Psychology Chartered

The Great Dieting Paradox: Cravings and Naughtiness

Posted by Elliot Miller

14th May 2018

By Chloe Nunan

The diet industry is one of the most thriving industries in the UK, and we spend so much money on dieting, clean eating and healthy living. Over half of British adults attempt to lose weight by controlling calorie intake; however a weight loss journey isn’t as simple as saying no to biscuits and chocolate and picking up a bowl of salad. Even those who have had successful weight loss journeys struggle to stay on track all of the time and have to fight temptations. So why – even when we are so set on wanting to eat healthy and lose weight – do we find it so difficult to control our cravings?

The smell of freshly baked bread, the cake display in the window, the smell of the fast food being sold on the street; regardless of the calorie content we find ourselves drooling. We find ourselves faced with sensory food cues every day and they can be impossible to ignore. It’s not just the smell and look of a product that has us craving, it’s also the advertising brands and logos that we associate with foods. When we are hungry, a hormone called Gherlin triggers in the brain, which in turn results in us noticing more cues around us. Previous research has also found that in general our brains pay more attention and are more attracted to ‘naughty’ foods, the ones which are higher in sugar and fat content. In studies where pictures of higher-calorie foods were shown to participants, it was found that these cues elicited anticipatory appetite responses towards them, which included salivation, cravings and a reported desire to eat.

So, this means that the high-calorie foods – which hold more attention grabbing properties in our brains – are the ones that will pose a challenge to those attempting to lose weight. It has been found that foods which are seen as ‘forbidden’ are the ones that will appear more tempting to us, because we know we can’t (or shouldn’t) have them. However, you’ll be glad to know that it might be possible to train our brains to ignore and control tempting cues. One study in particular has shown that individuals who were taught to ignore high-calorie food cues on a computer-based task, consumed fewer high-calorie snacks than those who were trained to pay attention to the cues.

Just one slither of cake. Surely that can’t impact my diet long term?

WRONG! This has been coined as the “what-the-hell” effect by researchers, and is the kind of attitude that can lead to the complete derailment of your diet. It has been demonstrated in various lab experiments that dieters who believe they have consumed a high-calorie snack – and therefore  have broken the ‘rules’ of their diet – will consume a higher number of calories during a later meal than those who don’t think they have violated the diets rules. This can in fact have a bigger psychological impact; a dieting “failure” is more likely to trigger negative emotions such as stress and guilt, which are both known to cause overeating.

Are you hungry yet?

What can be learnt from all this is that diets that follow more rigid rules are the ones most likely to fail and derail as they paradoxically increase the dieter’s risk of overeating!  But it must be noted and remembered that there is NO such thing as a perfect diet. Alternatively, understanding the ways in which our brain works and having the ability to recognise the psychological effects of diets may allow us to regain control over our temptations, and what were once impossible to ignore cravings.