On the list of reasons why people struggle with Paleo, cravings for junk food have got to be in the top 10.
We’ve covered 8 ways to beat a craving if you’re already having one - that’s the First Aid, emergency crisis management version of this post. But what if you could design your regular diet to minimize the problem of cravings in the first place? Wouldn’t it be easier to just head them off before they start, instead of waiting for them to show up and then dealing with them as they come?
There's actually been quite a bit of research on dietary factors in food cravings: here's a look at 5 tips to help you set up your own approach to Paleo for minimal junk-food hankering.
1. Don't Obsess Over Specific Micronutrients
Cravings can occasionally point you towards a specific nutrient of concern (salt cravings might be the best example of this), but most of the time, cravings for sugar or junk food aren’t actually signs of some hidden nutrient deficiency, and supplementing with any one particular nutrient probably isn’t be the solution - unless you’re just benefiting from the placebo effect.
To bust a particularly widespread myth, there’s no good evidence that magnesium deficiency causes chocolate cravings. Lots of foods are higher in magnesium than chocolate, so if your body were trying to steer you towards magnesium-rich foods, why would you be craving chocolate rather than nuts? Also, one study tried feeding chocolate cravers "cocoa capsules" (basically all the good stuff in chocolate, but in pill form where subjects didn't taste the chocolate and didn't really get any pleasure from it). The cocoa capsules didn't help the cravings at all. That suggests that chocolate cravings aren't driven by a biological need for something in chocolate.
Unfortunately, there's probably no secret vitamin or mineral that will end junk food cravings for good. But there are some better strategies, like...
2. Focus on Long-Term Consistency
These researchers compared a low-carb diet and a low-fat diet over 2 years. You might expect that the low-carb dieters would crave carbs, while the low-fat dieters would crave fat. After all, that’s what they’re being deprived of, right? But actually, the exact opposite happened. The low-carb dieters saw a reduction in their carb cravings, and the low-fat dieters saw a reduction in their fat cravings.
As this study explains, the “deprivation” theory of craving (the idea that we crave whatever we stop eating) is increasingly being questioned. Instead, it’s starting to seem likely that we “learn” to crave certain foods in particular situations. It’s basically a kind of psychological conditioning: we start jonesing for dessert after dinner because weve learned to associate a cue (the end of dinner) with a very rewarding and fun behavior (eating dessert). When we don’t get that sugar hit after dinner, then we start craving sweets because we’re conditioned to expect them at that time. On the other hand, long-term adherence to a diet actually reduces cravings, because it breaks the association between the cue and the behavior.
This would explain why in many studies, long-term dieting actually reduces cravings. For more or less any macronutrient composition (high-carb, high-fat, low-carb, high-protein, whatever), if patients can keep it up for a while, they see reduced cravings.
The key is that breaking that cue-behavior pattern takes long-term consistency, and it often gets worse before it gets better (this is called an extinction burst). Some tips:
- Pick changes that you can realistically be consistent about. Some people do well with baby steps; other people do better just diving in.
- If you have cravings in response to a particular cue (time of day, person you’re with, situation - anything can be a cue), don’t have “just a bit” - this will just reinforce the pattern.
- If you can eliminate a cravings cue, eliminate it (e.g. if a particular donut shop always makes you crave donuts, change your route to work so you don't go past it).
- Try making a replacement habit (like a board game after dinner instead of dessert). It might be easier to get in the habit of doing something else in response to a cue, rather than just doing nothing while thinking about the food you'd like to be eating.
3. Get Regular Exercise
In the long term, research shows that regular exercise is helpful for managing cravings because it enhances high-level cognitive abilities like impulse control and long-term planning. Those skills are a little like muscles: you can build them up over time, but ultimately everyone has a limited amount of willpower to use in a day, and every time you say no to a donut, you’re using a bit of it up. The study blames this situation for the “impulsive eating drive” (aka cravings), saying that:
“The increased demand on these neurocognitive resources as well as their overuse and/or impairment may facilitate impulses to over-eat, contributing to weight gain and obesity…[But] by enhancing the resources that facilitate ‘top-down’ inhibitory control, increased physical activity may help compensate and suppress the hedonic drive to over-eat.”
To stick with the willpower-as-muscle comparison, exercise helps develop your cognitive abilities so you can do the same tasks (turning down junk food) more easily and with less effort. It’s just like the way someone might struggle to walk for a mile before she starts working out, but after a few years of progressively working on her fitness, she might not even register a 1-mile walk as “exercise” at all.
To back this all up, here’s an actual study where regular exercise for 12 weeks helped reduce cravings in healthy men. If you’re going with the strategy above of replacing habits, why not replace an after-dinner cookie with an after-dinner walk and kill two birds with one stone?
4. Practice (Chronic) Stress Management
Most people are familiar with the problem of eating in response to a specific stressful event. But in the bigger picture, chronic stress can also make you more vulnerable to cravings in general, even outside the context of any particular stress-bomb. This study probably puts it most directly:
“Chronic stress had a significant direct effect on food cravings, and food cravings had a significant direct effect on body mass index. The total effect of chronic stress on body mass index was significant.”
Completely aside from the problem of feeling stressed and eating to feel better, chronic stress also has hormonal effects on the reward system in the brain. For example, chronic stress releases endogenous opioids, which change your perception of reward and make it even harder to resist things that feel good in the moment. As this study explains, endogenous opioids intensify cravings and increase food intake.
Stress management has always been a part of Paleo recommendations; the stress-cravings link just gives you one more reason to get on it. Some ideas for making it happen:
5. (For Women) Work With your Menstrual Cycle
It’s a complete cliche that women start craving chocolate before their period - but in this case, the cliche actually has a big element of truth. For example, one study found that chocolate was the most commonly-craved food among female subjects, and about half the chocolate-craving women reported a “very well defined craving peak for chocolate in the perimenstrual period,” starting right before their periods and extending through the first day or two of menstruation. Other studies generally agree with that timeline, finding that cravings were strongest during the luteal phase, which starts at ovulation and continues for roughly two weeks until menstruation starts.
Based on that, this study suggests a strategy for women who struggle with menstrual cravings. A lot of the logic is actually based on quitting smoking (another area where cravings really come into play). Interestingly, the researchers noted that women who quit cigarettes tend to do better if they quit during the luteal phase of their cycle. This sounds completely counterintuitive: the luteal phase is when cravings are higher, so why would it make any sense to quit then? But apparently it does lead to better results, so the researchers suggested that women who struggle with food cravings should change their diet slowly over several months, with a “quit date” for one food each month in the luteal phase.
For women who don’t notice any big changes in cravings with their menstrual cycle, this might not be necessary or helpful. But for women who do, it’s something to try.
The Bottom Line: What’s Helpful to You?
Some cravings might be inevitable, at least at the beginning of a diet change. But there’s been a lot of research on this problem, and the evidence points to several strategies that can help:
- Abandoning the search for nutrient deficiencies that might be causing the problem (they probably aren’t), in favor of…
- Consistently re-training your response to food cues,
- Getting regular exercise,
- Managing chronic stress, and
- (For women) planning around menstrual changes
Ultimately, the real question is what’s helpful to you, which might mean that you’ll take some of these tips, modify others, and leave the rest. What changes to your daily routine made all the difference for your cravings? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!