Have you ever had a food craving that consumed your thoughts? Perhaps you went out and got that food, or ate it at home. Or perhaps you ignored the craving and ate something else, or nothing at all. Research shows that food cravings are analogous to cravings for cigarettes (Kemps et al, 2008). Research also suggests that a craving for a cigarette activates the same centres in the brain as a food craving. Men are more likely to crave salty or savoury foods. Some women crave sweet foods like chocolate (Kemps et al, 2008).
It is a very interesting process. External cues (such as seeing chocolate), or internal cues (such as feeling depressed) may activate an action schema in our brains. This action schema will encourage the acquisition and consumption of the craved food (Kemps et al, 2008). The effort involved to inhibit the action schema (such as when the food is not available), causes the craving. Or the external or internal cues distract you, thereby utilising cognitive resources.
Interestingly, research shows that cravings will affect both your working memory and your reaction time. The research showed this to be the case for people who were habitual cravers of the food in question. However, further research is needed to extend the applicability of the craving for a food. Perhaps these phenomena would occur more broadly in the presence of a stronger craving (Kemps et al, 2008).
Food cravings and limited cognitive resources
It does feel as though I expend a lot of mental energy when I encounter a food craving. I have had the experience of craving a particular sandwich from my local cafe. If internal cues such as feeling like I want to get out of the house for lunch activate the action schema, I feel as though I utilise a lot of mental resources when I consider this option.
It could be that the thought of a sandwich is a distraction, and that limited cognitive resources are directed to paying attention to it. Or it could be that there is a gap between the desire for the food and the knowledge that it is not a healthy option. Fighting the action schema may be what is using up all the mental energy.
Implications for food choice behaviour
There is a lot of information on the web about ways to deal with cravings from drinking water, to eating mindfully, but these tips usually do not address the action schema that is activated when external or internal cues are present.
If food cravings are like cigarette cravings, then the best course of action is to ignore them, and to let them wash over you like a wave and not give into them. This teaches your brain to break the connection between the cue or the trigger and the behaviour.
It seems like a very hard thing to do. Due to the sheer volume of cognitive resources that is utilised when you are in the grips of a craving. However, perhaps the four D’s will help in this situation too. Take a drink of water, take a deep breath, delay and distract. If cigarette cessation is similar, distraction may be the best course of action in a food craving. It can be difficult though, when you are hungry and you don’t have cognitive resources to think about something else. Sometimes a walk or a phone call can be a good way to get over the craving.
Try thinking about situations when you were craving a particular food and you managed to ignore that craving. Similarly to quitting cigarettes, try to think about what worked last time and what didn’t work as well. If you can ignore the craving for a few times, you will find that it loses its power and does not bother you as much anymore.
Kemps E, Tiggemann M, Grigg M. Food cravings consume limited cognitive resources. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Applied [serial on the Internet]. (2008, Sep), [cited April 13, 2017]; 14(3): 247-254. Available from: PsycARTICLES.