Are you craving mad?

Are you craving mad?
Escape your food obsessions by discovering what drives them

Terri Crecco believes that she’s addicted to sugar. Even as a kid, she had trouble resisting sweets. As an adult, when things aren’t going well, biscuits and ice-cream make her feel better. Once, she downed half a kilo of jellybeans walking back to her office after her lunch break. “I meant to eat just a few, but I couldn’t stop until I’d finished the entire bag,” she says. “My cravings can be awful, insatiable. I can’t ignore them.” As a result, the 55-year-old mortgage broker has been waging a lifelong battle with her weight.

Karsten Askeland, 56, a police officer, got hooked on burgers, fries and other fast food when he was 14 and sidelined from sports after breaking his leg. Until then, Askeland had been a trim and athletic lad who played basketball and football, and was the fastest sprinter on the track team.

Immobilised by his broken leg, he continued to eat as if he was still burning thousands of kilojoules a week playing sport. Long after his leg healed and in the years beyond high school, he carried on indulging.

“It would be nothing for me to eat my dinner at home and then go out immediately to McDonald’s and order a quarter-pounder with cheese, a fish sandwich, a large order of fries and a large Coke,” he says. “Sometimes I would go to McDonald’s two or three times a day.”

Before Askeland knew it, his weight had ballooned to 127kg. In 1975, he began a strict low-kilojoule diet and exercise plan to get down to 86kg so he could join the police force. But on his break from the night shift, he would head for the local Chinese restaurant. In time, he regained all the weight and more, reaching a high of 215kg. Since then, life for Askeland has been a struggle to lose weight and subdue those hard-to-deny cravings for fast food.

Stress and comfort food

What makes people eat like this? On a more modest scale, why do we reach for chocolate or muffins or chips when we’re stressed, tired or bored?

“Under stress, we crave foods that we liked as children – a time in our psychological life when there was little stress,” says Dr John Foreyt, professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. No surprise, then, that when we’re under pressure, we don’t reach for steamed broccoli.

Even animals respond to stress by indulging in fattening foods. A study at the University of California, San Francisco, found that chronic stress prompted lab rats to indulge in high-kilojoule foods (in the rats’ case, food containing lard and sucrose).

When cravings start to sabotage health or weight-loss efforts, however, they may become a source of stress, and that’s a double whammy. Can you lose weight despite yearnings for chocolate or cheeseburgers? Experts say yes, though conquering cravings can take some smart strategies – as well as insight into the brain and body chemistry that underlies the yen for pizzas and ice-cream.

Gotta have it – but why?

According to one study, virtually all women (97%) and most men (68%) admit to having food cravings. For women, chocolate and other sweet treats top the list, while men often yearn for juicy steaks or burgers with the works.

After menopause, women’s cravings may become more like men’s. “It’s tempting to say that hormonal changes are to blame. But there also could be a group of older women who grew up during the Depression when more value was placed on meat and protein foods, so who knows?” says Dr Marcia Pelchat, a food-cravings researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia.

Hormonal swings seem to be at least partly responsible for women’s cravings. Levels of both oestrogen and the feel-good brain chemical serotonin drop when women are premenstrual. And there’s a possibility that lollies, pasta and other carbohydrate foods can boost serotonin, making you feel better.

Hormonal changes may also explain cravings for onions or other pregnancy-related hankerings, but so far, there’s no solid proof.

Could what we crave be something our body needs? Experts are pretty certain that missing nutrients are not to blame for the vast majority of cravings. True, chocolate provides the body with magnesium. But sad to say, if our bodies really were crying out for magnesium, we would be longing for big green salads, which provide a lot more than the small amount found in a chocolate bar.

Cravings also have very little to do with hunger. You might be stuffed full after a dinner party, but if the dessert looks delicious, you’re not going to turn it down. “If you’re hungry, you don’t really care what you eat. An unflavoured bowl of porridge will do,” says Dr Allen Levine, director of the Minnesota Obesity Centre.

Instead of satisfying hunger, cravings reward us and give us pleasure. Researchers are just beginning to understand the brain chemistry at work here. They have found that the creamy, rich taste of chocolate can give you a rush that’s more subdued but not totally at odds – biochemically speaking – from what happens in the brain when drug addicts inject heroin or sniff cocaine.

Are drugs the answer?

University of Michigan researchers found that cravings for sweets can be turned off with naloxone, a powerful intravenous drug ordinarily used to counteract heroin and morphine overdoses. They gave naloxone to 14 women who were binge eaters, eight of whom were obese, and to 12 women of normal weight. While getting the drugs intravenously, the women were told to eat as much as they wanted of a mouth-watering array of biscuits and chocolate bars. Once the drug entered their systems, the binge eaters lost interest in the high-kilojoule buffet. (The normal-weight women didn’t eat any more or less.) Another Michigan study showed that naloxone squelched the pleasure binge-eating participants got from consuming chocolate and biscuits.

This doesn’t mean we need a heavy-duty drug like naloxone to curb our appetites, but it does reveal a biochemical relationship between food cravings and drug addiction. “I don’t think we should be too horrified” at the parallels, says Dr Pelchat. “Drugs are bad because they stimulate reward circuits more strongly and quickly than food, and make us neglect our responsibilities and fail to take care of ourselves.”

Naloxone is much too powerful for everyday use, but some see promise in Acomplia, a drug currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, which may help people lose weight or stop smoking.

Still, it’s doubtful that a drug will be able to cure cravings. After all, they’re not rational – and they’re not all governed by a single brain chemical. “We would have to know what other pleasures we would block,” says Dr Levine.

There’s another problem with designing a drug: cravings affect more than one area of the brain. When Dr Pelchat and a team at the University of Pennsylvania used functional MRIs to watch responses to cravings, they saw activity in brain areas related to emotion, memory and reward.

Researchers now want to know whether those reward mechanisms in the brain could be satisfied by alter-native turn-ons – listening to music, perhaps, or playing video games or even going shoe shopping. That study is in the works. Shopaholics everywhere, beware!

Ten ways to control your cravings

You can lose weight right now by overcoming your cravings. Here are the latest tricks of the trade from researchers and experts:

Avoid your triggers

“You crave what you eat, so if you change what you’re eating, you can weaken your old cravings and strengthen new ones,” says Dr Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Centre. This can happen pretty quickly. For five days, her study volunteers drank bland dietary-supplement beverages. During that time, they craved fewer of their trigger foods; by the end, they actually wanted the supplements instead. The first few days are always the hardest, and you probably can’t completely eliminate your old cravings. But the longer you avoid your trigger foods, the less likely you may be to want them. In fact, you’ll probably begin to crave the foods you eat – a real bonus if you’ve switched to fresh fruit.

Destroy temptation

If you’ve succumbed to a craving and bought a packet of biscuits or some other trigger food, and start to feel bad while eating it, destroy it. “Don’t just throw it away; run water over it, ruin it. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that you’ve kicked your binge,” says Dr Caroline Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Centre at Boston Medical Centre. Don’t think about the waste, thinkabout your waist. If you don’t bin the biscuits, that’s where they’re heading.

Go nuts

Drink two glasses of water and eat 30g of nuts (6 walnuts, 12 almonds or 20 peanuts). Within 20 minutes, this can extinguish your craving and dampen your appetite by changing your body chemistry, says Dr Michael Roizen.

Kill it with caffeine

Try sipping a skim latte instead of a breakfast bar. The caffeine won’t necessarily satisfy your cravings, but it can save you the kilojoules by quenching your appetite, says Dr Roizen. And the heat and ritual can distract you.

Let it go

Since stress is a huge trigger for cravings, learning to deal with it could potentially save you hundreds of kilojoules a day. This will take some practice. You can try deep breathing or visualising a serene scene, or you can speed things up by buying one of the many CDs that teach progressive muscle relaxation.

Take a power nap

Cravings sneak up when we’re tired, so address the fatigue: shut the door, close your eyes and re-energise.

Get minty fresh

Brush your teeth; gargle with mouthwash. “When you have a fresh, clean mouth, you don’t want to mess it up,” says Molly Gee of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Distract yourself

If only a big fat slice of chocolate cake will do, it’s a craving, not hunger. “Cravings typically last ten minutes,” says Dr John Foreyt of Baylor College of Medicine. Recognise that and divert your mind: call a friend, listen to music, run an errand, meditate or exercise.

Indulge yourself – within limits

Once in a while, it’s OK to go ahead and have that ice-cream. But buy a small cone, not a whole carton. Try low-kilojoule chocolate bars and snack packs of biscuits or peanuts. The trick is to buy only one pack at a time so you won’t be tempted to keep eating. And since even the kilojoules they contain can sabotage your weight-loss plans if you indulge daily, make a deal with yourself to work off the excess intake. A brisk 15-minute walk will burn 400 kilojoules or so.

Plan or avoid

Vary your usual routine to avoid passing the ice-cream shop or patisserie. If you know you’ll be face-to-face with irresistible birthday cake, allocate enough kilojoules to fit it into your diet.