Where, oh Where, Do Food Cravings come from?
You are sitting at your desk minding your work when BAM—out of nowhere comes a craving for a slice of pizza from the pizzaria down the street. You know the pizza isn’t part of your medical weight loss plan, and your meal replacement lunch is sitting safely in the fridge down the hall, but you can taste the dough, gooey cheese heaping with pepperoni…. yum! Whether it is for a calorie laden lunch, a chocolaty dessert or a cup of coffee, cravings are common and hard to cope with. So, where do these cravings come from and why won’t they leave you and your medical weight loss plan alone? That might be a matter of science.
The Mental Science of Food Cravings
It is easy to say your cravings are all in your head, but when you are hungry it is hard to differentiate the messages from your brain and those from your stomach. Well, here is some information that might be helpful: food cravings and real hunger don’t present themselves in the same way.
Food cravings are specific. You might crave French fries because you want something salty; or you might crave ice cream if your ‘sweet tooth’ starts talking. Hunger is never that specific. When your body is hungry you will know by the pangs in your stomach and decreased energy. And when you are truly hungry, your stomach will welcome whatever you decide to eat—especially something nutritious like your meal replacement lunch.
In 2010, researchers at Flinders University in Australia published a study in the Current Directions in Psychological Science journal. They found that a lot of food cravings come from mental imagery and visual stimulation.
Have you ever wondered why restaurant commercials zoom in on their promotional items and give the camera a good long look at the featured dishes? This type of vivid imagery can prompt a food craving, putting it in your mind that you want that one dish from that one restaurant, and that no other form of caloric intake will do. Researchers found that the more the item is visualized, the greater the craving becomes.
The good news is that this mental imagery can work both ways. Researchers found that when participants attempted to overshadow their food craving by thinking about common images like a rainbow, or to concentrate on the smell of a flower, their food craving dissipated.
When a craving sets in you might feel like food is all you can think about– and unfortunately the more you give in to the craving the truer that becomes. Imagining that slice of pizza requires brain activity. This means that longing for a calorie laden lunch redirects your focus from your work to your stomach, amplifying your craving while also making you less productive at work.
The next time a food craving sets in, take a step back and think about something else, whether it is a favorite painting, your dog or cat or even the clouds in the sky. Changing your focus can help you fight a craving, concentrate on the task at hand and, most importantly, stick to your medical weight loss diet.