How to manage your cravings, Part I

Wellness Coach and Personal Trainer Anne Mellor knows what it’s like to struggle with cravings. “I’ve been there,” she told a group in the Bond Wellness Center conference room gathered to hear her discuss “Surfing the Urges: How to Manage your Cravings,” on a recent August evening. “As we try to move to a healthier lifestyle it’s often the muscle between our ears—our brain—that trips us up.”

Anne likened cravings to a “rogue elephant.”

“Think of the self as the rider on that elephant, trying to control where it’s going. If the elephant gets a different idea it will eventually win out, because it’s so much stronger. What you need to do instead is to make it easy for the elephant to stay on a different path, the one you want to take.”

The plethora of programs to lose weight, quit smoking, or stop drinking testifies to the fact that we are not alone in the struggle to combat cravings. But can foods be addictive?

Anatomy of a Craving

“The composition of a particular food affects our brain circuitry. It can stimulate the appetite, but also sets up triggers that cause you to want to eat it again.”

Palatability is the scientific term for a food’s capacity to stimulate the appetite and prompt us to eat more. Palatable foods contain some combination of sugar, fat, or salt; hyperpalatable foods contain all three elements.

“The food industry knows this and works hard to make highly palatable foods, using a variety of textures, temperatures, smells, and flavorings. These foods affect our opioid circuitry, producing chemicals in the brain that are very similar to drugs like morphine and heroin. When stimulated with food, the opioid circuitry drives us to eat. High-sugar, high-fat foods can also relieve stress and calm us down. If you have an emotional connection to the food, the craving is even stronger.”

The centers of the brain that influence our cravings include the prefrontal cortex, responsible for judgment and impulse control; and the basal ganglia and VTA (ventral tegmental area) which control pleasure, motivation, and passion. These centers produce chemicals such as endorphins (pleasure/painkilling); serotonin (happiness/anti-worry/calming) and dopamine (motivation/drive/stimulant). When these chemicals are out of balance, we can have cravings. When they are in balance we can be focused, goal-oriented, and have control over our cravings.


“Often when we have a craving, it’s not the food itself, but a cue that sets us up to want the food. Cues can be something you see, hear or smell, a time of day, a mood, or a person. It might be knowing you are going to drive by a place that has food you like. Smell is a really strong trigger—fried foods, coffee, bread baking.”

How can we change the patterns that set up the cues? “What’s going to make the elephant stay on this path instead of that path? Why is it important to you to change? It’s not going to be easy, and if we don’t know what specifically will be better, then we may not be ready.”

Consider what you might be giving up and what the loss represents for you. “How will you diminish the loss? Will the gains outweigh the loss? What we crave isn’t all bad; it takes care of something for us. Does it reduce stress? Bring comfort? Remind you of being with your family? Think about what you really need. Self-awareness is really important, because with it, you gain a moment of control.”

Anne suggested making a list of cues that trigger cravings. The list could include memories, certain locations, or particular situations, sights, sounds or smells. “In order to get power over the cues, you need to be aware of them. When you have a moment of awareness, you have the opportunity to make a choice. Making the right choice is easier if we prepare for the cue by setting up alternatives that help us avoid the triggers. Prevention goes a long way. Find ways to take care of yourself so that the triggers are not so easily produced, and you have something else available when that cue appears. You might decide to eat cake, but have healthier food first. Give yourself a little bit of control, space.”

Look for Part II of this article coming on Wednesday.


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