Eating habits vary from person to person based on a number of factors. Sometimes we eat because we are hungry and we need energy, while there are times when we eat just because we either like the taste of the food or we simply feel like we want to.
To understand more, let us first try to know what hunger is and how it is different from craving.
Hunger And Cravings – What’s The Difference?
When your stomach is empty, you feel your energy levels depleting and start feeling hungry. Hunger is the physiological urge to replenish your energy reserves. The feeling of hunger can be satisfied by simply having anything that gives you energy and you are likely to stop when you are full.
On the other hand, when you feel a strong desire to eat, even when your energy levels are fine, it is a craving. Cravings can easily get out of hand. You will tend to eat more than usual and certainly much more than what your body actually needs, a phenomenon that we know as “binge eating”.
Types Of Cravings
We often reach out for food when under emotional duress – when we are afraid, angry or anxious. When you are under stress, the body releases cortisol, the “fight-or-flight” hormone.
The link between cortisol and “comfort food” is well established.1 When cortisol levels increase, the body gets ready to expend a short burst of energy and anticipates a dip in energy thereafter. Food, in such a circumstance, has a comforting effect – it tricks your brain into feeling that the danger is past and consequently bring down cortisol levels, temporarily providing relief from stress. However, the underlying emotional stress rears its head soon enough and the cycle continues.
It is important to note that while food is comforting, energy is not really getting expended. The excess food does not get fully processed – it sticks around in the system, often turning toxic or getting stored as fat that clogs channels and is exceptionally difficult to budge.
After having a large meal at a restaurant, your hunger is satiated. Yet, when dessert is offered, you still consume it because you start craving for it; its just very difficult to say no. You are watching a movie at home with a tub of pop corn at hand. As you watch the movie, your hand keeps reaching out for that pop corn compulsively. You cannot stop till the tub is empty. These are classic examples of external eating.
External eating is a response to your desires and external food cues like sight, smell and often, just availability of food. Dopamine, the “reward and pleasure” hormone is released when we eat food, especially the decadent kind (think desserts). Through conditioning, dopamine also starts getting released in anticipation of food.2
The ‘Power of Food Scale’ classifies external eating into 3 levels of food proximity.3
- Availability – assumes the widespread availability of palatable food in the environment. Thus these items are the most abstract because they describe reactions to an ‘‘implicit’’ food environment in which food is always available but is not physically present.
- Proximity – involves reactions to palatable foods when they are physically present but have not yet been tasted.
- Taste – involves reactions to palatable foods when they are first tasted but are not yet consumed.
Food availability, that triggers external eating, is a major contributing factor to the obesity epidemic that most parts of the world, especially the developed world, is facing today. The lack of success for many overweight and obese individuals following weight loss programs may be due to difficulties in managing strong cravings that arise from the pervasive presence of and ready access to highly palatable foods.4
Sometimes, depriving the body of certain types of food can cause a reverse effect. A typical example is the tendency to overeat after a period of losing weight when the cognitive resolve to diet is abandoned. Forcing yourself to stay away from chocolate can cause the desire for chocolate to become more salient, leading to a sudden binge at some point.5
If Cravings Are Left Unchecked
Cravings, if left unchecked and allowed to grow, lead to food disorders. These disorders are associated with increased calorie intake, obesity, anxiety, mood fluctuations, stress and decreased quality of life. It is quite common for those who go in for weight-loss treatments to drop out mid way. Succumbing to cravings can cause tremendous guilt leading to a vicious cycle. Stress and obesity, known to increase risks of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are the biggest killers in the world at the moment.
How To Overcome Cravings
To overcome emotional cravings, the focus should be on evoking awareness of your impulses, feelings and needs. Therapies that focus on increasing interoceptive awareness and self esteem, and reducing social inadequacy and other negative feelings have proven beneficial.
Behavioral therapy, stimulus control and exposure to typical environmental cues can help overcome external cravings. Studies have found that cognitive experimental techniques aimed at reducing the vividness of visual, gustatory or olfactory imagery, might usefully be deployed to reduce unwanted food cravings.6
Restraint cravings can be subdued by accepting one’s natural weight and by relaxing dieting rules. Accurate information concerning nutrition and caloric balance can help.
|↑1||Epel, Elissa, et al. “Stress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior.”Psychoneuroendocrinology 26.1 (2001): 37-49.|
|↑2||Epstein, L. H., & Leddy, J. J. (2006). Food reinforcement. Appetite, 46, 22–25.|
|↑3||Lowe, Michael R., et al. “The Power of Food Scale. A new measure of the psychological influence of the food environment.” Appetite 53.1 (2009): 114-118.|
|↑4||Forman, Evan M., et al. “A comparison of acceptance-and control-based strategies for coping with food cravings: An analog study.” Behaviour research and therapy 45.10 (2007): 2372-2386.|
|↑5||Rogers, Peter J., and Hendrik J. Smit. “Food craving and food “addiction”: a critical review of the evidence from a biopsychosocial perspective.” Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior 66.1 (2000): 3-14.|
|↑6||Tiggemann, Marika, and Eva Kemps. “The phenomenology of food cravings: the role of mental imagery.” Appetite 45.3 (2005): 305-313.|