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Taking control of your food cravings

Just can’t say no to chocolate or pizza? Craving sugar? Experts explain why you crave certain foods and how to overcome it
WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

So you are sitting on the sofa, watching TV when you hear that chocolate bar in the cupboard calling your name! Quietly at first but it’s getting louder all the time. You’re not even hungry but you know that you WILL eat that chocolate.

Two minutes later, when you’ve wolfed it down, chocolate smears all round your mouth, wrapper shredded on the floor, how do you feel? Satisfied and happy, sick and guilty or maybe a bit of both?

Common to crave

Almost everyone has cravings for a certain type of food at some point. It might be a bag of crisps, a bowl of ice cream or a pepperoni pizza: whatever tickles your taste buds.

But why does it happen and can you do anything to control your cravings?

Take heart. If you learn why cravings happen, you can get the upper hand and put strategies in place to deal with them.

What is a food craving?

Professor Marion Hetherington is a leading expert on food cravings. She’s Professor of Biopsychology at the University of Leeds.

"A classic craving is an urge or a strong desire for a particular food," she says. "It’s much more than just comfort eating."

"Food most likely [to be] craved is high energy, high calorie, and high fat food. They are treat foods that are usually restricted.

"People don’t crave broccoli and cabbage. It’s more likely to be sweets or chocolates."

A craving is not hunger. The desire doesn’t come from your stomach but from your brain - which is much more complex.

Cravings come from the brain not the belly

"With a craving you eat to provide mood modulation," Professor Hetherington told BootsWebMD.

Nutritionist and lifestyle expert Liz Tucker agrees that mood definitely plays a part in food cravings.

"There are two reasons why people have food cravings. They need a shot of energy or they are miserable.

"As far as energy is concerned, people crave high calorie foods, high in carbohydrate, fat and sugar because it gives them a fast burst of energy. Even though it would be much better for them to have a foodstuff with a better nutritional value without empty calories."

Liz says the second reason for craving food is because it makes us happy.

"We have a primitive response, as humans, we live to experience pleasure, through sex and relationships and also through eating and drinking."

"If you are miserable or in crisis in one area of your life, you aren’t getting pleasure from it and turn to food to give you that happiness kick.

"If you find no pleasure in life - you can get a chemical fix from food."

Don't blame nutrition

One popular myth is that people crave certain foods to fill a nutritional deficiency.

"My body’s telling me I need that family sized bag of crisps as I’m lacking salt!" isn’t a good enough excuse, I’m afraid.

"It’s very rare that people in the UK have deficiencies that lead to cravings," according to Professor Hetherington. "Most cravings are categorised in terms of pleasure and reward."

Vegetarians will occasionally fall off the wagon and have a burger or a bacon sandwich, blaming their own body’s need for meat. Good excuse to blame your body but it’s actually your brain that wants the meat.

She says in one experiment when young people were kept on a liquid diet with all of the correct nutrients, they craved food with texture like steak and pasta, food that had substance to it. So it may be the feel of it in your mouth that adds to the craving.

Dietitian Gaynor Bussell speaks for the British Dietetic Association: "You have cravings for all sorts of psychological reasons. There has been some work looking at a possible physiological need which leads to cravings but that’s never been proven".

She says if you have a certain medical condition like type 2 diabetes or polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), your body may occasionally crave carbs and sugar.

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