The Neuroscience of Cravings

By David H. Freedman: For More Info, Go Here…

Research explains why people have intense urges for specific foods — and reveals ways to train our brains to resist them.

The findings of cravings scientists are often discouraging. For one thing, research has confirmed that cravings tend to form around foods that undermine healthy diets. For another, scientists are recognizing just how fully Big Food has mastered the marketing of its products to trigger cravings, while simultaneously making them so accessible that we have little chance to muster resistance. “Sometimes when I consider all the ways we’re pushed by our cravings, I think to myself, ‘What hope do we have to resist them?’” says Charles Spence, an Oxford University PhD researcher who studies how our perceptions influence our eating.

But there’s some good news in the research, too. Namely, it’s uncovering a number of effective, if often counterintuitive, strategies for combating the pull of a cravings-primed brain. “When it comes to what we crave, the environment and culture are toxic,” says Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University in Massachusetts. “But we can learn to take back control.”

Vegetables, whole grains, most fruits, and lean protein can all be crossed off the list of foods people crave. It’s certainly possible to like these generally healthy foods — even love them — and actively seek them out and savor them. But as a rule, people don’t crave them to the point of being powerless to resist eating them. “I’ve never met anyone who struggles with vegetable cravings,” says Sherry Pagoto, a PhD behavioral psychology researcher at the University of Connecticut.

Virtually every scientist who has studied cravings comes to the same conclusion: What people desire is food that packs in a relatively large number of calories per bite.

(R)esearchers have also uncovered some tricks for avoiding or tamping down the dopamine fire that rages when triggers strike. Some of these tricks involve distraction. One that Roberts says is weirdly successful is to tap your forehead and count backwards from 100 when you’re hit by an urge to eat. “Cravings tend to happen in shorter-term memory,” she explains. “You can push them out by focusing on a task.” A walk around the block can work, too, she says.

Researchers have discovered a real and entirely unexpected bonus to resisting the cravings-driven urge to consume junk, says John Apolzan, PhD, a nutrition scientist at Louisiana State University: If you can kick the objects of your cravings out of your diet even for just a few weeks, the cravings start to fade. “Earlier research suggested cravings should skyrocket when you resist them,” says Apolzan. “But now it’s clear that’s just not true.” The reason they diminish, apparently, is that cravings are the product of habit — the more often you give in to your cravings, the stronger and more fixed they become. Changing your habits seems to reverse the process, says Apolzan.

To support that effort, Pagoto urges remaking the environment. You can’t get rid of the Cinnabon near your workplace, but you can make a point of rerouting your commute so you don’t pass it. “You have to figure out the one hundred cues that are triggering the cravings,” says Pagoto. “It’s not just the food itself; it’s the things you’ve learned to associated with the foods. If you have ice cream on the couch every night, you’ll want ice cream as soon as you sit on the couch, or when you see the bowl you usually eat it in.” To make identifying those hundreds of triggers easier, Pagoto and her colleagues have developed an app. Simply press an “oops” button every time an unhealthy craving is indulged, and enter a few notes about what was going on when you caved to the craving. At the end of the week, the app provides a report on what times of day, locations, objects, or actions might be your triggers.

Pagoto says she’s found that people report healthier diets and even weight loss simply by using her app to hit the “oops” button after indulging a less healthy craving — even if they didn’t use the results to change their environment. “We didn’t expect using the button to stand alone as an intervention,” she says. “But now we wonder if that might be enough.”

Some of the most recent research suggests people may be able to more directly protect their brains against craving triggers through the right sort of stimulation. Hall, who runs the TMS experiments, says he’s looking into using the device as part of a treatment for obesity. In the lab he uses the TMS to temporarily impair the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that can muster resistance to craving triggers — while at the same time leaving a picture of junk food in the subjects’ field of vision. The combination leads people to eat more chocolate and chips. But he’s also found that impairing the region while displaying healthy food images reduces the urge to overindulge, suggesting a potential aid to losing excess weight. “We think when combined with coaching, it might be a good alternative to gastric bypass surgery,” he says.

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