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Beware the Addictive Cues: How to Fight Food Cravings

By , Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
I’ve just returned from a meeting at Harvard, where I participated in discussions about the new news in the science of addiction. Ironically, as I hopped on board my flight to Boston and was securing my seat belt, I looked up at the TV screen in front of me. It was lit up and clamoring for my attention with an invitation to "Chow Down. Eat Up!"  

Fascinated, I timed how long the invitation stayed up in my direct viewing. It stayed that way throughout the prep for departure and popped right back up after the flight attendant’s usual safety lecture. I felt like the screen was reaching right into my brain’s reward center, trying to infuse it with cues to eat, eat, eat!

It’s only an hour flight, but as soon as it was safe, the attendants were soon marching down the aisles announcing "cookies or nuts?" Captive in front of the screen and now invited to eat some hyperpalatable sugary/fatty/salty products, I noticed that most people caved. The majority of people grabbed a bag or two of the free food fare, and washed it down with a soda. This vivid memory was front and center in my mind as I began my meetings, reflecting on the remarkable way our brains are subjected to hijacking opportunities every minute of the day.

And there’s ground-breaking science to confirm that our reward centers are indeed undergoing real organic changes when we encounter any kind of cue to eat. Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, is a lead researcher in this field and has laid the groundwork for understanding how a cue affects how we make food choices. Peering into the brain using specialized brain scans, Dr. Volkow and her team found that it’s the cue, not the actual consumption of the food, that really ignites the emotion (limbic) and reward centers (nucleus accumbens) areas in the brain. In other words, there’s a process of conditioned learning that going on. Here’s the sequence:
1. The Memory is Set: You experience a sugary/fatty/salty food combo. You feel reward and pleasure. You’re influenced by any emotional/event association when you consumed the food--happy, sad, depressed, anxious, stressed. This is registered as a permanent memory in your reward center.

2. Berries Can’t Hold a Candle to Cake. If you continue to be exposed to that food combo on a regular basis, you reset reward thresholds such that the bowl of fresh berries is no longer seen as rewarding as the chocolate cake.

3. Hyperpalatable Food Cues Kick the Reward Center into Overdrive. With repeated exposure to any cue for that food combo, the conditioned reward center, working through memory circuits, is then expecting a very delicious reward, leading to the over-activation of the reward and motivation circuits, driving you to seek the food combo.

4. Impulse Control Is Impaired. While all of this is going on, the smarty pants part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) in charge of reining in those impulses to grab that over-the-top rewarding food combo, is actually inhibited from controlling impulsive overeating. The result is uninhibited feasting and often binging.
Ladies, listen up because you’re at even higher risk for caving to the craving. Simply being female is a risk factor: A study in the journal Biology of Sex Differences found that female rats are more susceptible to addiction at smaller doses of drugs than male rats—which may help explain why women are more susceptible to emotional eating and binge eating.
Now, top that with the well-established knowledge that as stress hormone (cortisol) levels rise when people are perceiving stresses that are associated with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and defeat, the impulse to overeat and binge rises as well. Finally, let’s throw in sleep deprivation. Science now shows that when you haven’t gotten your ZZZ’s, the hormones in charge of controlling appetite and monitoring fat fuel in the body are completely deregulated. In simple terms, without enough sleep, you’ll mindlessly eat anything that’s not tacked down.
This whole situation then leads to the perfect storm. Which brings us back to my Boston flight. Now we can see why people cave so easily. Flying is stressful so they’re already primed with an emotional explosion of anxieties, annoyances and irritations. They may be sleep deprived. They’ve already had plenty of experience with hyperpalatable food combos so their memory and anticipation is ready to rocket on a cue. And then, boom, the cue to eat pops up followed by the predictable and mindless hand-to-mouth foraging.
So, what did I do? Hey, I’m human and I’ve had plenty of experience with caving to the craving. It’d almost be un-American not to. However, as an expert I am armed with knowledge that I’ve just had the pleasure of sharing with you. I’ve also had lots of practice powering up my prefrontal cortex and overpowering the seductive siren calls of the cues that surround us every single minute of the day. So, I make sure to get adequate sleep. I don’t skip meals and end up so hungry I’ll eat anything. I try to keep with me my own "safe foods" in my brief case and purse:
  • 2 ounce Ziploc snack bags of almonds
  • my favorite energy bar
  • mini PBJs made with two WASA multigrain crackers with peanut butter and a smidgeon of blueberry preserves
  • fruit (an apple, tangerine or orange)
I wasn’t hungry on the flight because I’d eaten satisfying whole foods and didn’t skip meals or snacks. However, if the flight had occurred at snack time, I would have whipped out my PBJ and enjoyed it with my water. Sure I was a bit stressed getting through security and hustling to the gate. But I also meditate and keep myself physically fit so I tend to take stress in stride. In sum, I feel a heck of a lot better being in control and not allowing the cues to walk away with my brain and bloat my waistline!

The bottom line is that we’re all surrounded by cues from every direction. Armed with this knowledge, it’s so important to protect yourself throughout the day with a laser focus on your self-care. Stick to that regimen of nutritious healthy meals and snacks, log your foods to stay accountable, stay active, and practice stress resilience so that life’s stresses don’t cause you to knee jerk right into overeating once again.
Don’t cave to the cue and you won’t cave to the crave.
How do YOU fight back against cravings?

Dr. Pamela Peeke is an internationally recognized expert, physician, scientist and author in the fields of nutrition, fitness and integrative medicine. Dr. Peeke is the New York Times bestselling author of Fight Fat after Forty, Body for Life for Women and her new book, The Hunger Fix: The 3 Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction (Rodale, 2012), which presents the groundbreaking new science of food and addiction, noting the latest NIH based research showing that food addiction is real.
Dr. Peeke is a Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland and Fellow of the American College of Physicians. Dr. Peeke has teamed with the US Surgeon General to create the Surgeon General Walks for a Healthy and Fit Nation. She is a member of the Maryland Governor’s Council on Fitness, and is national spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine’s Exercise is Medicine global campaign.
In her laboratory at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Peeke’s original research helped establish the scientific foundation for the relationship between chronic stress and belly fat. She was also the first senior research fellow at the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine where she explored the new science of holistic and mind-body modalities.
Dr. Peeke is a regular in-studio medical commentator for the national networks and is a monthly columnist and contributing editor for numerous national magazines including Prevention, O, Fitness, and More Magazine.
Triathlete, marathoner and mountain climber, Dr. Peeke is founder of the Peeke Performance Center for Healthy Living™ where she conducts her Peeke Week Retreats teaching her Peeke Performers how to mentally and physically challenge themselves in magnificent outdoor destinations including hiking the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce National Parks.

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REDROBIN47 5/22/2020
Very good info. Thank you. Report
So true! Report
Thanks Report
GRAMMYD11 1/22/2020
It's like describing myself. Thank you for the tips Report
GRAMMYD11 1/22/2020
It's like describing myself. Thank you for the tips Report
LACISTONE 11/12/2019
Great article! Thanks for the info! Report
KOALA_BEAR 8/30/2019
Very interesting. There is also the cumulative impact from the millions of ads we're exposed to in our lives, esp on TV. Being educated so we know to prepare beforehand is so critical to this lifestyle. Go Sparkers! Report
CD16642186 8/21/2019
Thanks for the good info Report
SUGARSMOM2 8/16/2019
busy hands. if you find you are wanting to eat something .get busy with something else .snack packs help regulate portion sizes. so plan ahead of your wants. and think what you might want to eat and be ready for it. Report
GEORGE815 8/2/2019
Thanks Report
Good information. Report
This is called "will power" and you used yours. Report
thanks Report
This is great-lots of info in a small package. I do my best to be prepared with my own food and a meditation, but it's good to read this and know it's not just me being too hardheaded. Report
Great info! I prepare for any outing - shopping errandsm drs apts. I make sure to drink plenty of water before I leave and pack a small bag with my foods to help. Protein bars, baby carrots, almonds, and a small fruit in a cooler. Report
All these years of reading spark articles I know 1st things 1st and preparations are keys to success. I eat before I go to most places so I'm full by the time snacks and other fun foods start being served. Sugarless gum is always in my purse esp on flights pretzels aren't bad if you enjoy one bag or eat chew slowly. Report
Thank you. The way I handle stress is to gander at my BEFORE picture and reflect on how far I have come. I always have healthy snacks handy. Then I grab my bottle water and start drinking. I truly believe that sugar and carbs are addictive. I have been free of both for nearly 2 years now. I do not have the cravings of the past any longer. Report
thank you Report
Great post Report
Thank you for the good information. Very useful. Report
thanks for sharing a great article Report
Excellent article and great information. Report
Some great suggestions to remember before needed! Report
Great, Thanks! Report
Thank you! Report
I love this!! thank you! Report
On a different level now. Report
Wonderful, eye opening article. You've shared lots of great information with us. Thank you! Report
Very helpful article. Report
I read the book The End of Overeating by Dr David Kessler around 2009-2011. It speaks of highly palatable food and how the food industry.....restaurants and makers of processed foods sold in grocery stores.....have labs to design foods with combinations of fat, sugar, and sodium to make us crave and purchase more of their product. He taught me to set rules. I lose when I follow the rules I set. April 2016 I gave up refined and highly processed snacks in the form of doughnuts, cookies, candy, bars, pies, etc. I was addicted and craved more. I gave up chips and crackers July 2017. The sodium was not beneficial. Report
I stopped all added sweeteners and grains & my cravings have disappeared! Report
I am a VERY healthy eater, but sometimes I just LOSE IT and eat something that is not wise for a clean eater. I'm glad those times don't happen too often. Report
This is so important and an often overlooked detail of unhealthy eating or weight loss. Report
Interesting article about food addiction. Report
I go to Overeaters Anonymous. Wonderful for dealing with food addictions. Report
Judy Beck has an exercise one day the six week Beck Diet solution in which the participant pays attention to cravings and what happens when it's not indulged. How does it feel 15 minutes later? Is the craving still there?

I found that cravings are fleeting. They don't last. If I can put off indulging until the desire dissipates, it helps.

She does something similar with hunger. What is hunger?

Judy Beck's book and accompanying workbook (I used the workbook since it had all the lessons in the book but the tracking stuff was all there ready-to-use) help the participant to become skillfull. It's not about willpower and "thinking positive" and "hoping for the best".

She helped me build skills. Unfortunately, I didn't stay mindful of my then new skills. I let myself fall off the edge. The beauty of skills is that I can use them again. I am and I'm seeing results from it. Report
Interesting article, however men make up 40 to 50% of binge eaters even though the article hints at far fewer men. Eating disorders in men is under-reported. BED hits both men and women just about equally. Report
I had the same reaction about the nuts. Someone offers me nuts, I'll eat them. They're a healthy fat and they're minimally processed. Report
I almost always take the snack even on a short flight - nuts are my choice if they are offered but even the cookie packet won't have more than 3 small cookies. And, if I don't eat it on the plane, I will put it in my purse for later. I always wonder what people think of me when I need to get a snack out in public, even it is one I am carrying in my purse, since I do have pounds to lose but I am diabetic and it is better to eat something than pass out (which has happened). It is not fair to judge people for what they eat or when and speculate as to why. Report
It's a sad life we live when we have to turn our whole lives upside down just to avoid a snack offer.

What kind of society has our greed created? (buy more food = $$, diet programs = $$, need extra health care = $$) Report
I've been a serious binge eater, tempted by suggestion. I found several helpful things, such as always carrying appropriate snacks in my purse and in my desk drawer at work, getting enough sleep, keeping blood sugars stable by eating regularly, no meal skipping, always keeping protein up and carbs low. I found that if I start to eat a certain amount of carbs then I start to crave more carbs, but if I keep it under a certain level but eat sufficient protein and fat then I don't crave carbs and I don't want to overeat. It might just be me, but it works for me. Report
I knew I was addicted to overeating sweets and had been for decades. I determined over three years ago that I would stick to three meals a day, five days a week. (No S Diet) It took practice but, it's now a habit. I don't have to carry food with me. I'm not at the mercy of all the available food. It undercuts the over 200 food cues Brian Wansink says most of us are exposed to. I realized I could reinforce the cue or ignore it. I kept reminding myself that I had eaten a good meal a few hours before and would again in a few hours. The French and Italians do it all the time. Now, it just doesn't matter. If it's not meal time, I don't have the food. We've lost the ability to wait an extra hour or two for food. Cravings are not an emergency! I can have beverages in between. Mostly I choose cafe au lait or something like it. It's really very livable. Report
Five years ago I was told I was type 2 dieabic. I went home looked it up on my computer. and made a list of what I could not eat. When you see those thing you just have to say to your self you can't have those things and go on.
Where is your will power, get a grip who is your boss that tv or you! Report
I'm with Elennare, why make the negative judgment that people "caved" when they accepted the snacks? When I fly, I plan for the snacks offered on the plane and I try to choose the best option available. I resent the assumption that I am weak and have given in. You get little enough from the airlines these days, and yes, I will take the snack, but it is a mindful decision. Report
These lucky people who can have 'just a little bit' of what they crave and that's enough, I envy them. When I say I'm a chocoholic, I mean just that . Even if it's dark chocolate, I can't eat just a little bit, the urge to eat until I feel full takes over. I don't know where the reward stimulus comes from , somewhere in childhood no doubt, so it would take a lot of deep work to get rid of it. Fruit just does not cut it. And of course I got eggs for Easter, so I've fallen off the wagon again. I think I will send an email to my family just before Christmas, saying that if they give me chocolate for Christmas, they will be buying it for the IT guys at work or my local homeless shelter, because if it's in the house, I will eat it! Report
Excellent article, well written and factual. I am going to print this out and use it as a handout for my upcoming class this Fall. thank you.

A PBJ on Wasa? Does it get soggy? Report
My biggest danger is definitely allowing myself to get over tired. Exercise is my biggest aid in squashing the desire to mindlessly overeat! Report
I am 40 & THIS is the battle I face.Good food choices ,drop a couple pounds,feel good.Cravings, binge, gain a few pounds & feel horrid. It got worse the older I got & after I quit smoking. Traded more good food feelings for cigarettes.
Recently I realized that the DIET Pepsi I drink so often makes my cravings worse.It actually makes me crave the bad carbs & sugar. Cutting back on that has helped my night time cravings. Also ,a very satisfying snack when I do get hungry at night is a piece or two of celery with Skinny Cow light cheese on it. Sometimes I chop up 2-3 olives, sprinkle on top. It adds that salt & tang that we crave. Report
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