For some people, cravings can hit like clockwork (4 p.m. workday slump, anyone?), while for others, they attack without warning. And, as anyone who has felt the instant, uncontrollable urge to eat an entire box of Thin Mints knows, these are the moments that can derail any healthy eating plan you have for the day.
"Think of what you binge on—it's almost exclusively processed carbs," says David S. Ludwig, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of the new book Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells, and Lose Weight Permanently. "They'll give you a quick lift but set you up for the next crash."
Ludwig compares the effect that cookies, croissants, and other processed carbs have on your brain to that of drugs. Don't believe him? In Always Hungry, Ludwig details the results of a study he conducted, where he looked at what happened when he gave two groups of men similar milkshakes with one distinguishing factor: one of the shakes contained a slow-acting carb and the other contained a highly processed, fast-acting carb.
The results were instantly clear.
"The scans detected one brain region called the nucleus accumbens that lit up like a laser after the fast-acting shake. The effect was so strong and consistent, it occurred in every one of our participants, providing strong statistical confidence in the results. The nucleus accumbens is considered ground zero for reward, craving, and addiction—including alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine abuse. Activation of this brain region on a weight-loss diet would erode willpower, making cookies, pastry, and other such foods exceedingly hard to resist."
The good news? You can cut cravings and take back control without having to restrict your diet or stick to carrots all day.
"If you're craving something, that means your body needs calories," Ludwig says. "Eat a meal or a snack, but a properly balanced one that will keep blood sugar down and lower insulin."
This means healthy fats like those found in nuts, nut butters, avocado, and even real dark chocolate that has a cocoa content of 85 percent or higher. Check out these three delicious snacks to cut cravings from the book—just because you want to cut cravings doesn't mean you need to cut back on flavorful foods.