Managing your food cravings: the game of suppression and indulgence

Almost everyone gets food cravings now and then. Science has proven it is a common phenomenon and is not something to be ashamed of. What seems less clear is what to do when you get one. Some people simply give in most of the time, while others feel guilty and deny themselves the pleasure of greedily consuming whatever non grata piece of cuisine they happened to desire. Which strategy is right? If you do belong to the quite unexclusive club of cravers, what can you do the next time you catch yourself drifting towards the refrigerator?

As it usually is with extreme and opposing views, the truth is somewhere in between. First of all, the current understanding among dieticians is that a complete suppression of cravings leads in fact to an increased food intake afterwards. You build a dam around your cravings and at certain point it cannot hold any longer, which then leaves you at mercy of your desires. In scientific terms, the suppression of these thoughts leads to their subsequent hyperaccessiblity. This implies that trying to completely ignore your food cravings actually reinforces them, something that is termed “the ironic cognitive process”. This reinforcement is afterwards transferred to the actual food consumption, or “rebound eating”. Therefore, contrary to what some women magazines might be telling you diet-wise, giving in on occasion is fine, as long as this behaviour is kept in check. It is still important to not overindulge, but rather to manage your natural impulses in a way that creates a healthy balance.

In short, we can place the food craving coping mechanisms in two distinct strategy groups. The first group comprises “control-based” coping strategies. These strategies imply a cognitive control of unhealthy food behaviour, not only by suppressing the cravings, but also by a range of other tricks, such as not keeping undesirable foods at home or work, removing your food triggers from sight and so forth.

The second group of coping strategies is called “acceptance based”. In contrast to the former type, acceptance-based strategies do not specifically aim to reduce the number of cravings or alleviate the feeling of guilt caused by the food cravings. Instead, the idea is to stimulate the willingness to accept the experience that cannot be controlled, at the same time implementing behaviour that is beneficial in terms of desired goals. Simpler put, one accepts his or her current state of mind, including dietary dispositions; having established this as a solid departure point, one starts consistently working towards envisioned goals and values.

Apart from managing your food cravings through a more self-aware and calculated approach to food types high in fat and sugar, there are other strategies that might come in handy.

Positive thinking

When the Dalai Lama advises to refrain from negative thoughts and to cultivate and reinforce positive states of mind, it is difficult to immediately link that advice to the wold of dieting. However, the leap might not be that great after all. Research shows that food cravings are heavily mediated by our emotions, even on the level of neurological pathways in the brain. Specifically, it has been established that negative emotions such as anger, loneliness, boredom and depression cause increased food intake. While the exact mechanisms at work are not entirely clear, it has been suggested that happiness hormones released with the food consumption provides a short-term coping strategy with the negative emotional state. Coupled with the addictive nature of the food cravings, this can be quite problematic in terms of overweight and individual health in general.

Fortunately, there is a workaround, and the psychologists have been pointing it out all along. If negative emotions are a cause of unhealthy dietary behaviour, it is then possible to decrease the effects of their mediation by working with them directly. A number of techniques are available, ranging from breathing exercises, yoga and meditation to more conventional psychological methods, such as cognitive therapy. Research shows that a mindful and savouring approach to eating helps control unhealthy dietary behaviours and results in weight decrease. In addition, positive emotions may initiate other positive changes in individual dispositions and habits, thus resulting in an upward spiral of beneficial change, including dietary aspects, as another study claims.

Concluding this article we want to add, that food cravings are the result of a complex interplay between several aspects on both physical and mental levels. This implies that methods of dealing with them should take this Janus-like nature in consideration. The important message is to keep things in balance and have a positive outlook on yourself and your life.