To understand how cravings are formed, we must explore another concept first: classical conditioning (CC).
Some of you are probably familiar with CC, but it may be an unknown concept to many. So, we will try to explain it well and discuss its relationship with cravings.
What are cravings?
😈 Cravings are typically defined as intense desires to consume a particular type of food that appear frequently; almost always referring to ultra-processed foods, due to their characteristics of availability, accessibility, palatability and energy density.
Whenever a tasty food is consumed, it can be associated with cues from both the internal and external environment, so that these cues themselves promote future intake. To understand this, it is best to give an example:
Consider a person who comes home in the evening and eats while watching his favorite TV show 📺. In this case, there is a context (watching a favorite TV show in the evening) that is initially “neutral,” but when it is paired repeatedly with the consumption of any food, it will be the context itself (being in the moment and watching the particular show) that ends up inducing the craving.
What triggers them?
What is most interesting about this type of learning is that virtually any signal can be conditioned and trigger an appetitive response. For example, a single thought, a specific time of day, the smell of freshly baked bread, seeing a wrapper, being in a place, a song, etc. can initiate a cascade of processes that end with physiological responses that favor food consumption.
However, just as there is stimulus-response learning, certain appetitive responses can also be extinguished ❌. Identifying the environment in which cravings occur, and the cues that trigger them, is one of the main goals in dealing adaptively with one’s cravings.
How to deal with them?
Now that we know how cravings are formed, here are some options to better deal with them:
✅ Reduce the possibility of craving
Modify the environment as much as possible to avoid exposure to cues that trigger cravings. This way, we anticipate wisely: meal prep dinners, take healthy snacks to work, do not buy junk food, identify the times when cravings occur in order to anticipate them, etc. Any action that allows us to extinguish the signals that trigger cravings will be effective.
✅ Respond to the craving with another activity
It is not the craving itself that is the problem, but what we do with it. Some mindfulness skills such as “disidentification” can be interesting. This process involves gaining awareness that the craving is only “a product of our mind” ¨(identification) to distance ourselves from this thought (disidentification) until it is extinguished.
✅ Introduce modifications in the distribution of meals
There are people who benefit from having fewer but larger meals and people who benefit from having more but smaller meals throughout the day.
✅ Introduce protein and nutrient-dense foods into all meals
Protein is a key nutrient in appetite modulation. On the other hand, sufficient intake of fiber, healthy fats, and fluids is key to keeping cravings in check. Drinking coffee or chewing gum in some cases, can also have an effect.
✅ Manage stress and rest
Often neglected by our lifestyle, although both are essential. In the “fight” against cravings, it is common to focus on what can be changed at the dietary level, but the causes may be more linked to these aspects.
✅ Regular exercise
Some studies find that simply walking reduces cravings, although different types of higher intensity exercise also have interesting effects on cravings. Conversely, a reduction in activity is associated with an increase in the frequency of cravings for sweets. Practices such as yoga can also help in stress management.
✅ Search for distractions
Boredom is one of the main triggers for cravings. We mentioned that there are both external and internal cues that can trigger a craving for a particular food, and boredom is something quite aversive. Therefore, looking for activities that keep us distracted is a must.
✅ Make a bigger dinner
Cravings in the evening are much more common. Therefore, if you have good control over your appetite during the day, but night is more difficult, then you can consider the option of having a slightly larger meal at night.
✅ Do not diet if you do not have a good relationship with food
This may be obvious, but it is often overlooked, and often driven by a desire to want to lose weight. However, caloric restriction is a stressor that must be taken into account. In addition, caloric restriction produces adaptations at different levels that can lead someone to a state of increased anxiety. One should not take “diets” lightly.
Finally, it should be noted that “giving in to a craving” should not be a significant problem since, within a reasonable pattern, there can always be a small gap for a whim. The key here isn't to don't experience cravings at all, but to find a more adaptive way of responding to them so that they do not rule our daily choices. 💪🏼