Food Cravings

Food cravings are defined as frequent intense urges to eat specific types of food. There are people who deny their existence, but in truth, we’ve all felt them, some more than others. For example, some people have intense food cravings for sugar (probably the most common). However, salty foods, chocolate, junk food (pizza) are also common food cravings. Gary Taubes wrote about carb addiction in last week’s New York Times.

We may know very well from an intellectual standpoint that eating these foods will make us gain weight, but feel helpless to resist. This is not really all that hard to understand. Consider a substance such as alcohol. Even as drinking destroys his life, the alcoholic addict feels compelled to drink. We understand that he is the victim of alcoholism and provide support to him to reverse it. For example, he might be encouraged to join Alcoholics Anonymous without stigma that he ‘let himself go’ or that he simply had no willpower.

Unfortunately, food cravings are not free of such stigma. If you are unable to resist the call of the donut, then many people consider it your fault, and help is much harder to find. Karen Thompson and Bitten Jonsson on www.dietdoctor.com have written about sugar addiction and help many people beat it.

There’s an association between obesity and food cravings, and the same holds for type 2 diabetes. The most consistent offenders are sweet foods, starchy foods, high fat foods, and junk foods. But does food craving lead to obesity or does obesity lead to food cravings or both? This is a very important question, because understanding the cause (aetiology) is the key to successful treatment. So, what causes food cravings?

One theory is that food cravings develop in response to deficiencies of certain nutrients or overall food energy (calories). There is no scientific data that suggests this is true. In the case of obesity, clearly these patients do not lack overall food energy. There are those who suggest that there is a nutrient deficiency that causes obesity. This leads to calls for eating nutrient dense foods. But, there’s a clear and obvious problem here. What nutrient are we talking about? In the case of most junk foods, sweet foods and starchy foods, there are no essential nutrients contained here, so the body cannot ‘crave’ these nutrients for good health. Coca cola has no essential nutrients. Donut have no essential nutrients. Just as with vitamins, obesity is not a nutrient deficiency syndrome. It’s not scurvy. It’s not kwashiorkor. 

The remaining possibility is that food cravings develop due to the consistent association of certain foods with particular stimuli or social contexts (special occasions). This suggests that food cravings are largely a conditioned response (like Pavlov’s dogs). If this is true, then part of the solution is to break these responses. That is, if we can stop taking certain foods for a long time, then those cravings should slowly improve. Is this true? Indeed, it is.

In this study, participants were put on a very low calorie diet – 1200 calories per day in the low calorie group (LCD), and 800 calories per day in very low calorie (VLCD). You can see that severe caloric restriction was much, much more effective at reducing cravings than a higher calorie diet. This is despite the fact that a 1200 calorie diet is already extremely strict. My guess is that even more severe restriction helped to break many of the conditioned responses where the more lenient diet was not powerful enough to do so. The same effect is seen in juice fasting diets where an approximately 800 calorie ‘fasting’ diet helped reduce cravings where low calorie diets alone could not.

This leads to the counterintuitive fact that we seen in our IDM clinic all the time. Eating less, when you go very, very low, makes you LESS hungry, not more hungry. If you have food cravings, then this effect is potentially very important. In the study shown, a 1200 calorie diet was virtually ineffective at lowering cravings where the 800 calorie diet reduces it by at least 50%.

This effect is seen for all different types of foods  whether it is sweets, starches, fatty foods or fast food. Over time, this effect does not diminish, but persists. Once you start refeeding, the effect starts to dissipate.

This concept extends to hunger. While cravings and hunger are different phenomena, they are clearly correlated to one another, so that decreased cravings can be expected to result in decreased hunger. But keep in mind that this effect is only seen with very severe caloric restriction. In fact, a comparison of a 500 calorie versus a 1200 calorie dieting schedule revealed significantly less hunger in the 500 calorie diet. That is, hunger is less, with less food. Counterintuitive, but consistent.

A more recent meta-analysis looked at this effect in more detail. Reviewing all 8 studies in the literature, they found that interventions lasting at least 12 weeks with caloric restriction consistently showed decreased food cravings. The effect is not huge, but consistent once again for all manners of food – salty, sweet, fatty, or junk foods. People who have cut out certain foods notice this, too. People who reduce their sugar intake very close to zero, for example, find that their sweet tooth goes away. If you eat more sugar, cravings don’t get better – they get worse. It’s like that itch – scratching it won’t make it better – it will make it worse.

The application to fasting is obvious. Severe restrictions on food do not increase food cravings, but consistently decrease them – which is one of the keys to success. This is entirely consistent with our clinical experience. Contrary to almost everybody’s expectation, fasting decreases hunger. Patients would always come back to our clinic and say “I think my stomach shrank. I eat a third of what I used to eat, and feel so full.”

That’s great news, because now you are working with your body to lose weight instead of against it. One of the persistent myths about fasting is that ‘you will get so hungry that you will be forced to stuff your face with Krispy Kreme donuts’. This is why people recommend that you eat 6 or 7 times throughout the day, in order to stave off those cravings. These people obviously don’t have any practical experience, and don’t understand the research which shows exactly the opposite. If you eat constantly, you are more likely to feed those cravings. If you fast, those cravings will shrivel away. Maybe. At least it’s worth a shot.

 

 

2017-10-12T19:25:46+00:00 38 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Fung is a Toronto based kidney specialist, having graduated from the University of Toronto and finishing his medical specialty at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2001. He is the author of the bestsellers ‘The Obesity Code’ and ‘The Complete Guide to Fasting’. He has pioneered the use of therapeutic fasting for weight loss and type 2 diabetes reversal in his IDM clinic.

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38 Comments on "Food Cravings"

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Susan
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I’ve been doing Intermittent Fasting (IF) now for 2 1/2 months, after reading Dr Jung’s book. Now, I follow this way of living 95% of the time, with the occasional eating earlier, at say a family function, that I relax and have fun at. At first, I could NOT wait until 2 pm to eat. I was salivating at 12 and then again at 1pm. I’d have a cup of tea, can of seltzer, or cup of black coffee and what I thought was hunger pains, would immediately dissipate with just something to drink. Then I started to question, what… Read more »
Mike
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Isn’t it funny how you start doing something that works and every one wants to tell you that you are doing something radical and dangerous. I did 3.5 months of IF and LCHF and was only consistent 85% of the time. I lost 30lbs of fat and got muscularity wise very defined, stronger, and was able to run many miles while in ketosis at 40 hours fasted. The ignorance I once had On calories in and calories out is the problem I see in most other people. And to see people going months with no results yet these same people… Read more »
vasu
Guest

It is an epiphany that EVERY individual must go through; it strives at the core of our existence.

Christine E.
Guest

Great post Dr. Fung! I hope someone investigates this as a strategy for dealing with non-food cravings/addiction. My uncle struggled to quit smoking, post mealtime being his biggest challenge. His solution was to simply stop eating entirely till the craving went away. Ten days later he started eating again, completely free of his cigarette addiction.

Mike
Guest

Fasting is the way many people overcome addiction to drugs. Awesome about your uncle.

Bruce Hennessy
Guest
I think the great philosopher Yogi Berra stated the proper notion: “‘Baseball is 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical’”, so: Cravings are 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical. I’ve read responses above about Buddhism, and evolution, and being bad-person deniers of evolution and climate change. What???!!! How about being true honest seekers of truth? Buddha will not make you less craving of bad foods, and I can assure you that that is not Jesus’ purpose for your life either. The real connection of religion or world-views and diet is: objectivity. Take a step back,… Read more »
Yor
Guest

Junk food tastes good. Getting intoxicated feels good. Sex feels good.Pleasure that comes from sense contact is addictive. Whatever feels good we crave. Whatever we crave, we cling to. The Buddha prescribed mindfulness, ethical living and practical wisdom (from the mindfulness) to counter addiction. It has worked (relatively) well for me, but I am by no means cured. I still love and crave crappy foods, but I am learning to cope with the addiction.

In a way alcohol is easier than food because one can permanently quit drinking, but one cannot stop eating indefinitely.

Travis
Guest
Dr. Fung, Dropping the knowledge bomb as usual! At the risk of being a pedant (and yes, annoyingly so), would it be possible to correct “theory” to “hypothesis” in “One theory is that food cravings develop in response to deficiencies of certain nutrients or overall food energy (calories). There is no scientific data that suggests this is true.” All too often, scientific denialists and alternative fact purveyors, discredit scientific consensus by the claim “It’s just a theory!” i.e. climate change denialists and anti evolutionists. As this hypothesis has no validity, I think it is important to not credit it with… Read more »
Murray H.
Guest

In fact, man-made climate-change-global-warming *is* just a theory, and one that has been disproved by climate realists, but is still successfully promoted by climate alarmists. A taste of the forbidden fruit:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=52Mx0_8YEtg

Murray H.
Guest

Oops… I meant ” *is* just an hypothesis”

JenP.
Guest

What if I’m craving something good, though? I started a 36 hour fast yesterday and I feel fine. Went out to do a little gardening and saw all these lovely dandelion leaves that made my mouth water. In my family we simmer the leaves and eat them, along with their broth, with garlic and oil.

If I simmered the leaves and just drank the broth without any oil, that wouldn’t break my fast, right? I think I might just be wanting the minerals.

Christian
Guest

But does your stomach actually get smaller, or is it just the hunger that decreases?

donny
Guest

I think it’s likely that the feeling of “fullness” of the stomach we experience is just our interpretation of what we feel, rather than a strictly mechanical fullness. Drink skim milk or heavy cream, you will very likely feel “stuffed” on a much smaller volume of heavy cream. There are stretch receptors on the stomach that keep us from doing damage, but when somebody’s losing weight on a high fat diet that’s very calorie-dense, it’s unlikely that they’re overstretching their stomach.

John C
Guest
This rings true with me. It’s taken three or four years, but I’ve now reached the stage where hunger is not a problem – just a gentle reminder that it could be time for a meal. I fast intermittently at irregular intervals and actually feel more alert and more energetic when I haven’nt eaten for many hours. I used to still crave old favourites for a year or two and just gave in whenever the craving became too strong but ensured it didn’t become a habit. Gradually the cravings lessened and giving in to them became less rewarding. I now… Read more »
Pete
Guest

True!

Kim
Guest

I agree with what Dr. Fung says here, but I also believe that some foods (such as sugar, refined grains, and chocolate) release feel-good chemicals in our brains that honestly make us seek them out like a drug addict.

Jerome Kahn
Guest
With fasting there is less of a food craving. The answer as to why the 800 calorie diet had lower food craving is that it went from low-calories to the body’s response to fasting, and thus the craving was less. If they measured leptin and the other hunger and metabolism hormones you would find the answer. The body goes from putting the brakes on to conserve fat and increase appetite into the fasting mode which includes diminished hunger. In the video Fasting vs. Eating Less: What’s the Difference? (Science of Fasting) 13 min, 469,000 by What I’ve Learned at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=APZCfmgzoS0&spfreload=10… Read more »
Geoff
Guest

Diet Coke was my obsession. The first year I still had desires but after two years there was almost no desire. Now 10 years later, there is the opposite reaction, I almost have a negative reaction. I am trying to apply the same approach to alcohol, especially beer, however the social association is much harder. But the result is the same, year after year the desire is much less. Perhaps it’s my age, now 65 years old, but I feel it’s the application of abstinence.

Rodger
Guest

Good article Doc.

Monore S.
Guest
How about starvation mode? I mean we basically have to eat about 1200 calories to maintain our daily activities (as least this is what we have been told & taught) What if we keep eating less than 1200 calories? I didn’t feel hungry at all when I started my fasting, eating few bites every meal makes me full already. I ate less than 1000 calories per day. But then my friend warned me, I have to eat more since I still have quite a lot of weight to lose (S.W.256, G.W.110) and prevent myself to get into starvation mode.. then… Read more »
Mike
Guest
If your body has lots of excess stores energy then in order for you to not starve yourself you must stop eating carbs and get your body to switch over to fat burning mode. Your body will eat your stores fat and therefore you are not starving your body but in fact are using much more calories than normal because in ketosis your body also wasted stores energy through urination and respiration. You need to understand this concept in order to understand the difference between starving more and fat burning or ketosis mode. There is a big difference and people… Read more »
Chas
Guest

You should search the site for “starvation mode”. There are a lot of myths about starvation mode that simply are not true. You might start here:

https://intensivedietarymanagement.com/fasting-myths-part-5/

Diane
Guest

“One theory is that food cravings develop in response to deficiencies of certain nutrients or overall food energy (calories). There is no scientific data that suggests this is true.”…… I tend to disagree with this statement, as there is plenty of scientific data, IF one is willing to pull back the green curtain in the land of oz…… http://www.drlwilson.com/articles/copper_toxicity_syndrome.htm (references at the end of the article and within the references referenced 😉 😉 )

Hannie
Guest

Thanks for another great post, Dr. Fung.

Dev
Guest
Jenny
Guest

That survey is an absurd over simplistic nonsense!

thebigpicture
Guest
I personally have found chocolate to be the hardest to give up. I can give up other sugars for some time but not chocolate. The food addicts and obese are right in one way alone. They will say, that food is their one and only craving. That they aren’t smokers, drinkers, drug addicts, etc. And in this sense they are right. But this attitude can also be dangerous, because it blinds them to something that was creeping up on them from a distance and then will eventually blow up in their face. Society shifting so much blame and attention to… Read more »
Carlos
Guest

I feel for you, brother.

I can go with no sugar without breaking a sweat, but eschewing chocolate (and beer, but that is a different tune altogether) made me deeply unhappy.

I found the answer in pure cacao, be it powder or directly cacao beans. Only for very dark chocolate lovers, though

Shirley
Guest

When I gave up dairy (except butter) all desire for chocolate went away. Morning backache and other joint pain, and the pressure on my right eye disappeared completely.

Mikki
Guest

Dark chocolate 75% or more is supposed to be good for you. It doesn’t taste very good though.

Tanara
Guest

It really is much easier to understand and help a person addicted to alcohol than a person who can not control themselves in front of some food, these people suffer especially if it is a woman, because besides being guilty still suffers with insinuations about its silhouette the Which causes more suffering and aggravates the problem.

Balakrishna Yaraganga
Guest
Balakrishna Yaraganga

I workout 4 days a week for about an hour not intense though but however when i workout my hunger is never satisfied . I eat a typical Indian food like Parboiled Rice , Eggs + Vegetables. I’m a vegan so i restrict my food with what i get but my appetite is never satisfied so i crave a lot. I would like to eat good food to satisfy my hunger. Please suggest.

Maha
Guest

Maybe you could consider a non-vegan lifestyle? Rice is a carb and could be fueling your hunger. Your body needs healthy fats, because that is what makes you feel full or satisfied. You may need other sources of protein too. You’re hungry because you may not be taking in enough fuel, especially for working out so much. This site is full of ideas to eat filling and healthy foods.

Barry Justice
Guest

I think it has a lot to do with leptin(resistance), and of course fasting hits leptin hard….once again hormonal.

G.J.
Guest
Great comments and feedback here. I enjoy reading them. I have been fasting off and on for about 7 years with 500 calorie day diet for 40 days at a time. I had great success with it and loved how well I felt each time I did it for weight loss/maintenance. As an aside, people often tell me I look15 years younger than I am. Now I think I know why, according to Dr. Fung-autophagy. Recently, I found Dr. Fung and an now into a 14 day water/bone broth fast. I want to lose a few pounds but also explore… Read more »
william
Guest

if we can stop taking certain foods for a long time, then those cravings should slowly improve. Is this true? Indeed, it is. Tell this to an alcoholic. at least the collation between food and alcohol does not stand up… Maybe there is more to the food addiction(craving) than meets the eye???

william
Guest

A person who is addicted to say glazed donuts who stops eating them for, let’s say 3 years may or may not completely loose her craving for them. but after 3 years of abstinence she eats one and wallah, her cravings(addiction) come’s back. There must be more to this behavior than meets the eye… I wonder if this sort of thing existed during the Paleo period, and is there a way we could understand it… could our hormones be expressing some sort of ???

Audrey
Guest

Food craving will depends by your mood. I actually eat what I want because you know sometimes your craving something even though your on your diet. Well it’s up to you and the best thing for that is to control your own. By the way, did you happen to incorporate Essential Oils on your weight loss program? Check out this blog and you can make a free consultation to Nurse Audrey who happens to have great recommendations on Weight Loss. http://www.justbecauseicare.org/

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