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Beware the Addictive Cues: How to Fight Food Cravings

By: , – Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
3/28/2013 6:00 AM   :  23 comments   :  16,210 Views

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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Comments

  • 23
    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. - 3/12/2014   8:03:05 AM
  • 22
    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. - 7/27/2013   11:04:21 AM
  • CHAIRS5
    21
    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! - 4/3/2013   2:48:19 PM
  • VERAMSW
    20
    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. - 4/3/2013   12:21:59 PM
  • 19
    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! - 4/2/2013   11:01:09 AM
  • 18
    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.

    Robert
    - 3/30/2013   10:32:41 AM
  • 17
    A PBJ on Wasa? Does it get soggy? - 3/29/2013   11:05:19 PM
  • 16
    My biggest danger is definitely allowing myself to get over tired. Exercise is my biggest aid in squashing the desire to mindlessly overeat! - 3/29/2013   9:45:26 PM
  • 15
    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. - 3/29/2013   5:36:24 PM
  • 14
    This is exactly why I replied to a recent article here about shaming the overweight. The constant bombarding of the brain by hyperpalatable sugary/fatty/salty food is going to create an obese population in much the same way that the excess packaging of non-food products is creating obese landfills.

    The only way we can combat these excessive barrages is to make conscious choices and live conscious lives. The ball is firmly in our court. Get ready to lob it back. - 3/29/2013   6:04:35 AM
  • 13
    Waiting for the book to be delivered...hopefully this week. I agree that it is hard to think about being an addict. It was hard for me to say I was morbidly obese, too, but I got past that. It's time I faced the music! - 3/28/2013   6:50:42 PM
  • 12
    I'm currently reading The Hunger Fix: The 3 Stage Detox and Recovery Plan for Overeating and Food Addiction by Dr. Peeke. I'm finding it very interesting, especially the brain science. However, what is difficult for me is admitting "I'm an addict." There's a part of my brain that intelligently and reasonably knows this, but then there's a part that says "no, I'm in control and this craving doesn't exsist and I can have just one little bite." And don't we all know how faulty this thinking is! - 3/28/2013   3:33:25 PM
  • 11
    Interesting article. I'm curious, though, why you assumed everyone on the flight "caved." How do you know they weren't planning to eat the free snacks provided before they even got on the plane? Often, when I fly, I skip bringing/buying snacks ahead of time because I know they'll give me a free snack. I'm also curious why the nuts the flight attendants were passing out where so horrible, but your bag of almonds was a "safe" food? - 3/28/2013   11:45:12 AM
  • 10
    I have been having a lot of success with Renee Stephen's book 'Full-Filled' and using her 'Appetite Adjuster' meditation audio download (just 30 dollars). She helps you to change your own motivations from the 'Inside Out'. You can get much of the information from the first 18 episodes of her free podcast 'IOWL' on iTunes or from her website. It makes it easy because you don't have to 'resist' you just change what you want. The motivation becomes 'eating exactly what will make you feel the best over the longest amount of time.' Its about embracing good feelings. - 3/28/2013   11:14:29 AM
  • MADFIT4
    9
    This blog entry is, almost verbatim, statements and information contained in Dr. David Kessler's 2009 book, "The End of Overeating", including Dr. Nora Volkow's research. I would encourage anyone who found this article interesting to pick up a copy and add more to their knowledge of the "Cue, urge, reward" cycle. - 3/28/2013   11:04:53 AM
  • BEJOYFULL
    8
    Key for me as I read this article is to log my food intake on a daily a basis. - 3/28/2013   10:55:20 AM
  • 7
    Good informative blog. How do we avoid the cues? I rarely watch TV so I'm not getting many cues there, but the movies are filled with subtle "placements" that I may not be aware of, but are there for a reason. Eschewing advertising in magazines and newspapers is almost impossible. Even ads on Spark can motivate the cravings.
    I need to be "cue-less." - 3/28/2013   10:34:16 AM
  • 6
    I used to go on vacation via planes 3-4 times a year but am cutting them down to one every two years, that is how unpleasant flying has gotten for my family. This is the least of my worries, but I too have witnessed people purchasing those unhealthy snack packs on every flight. I guess it becomes a habit to purchase them. Some of those same people had even boarded with food they purchased at the airport! go figure
    - 3/28/2013   10:14:26 AM
  • 5
    Great blog! I bring "safe" foods when I travel so I can snack if I'm hungry and I just say no when temptations are offered. If I don't eat it, I really don't crave it. - 3/28/2013   9:56:15 AM
  • 4
    it is an interesting observation. I'll pay attention for these cues in the future. But i also try to carry with me my "safe " foods so if i di want something it doesnt derail everything. - 3/28/2013   9:15:07 AM
  • SUNSET09
    3
    I play the outta sight, outta mind game. If I don't see it, then it's not as tempting. I also ask myself if I will feel guilty afterwards and do I love myself enough to resist the devil! I am worth it! I am more than a conqueror! - 3/28/2013   7:47:54 AM
  • 2
    I am fighting that battle right now. That thing about the berries not measuring up to the cake couldn't be more true. Right now I am just trying to abstain from sweets and biting down hard on fruit when I need it or a light calorie but satisfying drink like coffee with minimal sugar. Its working so far and on the days when I need more, I have a little of what I crave. But food and snack addiction is real. So I am working daily to combat my urges for the better me. - 3/28/2013   7:38:45 AM
  • 1
    Informative and timely blog! I appreciated the step by step description of the brain's activity during a craving. There truly is something comforting to know that body systems contribute to some of the actions that I might believe are a failure of my motivation.

    However, I know that the power of thought is CEO of my body organization and I can change my thoughts which in turn change my actions and ultimately my life.

    With this knowledge I have been working to change my beliefs/thoughts/experiences that a sweet/salty binge is rewarding or pleasurable. In fact, I know this to be the opposite. Binging leaves me feeling helpless, frustrated, and demoralized emotionally and generally yucky physically! These feelings last far longer than any momentary "party in my mouth" during the first two or three bites.

    And that brings up another point. It is those first couple bites that might be somewhat rewarding but there is quickly a diminishing return as a binge continues in my experience. Yes, this is a timely discussion as I am dealing with a slight craving for Easter candy at this particular time. I am working through it with gratitude that SparkPeople resources and my own recent progress "have my back" along with my belly :) - 3/28/2013   7:36:50 AM

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