Tag Archives: Cravings

Pictures of High-Calorie Foods Increase Cravings: How to Stop Them

Maybe it’s time to give up the FoodGawker obsession: a recent study from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine found that viewing images of high-calorie foods increased cravings for those same high-calorie foods.

In the study, brain responses were measured by fMRIs in 13 obese participants who looked at photos of high-calorie foods, like hamburgers, cookies, and cakes, and low-calorie foods, like fruits and vegetables. After each viewing — high-calorie and low-calorie — the participants rated their hunger and desire for sweet or savory foods on a scale of 1 to 10. During the scans, the participants were given drinks with 50 grams of glucose or of fructose.

The researchers found that, as predicted, the reward centers — the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens — were more activated when the participants were viewing high-calorie foods, and, as a consequence, the participants had higher cravings for the high-calorie foods. The researchers were surprised to find, however, that when the participants consumed the sugar-heavy drinks, their hunger and cravings for savory food increased even more dramatically (and specifically, that the fructose-filled drink increased cravings more than the glucose-based drink).

According to lead researcher and assistant professor of clinical medicine Kathleen Page, “Our bodies are made to eat food and store energy, and it prehistoric days, it behooved us to eat a lot of high-calorie foods because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming. But now we have much more access to food, and this research indicates added sweeteners might be affecting our desire for it.”

What does this mean for humans, obesity, and our eating habits?

1. Essentially, this study is just one more reason to be completely present and mindful when you’re eating. Nutritionists and dietitians often advise their clients to focus completely on their meal while they’re eating, to “be in the moment” without any distractions. Being mindful of what, and how much, you eat helps you slow down and listen to your body, so you know when you’re full or if you’re really still hungry. Mindfulness even helps improve digestion: according to a study in the journal Gastroenterology, our bodies perceive distraction as stress. When we try to do many things at once – eat, listen to the TV, and check email, for example – digestion is put on hold, and our cells’ ability to break down macro- and micronutrients are impaired. Even worse: the stress response causes excess glucose to be released into the bloodstream, thereby upping the need and release for insulin – which may also create cravings for high calorie foods. So if your distraction of choice is watching Paula Deen on Food Network, scrolling through FoodGawker, or even looking at healthy recipes in Cooking Light, its effect on your diet is doubly negative: your digestion is impaired (which may ultimately lead to weight gain), and those mouthwatering pictures result in more high-calorie cravings (again: weight gain).

2. Letting your mind drift by innocently looking at high-calorie, high-fat foods may not be the only stimulus for high-calorie cravings. Restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, food trucks and more food establishments are providing the same stimulus as the pictures – just in real life. Imagine that you’ve just been handed your Caramel Macchiato (with 32 grams of sugar) and are waiting to pay. You find yourself right in front of the bakery case, packed with flaky croissants, buttery scones, and exploding-with-toppings muffins – and, even though you came in only to get a java boost, you suddenly have a pastry in your hand! This situation almost exactly mimics the study’s variables: a drink high in glucose and fructose, plus images of high calorie foods.

Unfortunately, restaurants also take advantage of the power of pictures. Chain restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory place pictures of their most profitable dishes – which are usually the dishes highest in calories, fat and low quality ingredients – front and center, enticing diners to order them. And because waiters ask for your drink order before you’ve even cracked open the menu, you’re likely already sipping on a sugary (read: high glucose and high fructose) drink and primed to order a high-calorie entrée.

So what can you do? First, avoid looking at “food porn” when you’re hungry, before a meal, or during a meal. Planning ahead also helps: set aside a treat you can look forward to (for whenever: mid-afternoon, after lunch, after dinner, even after breakfast!). As long as you plan to indulge in this one treat and you have control over it, you’ll have more self-control over cravings that appear throughout the day. (Self Magazine offers a similar concept with their “Happy Calories.”) And if you’re going out to eat at a restaurant, look at the menu ahead of time and decide what you’re going to order. Stick to your choice: don’t let pictures (or your dining companion’s behaviors) affect your choice! Similarly, if you’re headed to the coffee shop, go with the intention of ordering just your java drink of choice. If you’re truly hungry, head back to the office for those healthy snacks you packed!

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30 Days to Better Health: Part IV

23. Add yogurt to your diet. If you’re not already eating yogurt regularly, start today: research shows that it improves digestion, strengthens the immune system, lowers cholesterol, protects against osteoporosis, promotes fat loss, and may reduce the risk of ulcers, arthritis, and colorectal cancers. Yogurt’s health-boosting properties come mainly from its probiotics (the live and active cultures like Lactobacillus acidophilus) and calcium content. In numerous studies, high calcium intake is correlated with lower body fat accumulation; it does so by limiting the ability of fat cells to store fat. Look for yogurt with “live and active cultures” on the label to get the most benefit, and avoid fruit-on-the-bottom flavors or brands with added sugars.

24. Think of food in terms of its nutrient density. If you think of food as fuel your body can use – to repair damaged skin cells, to power you through a workout – instead of simply in terms of taste, you’ll naturally begin to choose healthy, functional foods. Compare 100 calories of an avocado and 100 calories of candy: in terms of just numbers, avocado might lose out because it has much more fat. Even so, the avocado will give you lasting power until lunch, while the candy will immediately spike your blood sugar and then send you into a crash, leaving you more hungry and more irritable than before. But food can do more than keep you satiated. The lycopene found in tomatoes, watermelon, and papaya, for example, literally adds SPF to your skin by preventing DNA damage from the sun. And research shows that a balanced diet of healthy fats, fruits and vegetables, fiber and lean protein can reduce the risk of heart disease by up to 80% – a number that is certainly tangible.

25. Embrace carbs (of the whole grain variety). Ever since the Atkin’s Diet, an eating plan that emphasizes protein and fat and places the weight gain blame on carbohydrates, Americans have come to fear carbs. In a refined flour and stripped-of-their-nutrients state and in vast quantities, carbs can lead to blood sugar spikes and dips that leave you fatigued, moody, and hungry for more. But whole grains are as much a part of a healthy diet as vegetables, fruits, omega-3s, and proteins. Whole grains contain filling fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and selenium. Whole grains may also be the key to happiness: whole grains trigger the release of serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood. Look for breads and cereals that contain 100% whole grains; lables like multigrain, 10-grain, and wheat only signify the presence of some whole grains. Breads that are brown in appearance may also be deceitful: food manufacturers use caramel coloring and molasses to tint their loaves, making them appear whole grain.

26. Give in to your cravings…every once in a while. Cravings range from mild to all-encompassing. When a craving strikes, give yourself 15 minutes to try and forget about it (go for a walk, call a friend, read a book). If it passes, your craving was likely a consequence of boredom. If it doesn’t, give yourself permission to have a reasonable portion of the good stuff. By allowing yourself an indulgent treat every so often, you maintain power over your diet by making the conscious decision to eat your treat without guilt. A study from Tufts University found that those who gave in to their cravings were better able to manage their weight than those who always deny their cravings, most likely because abstainers go overboard when they do lose control. When you really crave something, give yourself the green light to enjoy the real thing. If you crave ice cream, don’t settle for no-sugar-added fro-yo; get a cup of real, full-fat ice cream.

27. Experiment with grains. Wheat toast for breakfast; cornbread with your chili at lunch; fish served over rice for dinner. If you’re like most Americans, you’re most likely restricting your grain intake to wheat, rice, and corn. But these grains are often highly refined, removing most of the fiber, B vitamins, and up to 90% of its vitamin E. Next time you’re in the bulk foods section, look for other grains like amaranth, quinoa, teff, kamut, farro, and buckwheat. Each supergrain (or seed) has a unique nutritional profile that contributes to the health benefits of eating whole grains: decreased risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some type of cancers, as well as increased satiety and energy. Quinoa, for example, has two times the protein and eight times the fiber as white rice, and teff, a tiny grain native to Ethiopia, is high in calcium and iron.

28. Sub out sour cream for Greek yogurt and coconut milk. Greek yogurt and sour cream offer the same creamy tang, but with far different nutritional profiles: a ¼ cup dollop of sour cream adds 120 calories, 10 grams of fat (7 saturated), and 2 grams of protein; the same amount of Greek yogurt adds 37 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 5 grams of protein. By cutting out sour cream and using Greek yogurt instead, you can cut out unnecessary calories and fat and add muscle-building protein in dips, soups, burritos, pasta salads, and on baked potatoes. You can also use Greek yogurt as well as coconut milk – which helps maintain stable blood sugar levels and increases satiety – in baked goods like muffins, breads, and cakes to strip calories and add moisture.

29. Go meatless once a week. Even if it’s not a Monday, you’ll still benefit by cutting out meat every now and then. Numerous studies document the health benefits: a Harvard University study found that cutting out foods high in saturated fats, like red meat and full fat dairy, and replacing them with foods high in polyunsaturated fats (like nuts and seeds) can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 19%. Another study from Imperial College in London found that vegetarians and those on limited-meat diets had significantly lower body weights and BMIs; and numerous research points out that the consumption of red and processed meats is correlated with increased cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. Cutting out meat also allows you to add otherwise forgotten beans, legumes, and other alternative sources of protein to your diet, which are nutritional powerhouses loaded with fiber, folate, zinc, potassium, iron, magnesium, and antioxidants.

30. Discover what other cultures are eating. Experimenting with different ethnic cuisines gives you the chance to cook with ingredients you wouldn’t otherwise use. Indian cuisine, for example, uses turmeric (one of the ingredients in curry) in many of its dishes. Turmeric acts as an anti-inflammatory to help control rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic illnesses; its active compound, curcumin, decreases the risk of cancer, improves liver function, and protects against cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases. The Mapuche, the indigenous people of Chile and Argentina, regularly eat piñones, large, protein-rich pine nuts with a host of nutrients (iodine, manganese, copper, zinc, vitamin A, B complex vitamins, and alpha-linolenic acid) and maqui, berries that have more than three times the antioxidant capacity of açai berries. You can also benefit from the eating habits of different cultures as well. Instead of stuffing yourself every night, practice hara hachi bu, a Japanese phrase that means “eat until you’re 80% full.” Experiment with international recipes to discover tasty and healthy new ingredients and to develop healthier eating habits.