Psychological, Behavioral, and Environmental Aspects of Cravings

Many people still have psychological cravings even after biological sources have been addressed. There are psychological and behavioral techniques to address these. I’m sure you’ve encountered at least some of them elsewhere if you’ve ever read any books on weight loss. I’ll summarize a few that have worked for me.

  • Fix your food environment. The front line of the battle against “off-plan” foods is in the store, not your house. It’s harder to fight them once they are conveniently there in the house. But to win the fight in the store, you have to plan in advance, have a list, and stick to it. In Salt, Sugar, and Fat, Michael Moss cites the statistic that, on average, 70% of food purchases are unplanned. The food industry is well aware of that, which is why there are tempting displays as you enter the store and on “end caps”. You’ll never see artfully arranged broccoli in such a display, more likely chips and dip or beer.
  • Eat slowly. The stomach notices right away when it is getting full because it has stretch receptors, but it can take the brain about 20 minutes to respond to the signal from the stomach. If you are eating fast you can pack in a lot more calories before the brain flips the “full” switch.
  • Eat mindfully (paying attention). No fussing with a smartphone or computer or watching TV, we occasionally need a break from all of that anyway. My most enjoyable meals are paying 100% attention to my food plus my friends or loved ones. I must admit I don’t do this all the time. I might eat at my desk sometimes while eating breakfast and mindlessly shove food in my face, and then be disappointed when I notice it’s gone already.
  • Control stress: eating when you’re stressed out more likely leads to making the wrong food choices. See my previous posts on mindfulness and meditation for stress management.

There are many books devoted solely to this topic. An interesting one is Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Dr. Brian Wansink, who has done a lot of research on this, including in a fascinating restaurant where the patrons on one side form the control group and those on the other the experimental group. Tidbits from the book include: if told to eat as much as we want, we tend to eat more food if given a larger full plate vs a smaller one. Moviegoers given free popcorn will eat more if given a larger size container, even if the popcorn is stale. In a companion book Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, he gives tips on how to control our food environment at home and our choices when eating out, to reduce the mindless overeating we tend to do. One simple example: having a fruit bowl out in plain sight tends to double the amount of fruit we eat. So lose the candy bowl, replace it with a fruit bowl.

Ditch The “Going On A Diet” Mentality

 “Going on a diet” has a very low success rate in the long run. You can make progress in the short term but then almost inevitably “lose it” and gain the weight back. In his book Mini Habits for Weight Loss, Stephen Guise goes over this in great detail and gives a lot of scientific evidence why it doesn’t work. There’s much psychological insight in this recommended book.

Instead of the going on a diet mentality, he suggests, as many (including me) do, the attitude of making a long term change to a healthier way of eating. His approach to do so is interesting and psychologically sound: mini habits. These are small changes that are easy to make, and you can succeed at, like start out eating one extra piece of fruit per day. As I discussed in my previous post, this also works for biological sources of cravings, it was my “approach 2”.

In my post on “Physical Activity and Weight Loss”, I mentioned that it’s a bit controversial whether to try to change your eating habits and your physical activity simultaneously. But Stephen definitely feels it works well in the context of mini-habits, because they are small changes that don’t overly strain your willpower.

So you could, for example, readily do the mini-habit of one extra piece of fruit a day while at the same time adding a habit of getting up from your desk to take a NEAT break more often.

The 80/20 Rule and “Cheating”

Most advocates of any diet think it is ok if you eat “on-plan” about 80% of the time. So what is the 20% for? Partly it is the idea that using “borderline” foods can make healthier foods more enjoyable, such as using oils in salad dressings even though they are not whole foods. I also like to think of it as there are no forbidden foods, but some foods are “staples of your diet”, while others are occasional “special treats”.

Cheat Meal!

But some authors go so far as to allow “cheat” meals or “cheat” days, which can be a bad idea psychologically. To be sustainable, your way of eating has to be enjoyable, you can’t be thinking of it as deprivation and straying from it as fun. An obvious example is the mindset of being “good” on weekdays while getting to have “fun” on weekends. First of all, the weekend is 29% of the week, so that exceeds your 20% budget, but more importantly it can lead to more severe “straying” than a piece of bread or cake, especially if alcohol gets into the picture.

Rob Wolf objects to the idea of “cheating” because it implies we’re being immoral, and devotes an entire chapter to this in his book Wired To Eat. This can cause all kinds of psychological problems, like “in for a penny in for a pound”: “I cheated. I’m a failure, I may as well go for it and have a real binge” or even worse, give up on trying to change my way of eating. If you occasionally eat “off-plan”, just get “back on the wagon” at your next meal.

Outsmarting The Hungry Brain

Neurologist and obesity expert Dr. Stephan Guyenet wrote an interesting book The Hungry Brain which shows how our brains are wired to overeat in the presence of abundant calories. He also tells a story that’s a fascinating reason for us to avoid eating junk. Obesity researchers studying rats needed a dependable way to get them to gain weight. If they were fed rat chow spiked with extra sugar or extra fat, they would overeat and gain weight, but not as quickly or reliably as hoped. Then someone who’d been snacking on froot loops tried giving some to the rats. They went crazy for them, overeating like mad. The researchers then tried various processed food items which got dubbed the “cafeteria diet”, similar to the processed main course foods and treats you could get at a cafeteria. They all worked great. So when you are eating junk, you are eating food that’s works well to fatten up a rat as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it’s also effective for fattening up humans.

Dr. Guyenet Recommends six steps for outsmarting your hungry brain:

  • Fix your food environment- we discussed this one above.
  • Let your brain know you aren’t starving- eat high satiety foods that are palatable but not overly so.
  • Beware of high “food reward” (hyperpalatable food) – another reason for whole foods, no junk. He discusses how hyperpalatable food has effects in your brain similar to drugs.
  • Get good quality sleep- He cites research showing that sleep-deprived people may overeat by 300 calories per day.
  • Physical activity- exercise helps create a calorie deficit without triggering the metabolic “set point”, and there’s some evidence it slowly lowers the set point over time.
  • Stress- discussed above.

One last tip. My friends at Tangly Cottage made a comment to my post on biological cravings that is very important and I’d like to share here. One of the big deals in trying to move away from overly processed foods is reducing your salt content. Junk foods are a major source of salt in the diet so eliminating them is a good first step. But even some healthier foods that are not overly processed can have a lot of salt. They gave the example of Costco Hummus. I also ran into it in some soups even from healthy companies like Amy’s. My approach was to postpone worrying about salt. I figure I had enough on my plate (or actually, not on it) trying to stop eating worse things like cookies and tv dinners. Only when I was used to eating significantly less overly processed food did I worry about salt, and have slowly made progress on reducing salt since them.

Things taste bland at first without salt but your taste buds get used to it over time. Other spices, and “Mrs Dash” help. My friend Ron has a funny story illustrating how your taste buds adjust. He once had pancreatitis and had to studiously avoid salt and other pleasurable things to eat for a year. After he got better he went to the cafeteria at work and ordered the soup. He almost couldn’t eat it, because it taste so salty too him. Then he noticed a nearby coworker eating the same soup, in which he was enthusiastically sprinkling in more salt from the shaker.

I hope you find some of these tips helpful. It’s an ongoing battle. I always used to say I have willpower to go hike up a big mountain but have trouble with my “won’tpower” when it comes to not eating junk. But it’s gotten a lot better over time.

When that little voice whispers sweet nothings in your ear about “what could it hurt, just this once?”, that is where the battle is fought. and can be won. Good luck!

Please feel free to share any tips that have worked well for you!

3 thoughts on “Psychological, Behavioral, and Environmental Aspects of Cravings

  1. I love the idea of “won’t power.” That’s something I struggle with, too. When I changed employer last year, the new employer encouraged a culture of healthful eating by giving cash incentives for attending yearly healthy lifestyle coaching. I had wanted to reduce the amount of sugar I consumed, but it was this coaching that gave me the push I needed to start. It’s about a year later and I’ve drastically reduced the amount of sugar I consume, but I find myself sliding. I think this idea of “won’t power” might give me just the right amount of motivation I need to skip the afternoon cookie and prevent myself from sliding.
    Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on 1) sprouting, 2) tumeric, and 3) chia seeds.
    I just love your blog. You explain things so well. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the nice comments about the blog! Turmeric is supposed to be really good for you from what I’ve heard. I like to sprinkle it on dishes. I’t’s also in a lot of brands of mustard and I like mustard. Chia is supposed to be great for you. I’m not sure if this is true of chia but it’s true of other seeds like flax- It’s better if you eat it ground because you absorb more of the nutrients. But then it can go bad quicker. So for flax I keep a bag of pre-ground seeds in the freezer and just sprinkle it in smoothies, that would work for chia too.
    I eat bread made from sprouted grains which is supposed to be more nutritious. I haven’t eaten a lot of fresh sprouts like alfalfa lately unless they come on a sandwich when I eat out. They’re supposed to be good for you but I think there’s some concern about bacteria if they spoil. There’s a lot of good nutritional info on Dr. Greger’s website https://nutritionfacts.org/, I think I remember him saying sprouts are nutrient-packed but warning about the spoiling.

    Liked by 1 person

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