Eat Smart

In the Magazine: Curb Your Cravings

by Samantha Quisgard, WTH writer

(Courtesy of

Check out this feature and other great stories in the newest issue of What the Health magazine, dropping today! Look for it in all the dining halls, dorms, fitness centers and academic buildings.

Understand the science behind why you want the salty and sweet

It’s 1 a.m. and you wander into the kitchen looking for chocolate cake, ice cream, chips, or a hamburger. Whatever it is, you’re craving food, and the desire just won’t go away. No matter how hard you try to resist, you simply need to eat it.

Though we often blame our stomachs for cravings, our brains are truly at fault. There is a reason why you crave the foods you do. When your body is hungry and needs an energy boost, the stomach sends a signal to your brain,  giving you the urge to eat. Once this hunger is satisfied, your fat cells produce leptin, the chemical that tells your body you are full.

Stress disrupts this system, causing many of us to turn to food. The hormone cortisol accompanies high levels of stress and blocks the effect of leptin on the brain, preventing your body from getting that full feeling. Because your body thinks it hasn’t eaten, you  get the urge for a quick fix from sugar or fat—explaining why chocolate cake and greasy chips are at the top of your list while studying for midterms.

Cortisol can affect serotonin and dopamine levels— the chemicals that regulates your mood. “Chronic stress and depression can lead to high cortisol levels and lower serotonin levels. Lower serotonin levels appear to be correlated with intakes of carbs,” says Randall Jorgensen, a psychology professor at Syracuse University. Thus, we turn to comfort foods from our past when we need a mood booster.

Some studies show the type of food you’re craving may indicate an underlying mood, says Dr. Jacqueline Odom of the Beaumont Weight Control Center in Michigan. Craving crunchy foods may imply that you have unexpressed anger you’re unsure how to release. If you’re hungry for sweets, it may mean that you’re not getting enough kind words from those around you. Turning to dairy could signal a momentary lack of nurturing, and choosing starchy foods to munch could suggest you want more protection and support in your life. “Cravings have to do with a learned association: once you eat a food and have a good experience, you tend to associate that good feeling with that good food,” says Sapna Doshi, a fourth year clinical psychology Ph.D. student at Drexel University.

While there are no definitive answers to why you crave what you do, there are ways to try to prevent giving into them. Dr. Meghan Butryn, an assistant research professor at Drexel, suggests four ways to deal with cravings. First, decrease your access. If you have a tendency to crave ice cream, don’t keep a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in your freezer. Making foods less accessible will force you to pause before obtaining the food, and perhaps encourage you to decide on an alternative food or activity.  Next, Butryn suggests creating a “coping card,” or an index card filled with motivational quotes and suggestions that will help you to respond to the craving in a positive way. She also suggests short distractions such as taking a walk or calling a friend for support. Finally, Butryn recommends “urge surfing”: developing mindfulness by sitting back and watching the ups and downs of your cravings as they rise and subside like a wave. If you still can’t stop dreaming about the chocolate cake in your kitchen, give in to your craving—but not completely. Treat yourself to a small portion and be sure to eat it slowly. Take your time to enjoy the food as opposed to scarfing it down before you hit the kitchen table. This way, you’ll be much less likely to head back for the rest of the cake.

Syracuse University addictions professor, Dessa Bergen-Cico, guides WTH through the anatomy of a craving:

1.  You’re stressed and unhappy and want a rapid way to cope, so the image of a comfort food like chocolate cake enters your brain.

2.  Your brain is primed from experience to know the cake is high in cocoa, fat, and sugar which will increase your brain’s dopamine levels and elevate your mood.

3.  Memories surface in your brain of the good feelings you got last time you ate cake or similar sweets.

4.  You take the first bite and immediately your “feel good” chemical (dopamine) levels rise reinforcing you to crave eating more of the cake, so you take another bite, and another.

5.  The cake is gone, insulin fills your bloodstream, and your blood sugar spikes.

6.  Twenty minutes later your blood sugar drops and your brains levels of serotonin and dopamine decrease leaving you tired and slightly depressed.