It's time for an afternoon snack. You know the smart choice would be a handful of baby carrots and hummus, but something inside you won't be satisfied unless you eat a candy bar from the office vending machine. You're in the grip of a craving, but you may be able to get past it by re-training your brain, says Kathleen Glaspy, MD, an internal medicine physician at
St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Orange.
"Cravings have been found to originate in the same parts of the brain—the hippocampus, caudate and insula—as addiction impulses, habit formation, emotion and memory," Dr. Glaspy says. "Say you are hungry and you have a piece of chocolate cake. Your brain will associate the satisfaction of sating your hunger with the chocolate cake, and when you are hungry again, you now have a pleasurable sense memory associated with a sugary food. Studies have shown that most cravings are for foods high in calories, sugar, fat or salt, and unfortunately those are the foods that can be bad for you if you are indulging your cravings too often."
But a recent study published in Nutrition & Diabetes says it's possible to guide the brain away from bad-for-you cravings toward healthier foods. Study participants—some enrolled in a weight-loss program, others not—were tracked through brain imaging scans. The scans showed changes to the brains of the weight-loss program members, and stronger enjoyment of healthier foods. People in the weight loss program learned how to modify their behavior and ate high-fiber, low-glycemic foods.
Dr. Glaspy offers these tips for halting candy bar cravings and creating positive associations with healthy food:
Create a pleasant visual picture or memory that you can call on. Focusing on that can curb your desire for the unhealthy food. Use aromas. Some studies say aroma plays a part in cravings—if you smell apple pie, it might remind you of the one your mom used to make and you'll start hankering for it. Non-food aromas, such as floral scents, may be able to curb a craving.
Try delayed gratification—wait 20 minutes before giving into your craving. Often the craving will disappear during that time period. Even better? Spend those 20 minutes exercising or being active, as that can alleviate cravings, too.
Keep a record of when a craving hits and what you want to eat—you may be able to change your behavior or schedule if you notice a pattern.
Shop smart—that means buying healthy snacks and small serving sizes. If you're trying to find a healthier swap for a craving, look for a food that mimics in some way the one you want. If tortilla chips are your downfall, try a healthier crunch, such as roasted chickpeas, kale chips or a crunchy veggie.
For more information on St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group, click here. For more information about Dr. Glaspy,