No matter where he's traveled or what the adventure, the flight home ends exactly the same way for David Kessler. Once the plane lands in San Francisco, he starts dreaming of dumplings. In particular, he wants the ones in the airport food court—pouches of steamed shrimp joined by sweet, caloric sauce. However, Kessler knows that if he can steer past the food court and on to baggage claim, he will forget all about the dumplings and thus, trounce the craving.
In the universal battle between want and willpower, Kessler has an advantage he wants to share. The former Food and Drug Administration commissioner and author of The End of Overeating says that understanding cravings enables us to better combat them. Combat them, because most of us aren't exactly craving kale. It's probably not a surprise that the worst foods for your health are also the ones we're most likely to want.
Let's start with a quick science lesson. Remember Pavlov's dogs? They drooled in anticipation of food at the sight of people in lab coats because lab-coated people also fed them. Well, Pavlov's dogs aren't the only animals conditioned to respond to association.
The plane lands; Kessler dreams of dumplings. It's 7:30 a.m.; millions of Americans crave coffee. You smell Cinnabon; good luck with that.
Every craving begins with a cue, says Kessler, who defines craving as "cue-induced wanting." The trick is to know your cues. And to know yourself.
While some people can quell their cravings with a single piece of chocolate or a glass of wine after work, food cravings are a "slippery slope," says Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University who researches food addiction. Aggravating our craving impulses is the "current food environment"—a fancy term for a culture saturated with processed food products designed to target our innate desire for the feel-good effects of sugar and fat.
In our hunting and gathering days, we sought out highly caloric foods—a scarcity at that time—to ensure survival. Today, our food supply has changed, but our brain chemistry hasn't. And meanwhile, we have manufactured foods whose sugar, salt, and fat content trump anything occurring in nature.
With that in mind, a critical approach to fending off cravings is to determine your personal triggers—be it boredom, stress, or "that vending machine on the fifth floor," says Gearhardt. She advises keeping a food diary to track cravings according to mood and time of day, for example, since stress and fatigue render us all more vulnerable to our food longings.
Exhibit A: The Snickers bar in your hotel room mini-bar looks a lot more tempting after a tough day of travel than it does at the CVS, where you've rushed in for an errand after an invigorating workout and a healthy lunch. Once you know what sets you off, try to manage your environment accordingly.
Another major cause of craving is deprivation, says Susan Albers, a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of Eating Mindfully and 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food.
"The more that you resist that craving, the worse it's going to get, and when you finally do indulge, you go overboard," Albers says. Instead, tune in to your craving early and aim to respond "in the most mindful, healthy way possible." That might mean indulging in macaroni and cheese, but keeping the portion size small and adding veggies, or getting your chocolate fix with dark chocolate, which has some health benefits.
So don't be afraid to give in gracefully. Alternatively, Albers suggests distracting yourself with massage, say, by rolling a tennis ball underfoot. Another trick to try is waiting it out. After 15 minutes, the peak of the urge should pass, Gearhardt says. But if you're going to try to rewire your brain to defeat cravings, Kessler believes your best weapon is to get a handle on the hardwired neurological response of cravings.
Here's a sense of what you're up against. When cued, about half of obese people show "excessive activation of the amygdala and certain neural structures that are part of the emotional structure of the brain," Kessler says. That statistic drops to 30 percent for people who are overweight and 20 percent for healthy individuals. In other words, your weight may influence the intensity of your cravings. But no one is immune.
As discussed, the cycle fires up with a cue. What follows is arousal, then increased attention, desire, and, ultimately, consumption, capped off perhaps by regret, explains Kessler, noting that consumption is rarely as good as imagined. The more often this loop takes place, the more entrenched the neural pathways become, and the tougher it is to resist your particular siren call.
Forget forgetting it. Studies in thought suppression show that trying not to think about something guarantees that the subject will dominate your thoughts, empowering your brain's default craving loop. To conquer the craving, conquer the cycle.
Kessler says the best solution is to substitute the want with an even bigger want. In his case, thinking about how much he wants to get home from the airport helps him bypass the dumplings. Perhaps you'd love a pint of Ben & Jerry's after a breakup. But if you can convince yourself that the best revenge is to look hot in your bikini, you may just get yourself to cardio kickboxing and visualize punching your ex instead.
"You can't control whether the craving comes up, but you can get better at responding to it," says Gearhardt.
While these tricks will help, know that as long as you are alive, you will never stop craving, nor would you want to. These are the same faculties involved in learning, memory, and motivation, Kessler says. Seek professional help, however, if food cravings become food addiction—a serious illness that erodes the ability to make healthy choices, says Gearhardt.
Otherwise, congratulations! You're well within the bell curve of normal behavior.
With living comes craving. But a little self-awareness can go a long way toward empowering you to control your cravings.