An Incomplete Explanation for Food Cravings

I just finished reading How to Stop Food Cravings by Matt Stone. It is a good post, but I feel it is incomplete. To summarize his article, he feels that food cravings are a sign that we are underfed or under stress. Instead of denying ourselves the foods we crave, we should listen to our bodies and eat the foods we most desire. He explains:

Satisfy all cravings when they arise 110%. So what if you eat 168 Oreo cookies in a week? You won’t eat that many the second week and may not touch one for two years after the second week.

I’ve seen this thesis before. Those that diet regularly develop food cravings and stress about the very foods they crave. Restriction and cravings can be stressful. It makes total sense. Matt’s approach even seems like an interesting one to try.

Yet it didn’t work for me.

I have never had a sweet tooth. I’ve never craved sweets. Yet after I started the ice cream experiment, I wanted something sweet a few times a day. I couldn’t stop thinking about ice cream and Mexican colas. Even at a pint of ice cream a day, I wanted more.

MAS at Molly Moon's Ice Cream

Unlike the clients Matt works with, I’ve never counted calories or really even dieted. I’m guessing my metabolism is on the high side of average. I’ve never had better sleep.

Giving in to my food cravings only made them stronger.

The only thing that has reduced my craving for sugar has been a conscious effort to reduce my intake. Rules and restrictions. After Labor Day I told myself no more ice cream or Mexican cola until Memorial Day. I’ve slipped a few times, but the rule has worked remarkably well and my sugar cravings are lower. Not gone, but lower.


Add yours

  1. Beth@WeightMaven

    Oct 16, 2013 — 2:42 pm

    I *am* like the clients Matt works with. I recently went through a period of having ice cream after dinner, and after a while, I noticed that if I tried to skip dessert or have another dessert, I’d start thinking about how much I’d really like ice cream. As ice cream has never been my junk food of choice (in decades of dealing with food issues), I’ve found this curious. And as someone with a Diet Coke issue, I find your comment about Mexican cola intriguing.

    I’m not convinced (as some food addicts are), that one can never eat so-called trigger foods. But I do find the idea that there’s some funky brain chemistry going on very plausible. Have you seen Your Brain on Porn? I think there are some interesting parallels.

  2. MAS,
    Nice post. I agree that Matt is aiming for a specific audience of over-dieters. It’s hard to know how to advise his core readers. From looking at his comments section, many appear to have been depressed about initially being overweight. Then, after dieting down to a lower weight, they are highly stressed due to food cravings. When they follow Matt’s advice, they feel better initially, as the stress is relieved, but then are depressed again about gaining the weight back.
    For the rest of us, I think his advice is helpful, but not always applicable.

  3. Melissa McEwen

    Oct 16, 2013 — 4:14 pm

    You should try making your own ice cream. And half-assing it like I did, ending up with terrible weird flavors (rum lime was one that turned out really badly) or clumps of egg (when I tried to make frozen custard). After eating these ice creams, your ice cream cravings will be gone.

  4. @Melissa – My freezer is full of offal, but I like using that strategy. That is how I was able to cut back and eventually go a month without coffee.

  5. I’ll say this as respectfully as possible…

    Matt Stone’s advice didn’t work because Matt Stone doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    1). People have food addictions BEFORE they being trying to restrict things. Restriction may make cravings worse, but it doesn’t cause addiction.

    2). Like you, I did an ice cream experiment (Haagen Daz — very minimal ingredients) and experienced similar issues as you — severe cravings on the nights I didn’t have any. I’m tired of people claiming that sugar or hyperpalatable foods don’t have significant effects on neurotransmitters (if that were the case, companies wouldn’t spend millions of dollars formulating their processed foods for maximum hyperpalatability).

    3). People with disordered eating can’t “satisfy their cravings 110%” — it doesn’t work like that.

    4). Food addiction is a very complex issue. Sometimes it’s not a chemical thing, but a patterned behavior/habit. Sometimes it’s a coping mechanism. None of that has to do with caloric intake.

    5). Indulging cravings night after night may result in a short-term period of satiation and decreased cravings but that will typically be extremely short-lived. When this period of repulsion ends, it will be replaced by the same compulsion that caused it.

  6. I don’t know much about Matt’s typical client or Matt really, though I suspect that there’s more going on behind the scenes than just the food.

    I think it’s pretty clear that for most people you can get used to higher or lower levels of anything, be it food, noise, crowds, smoking, drugs or anything else. If your problem is overeating then it makes sense to minimize foods that are very prone to being overeaten. And I take his point that stressing out about Oreos one way or the other isn’t worth it, but they do belong to a class of foods that are expressly designed to be over-consumed and override satiety signals. If you have trouble dealing with those sorts of foods, then it makes sense to guide choices toward something else.

    And I can’t believe there’s anybody hasn’t had the experience of seeing their baseline reset by escalating consumption of something. If I keep beer in the fridge then it gets easier and easier to have a couple at night, but if it’s not there then after a few days I don’t even notice it’s gone. That seems to go for junk food I enjoy as well, but also for things like spicy food or salt where I can ramp up my tolerance and enjoyment of them over time if I eat a lot of it.

    We’re all different and I’m sure there are people who don’t have their cravings just switch off after a few days so I wouldn’t presume to tell them what to do, but it seems more than incomplete to say that the way to handle cravings for something that is causing you real problems is to give in 110%. If it’s that hard to stop something that’s harming you, then you probably need more help than a blog post is able to provide.

  7. @Kevin – I’m still neutral on sugar for myself. The ice cream experiment did solve one problem – I was losing weight too fast and wanted to gain muscle. That part worked. However, it created another one, which was the topic of this post – elevated food cravings.

    I enjoyed reading your article 3 Sugar Myths.

    @Karl – Well said. Your comment reminds me of the book The End of Overeating. We are eating foods designed by food chemists whose purpose it to get us to overeat. When it comes to food cravings, it isn’t a fair fight. Perhaps Matt’s advice would make more sense using non-engineered foods?

  8. It seems to me that there might be more than one mechanism at work here, and that like most processes in the human body, things aren’t as simple as they seem. I can imagine that the body would have a process for inducing a craving for some things it misses. For example, I heard of vegetarian women craving meat during their pregnancy. That seems like a totally sensible thing for the body to crave.

    However when it comes to less sensible cravings, maybe something else is at play. I’ve read once that bacterias in our guts have the ability to “talk” to our body by producing chemical signals our body can understand. I wonder if that could be part of the reason for sugar cravings. I know that if you give me a piece of dark chocolate (therefore low sugar), I’ll have a piece or two and then put it aside, totally putting it out of mind. But if I do the same thing with a piece of milk chocolate I will think about it constantly until it’s all gone. The only thing that stops me is knowing I will incur my husband’s wrath for not leaving him half of the bar. Even then, if I have some wine with dinner, my inhibitions will be sufficiently loosened that I’ll eat the chocolate anyway, and just put up with the subsequent lecture. It’s obviously the sugar I am craving in this scenario. Or maybe the fat/sugar combo.

    I just think there might be more than a single mechanism at work.

    I also am in the same boat as the people here. The more I eat of something like ice cream, the more I crave it. If I stop eating it, I eventually loose the craving. It might be that our body (or maybe the bacterias in our gut) induces sugar craving, and the body translates that into a craving for something sweet it’s familiar with. Or maybe it’s even more complicated than this.

  9. We consume food because it tastes good <– that is backwards

    Food tastes good because our brain wants us to consume it <– that is the correct way around.

  10. I agree that Matt’s audience is a very specific group of people though, most of his advice does not apply to the average person looking to get health and stay healthy. Also, he seems to confuse dogma with science.

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