On the Menu: Desperately craving a healthy diet

There is no magic bullet, but finding a way to enjoy the foods you like in reasonable amounts will help

Studies suggest that avoiding certain foods altogether often makes them irresistible. Photograph: Getty Images

Studies suggest that avoiding certain foods altogether often makes them irresistible. Photograph: Getty Images

Tue, Jul 29, 2014, 01:00

Most of us know what it’s like to have a hankering or a longing for a food we love, and simply must have. Cravings appear to be broadly linked to feelings of deprivation. For some, it’s a growing and overwhelming desire for a particular brand of sausage or soda bread after a holiday or travel break.

Overly restrictive dietary regimes can leave us feeling deprived too. Studies suggest that avoiding certain foods altogether often makes them irresistible. Of course it is sweet foods like chocolate ice-cream or carbohydrates such as bread that we crave most. It is rare to hear of cravings for porridge, prunes or tossed green salads.

Deep down, perhaps we think that if we satisfy our craving, that uncomfortable feeling of deprivation will go away. But unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. To some extent, that is because food cravings may be rooted in another underlying need that has neither been acknowledged nor identified. Emotional eaters can temporarily soothe themselves with food but the emotional hunger remains unfed.

Cravings may be psychological, physiological, or both. We don’t know yet. There are people who believe that their cravings are linked to an innate need to supply the body with specific nutrients it lacks, but the jury is still out on the true cause of food cravings. Many researchers agree that cravings are indeed linked to brain chemistry and, more often than not, they occur when you don’t eat enough or you go too long without eating.

Brain’s needs

The brain needs a consistent supply of 120g of glucose each day to function normally. Scientists believe we have a basic biological drive to make sure that minimum requirements for carbohydrate are met. Bear that in mind when you’re slimming. The hungrier you are, the more you have a yen for foods that you may not otherwise be craving. To help prevent cravings, we should avoid skipping meals. Snacking on low glycaemic index foods between meals, such as fresh fruit, low-fat yoghurt or a small handful of nuts, can be helpful if there is little time for lunch.

If you find yourself in the middle of a craving, you can take one of three approaches. First, you can try to ignore or suppress the craving. Second, you can give in and succumb to the craving. And third, you can choose to neither suppress nor succumb to the craving. You can just simply acknowledge the craving, sit with it and watch it pass.

It’s a bit like a wave. Visualise yourself up to your knees in water, watching a wave start to build out at sea. You can turn your back and try to ignore it but that won’t stop the wave. It will simply knock you off balance as it catches you unawares. Alternatively, you can submit to it, throw yourself into it and allow it to carry you off passively. Or you can observe the wave approaching, dig your feet firmly into the sand, take a bit of a jolt but remain standing as it passes. It requires practice, but it can be done.

Certainly, there is no magic bullet but it helps if you find a way to enjoy the foods you like in reasonable amounts as you slim. It’s about giving yourself permission to eat what you want, and consciously acknowledging when enough is enough too.

If you don’t think you could exert a modicum of control around chocolate and you really know you would end up eating three bars instead of one, then abstinence may be the best policy in the short term.

Divert attention

Instead try to enjoy foods that are rich in natural sugars or try sugar-free drinks, chewing gum and mints. Brush or gargle with an antiseptic mouthwash right after dinner. Sugary foods don’t taste the same then. Get absorbed in something and divert your attention from food. Elevate your mood with some exercise-producing endorphins. These techniques help many, except those who claim to be sugar addicted.

The term food addiction has not been officially defined yet, despite the fact that it is frequently reported to be widespread and a substantial contributor to rising obesity levels. Addiction usually relates to a loss of control and an inability to function without a substance when it is withdrawn. These are not common behaviours in many people who overeat.

Binge eating, however, can be described as addictive behaviour. It is linked to strong urges and compulsions. It is associated with loss of control and an insistence to continue to eat despite a desire to stop. However, binge eating affects only a minority. It is not a significant cause of obesity.

The concept of food addiction is currently a common feature in scientific literature and the media. Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US, describes the brain as having many connected regions positioned around a central node, the nucleus accumbens. This is the brain’s reward circuit, a region regulated by dopamine. Volkow says the “rewarding effects of drugs result from their ability to activate the nucleus accumbens through increased dopamine release. Similarly, rewarding effects of food are linked to dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens.”

Experiments in animals and humans show that the same reward and pleasure centres of the brain that are triggered by addictive drugs are also stimulated by food, especially highly palatable foods, such as those rich in sugar, fat and salt. These foods are capable of triggering the release of the feel-good chemical, dopamine. The problem is these reward signals can override other signals of fullness and satisfaction, so people keep eating, even when they are not hungry.


Overindulgence can lead to a tolerance of food, meaning the addict becomes less and less satisfied with the same amount of food. This is similar to a drug addiction. The longer you use a drug like cocaine, the less sensitive your brain is to it, and the more cocaine you need to create dopamine release. Food can also release dopamine in the brain, but people who habitually overeat need more and more food to generate the same pleasurable feeling of dopamine release.

Many scientists agree that a small subgroup of the population experience addiction-like eating behaviour and that research into the causes, progression and treatment of this behaviour is needed.

However, there is no agreement on the classification of a food (like sugar) as an addictive substance and many researchers believe it is inappropriate to label large numbers of people as food addicts. We all have to eat and a better understanding of cravings, dependency and addiction will help us improve weight management. The line between pleasure and addiction is elusive. Paula Mee is a dietitian at Medfit Proactive Healthcare and a member of the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. pmee@ medfit.ie and tweets @paula_mee