll offer some other ways to manage food cravings.