Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cravings (III): How and Why?

Sexualized food images encourage acceptable forms of lust in society; body building goes out of control.

Part III of III
Devra First (Boston Globe)

That can be hard to do. Once we begin obsessing, a food craving is hard to shake. What's important to understand, Gilhooly says, is that these cravings are normal. She coauthored a study on the connections between craving and obesity, published last year in the International Journal of Obesity, in which calories were restricted for a group of overweight women. (The trial was called Comprehensive Assessment of the Long-term Effects of Restricting Intake of Energy, or CALERIE).

At the beginning of the trial, 91 percent of the subjects reported experiencing food cravings. After six months of dieting, 94 percent said they'd had cravings. But, Gilhooly says, "people who gave in less were more successful with weight loss." Instead of feeling guilty about cravings, she says it may be more useful to acknowledge them and teach ourselves to manage them by resisting more frequently and controlling portion size.

And as sticky as cravings are, we may be able to rewire ourselves to crave healthier foods. In a study Pelchat worked on in which subjects consumed a diet of the nutrition drink Sustacal for a week, several reported craving it later. "We were all surprised by that," she says. "They could have formed a lot of different associations drinking it. There was a little bit of habit strength there."

In a study on comfort food, Wansink found one out of eight Chinese graduate students considered cookies a comfort food, even though they didn't grow up eating them in their home country. Why? In the United States, Wansink suggests, a student might be exposed to cookies at receptions, study breaks, and birthday parties: happy, fun events. A positive association develops. If we eat strawberries instead of hot fudge to reward or console ourselves, we can learn to crave them.

"If you get in the habit of eating something good for you, you can strengthen the probability you're going to want to eat that food," Pelchat says. "It does happen that when people go on diets and get used to eating fish, if they haven't had it for a while they crave it. I don't think old cravings ever totally go away, unfortunately, but if you change your habits the probability you'll be exposed to cues that trigger them does go down."

Scientists aren't the only ones exploring these issues. Philosophers and religious thinkers have been pondering them for centuries, according to William B. Irvine, author of "On Desire: Why We Want What We Want" and the upcoming "A Guide to the Good Life," about the Stoics.

"Buddhists said your life on earth is going to be hellish unless you master desires," he says. "Philosopher Musonius Rufus said it's really important we get control over our food cravings because it's a craving we have to deal with three times a day.

Most people think of eating as a source of pleasure. As with most pleasures it has a dark side, it can capture us - that's what the Stoics and the Cynics would say." Surprisingly, it may be the Epicureans who offer the best dieting advice. "Everyone thinks they partied hard, but they didn't," Irvine says. In fact, Epicurus wrote, "It is not continuous drinkings and revellings, nor the satisfaction of lusts, nor the enjoyment of fish and other luxuries of the wealthy table, which produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning, searching out the motives for all choice and avoidance."

That sounds a lot like the findings of the CALERIE study.

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