Food cravings…you wouldn't be human if you haven't experienced these from time to time. What's more, they are often seen as one of the primary factors affecting strict adherence to special calorie-controlled diets.
Food Cravings Defined
To be specific, a food craving can be defined as "an intense desire to consume a particular food (or type of food) that is difficult to resist"1. It's important to distinguish food cravings from hunger. When talking about a food craving; only a particular food or type of food will alleviate the craving, whereas hunger may be alleviated by any number of foods.
Common Craving Conceptions
There is a common conception that low-calorie or low-fat diets increase the cravings for high-sugar or high-fat foods. But is this really true? You might be surprised to know that there are a number of studies that have actually looked at this issue in detail. Contrary to popular opinion, such studies have generally found that low-calorie and very-low-calorie diets are generally associated with a reduction, rather than an increase in cravings. We'll have a look in more detail at a couple of these studies below.
Effect of Low-Carb vs Low-Fat Diets on Cravings
The first proper study looking in this issue was published in 2006 and involved subjects that were placed on either a low-calorie (LCD) or very-low-calorie diet (VLCD)2. The LCD program involved a food-based meal plan of at least 5024 kJ/d (~50% carbohydrates, 20% protein, and 30% fat). Subjects in the VLCD-based program were put on a special liquid meal replacement supplement-based diet. They consumed this supplement 5 times a day, which equated to 3349 kJ/d (80 grams of protein, 10 grams of fat and 97 grams of carbohydrate). In addition subjects in the VLCD were permitted use of one or two 'nutritional bars' per day providing 628 to 754kJ each. Deletion of one serving of liquid supplement was mandatory if two bars were consumed and optional if one bar was consumed.
A specially developed 'Food Craving Inventory' was used to measure general cravings and cravings for specific types of foods (i.e. sweets, high fats, carbohydrates/starches, and fast food fats). This was the first time a standardised food cravings measure had been used, which was important in terms of the validity of the study's findings.
Cravings Less in Very-Low-Calorie Diets
From baseline to week 12, craving decreases were greater for the VLCD group than for the LCD group on all measures2. More specifically, the VLCD group had decreased cravings for all specific types of foods measured, including sweets, high fats, carbohydrates and fast food fats2. However, the LCD group only experienced a marginally significantly decrease in sweet cravings2.
Effect of Low-Carb vs Low-Fat Diets on Cravings
Another similar study published in 2011 compared the effect of a low-carbohydrate diet (LCD) versus a low-fat diet (LFD) on food cravings, as well as food preferences and appetite3. Similar to the previous study2, this one measured cravings for specific types of foods including, sweets, high-fats, fast-food fats and carbohydrates/starches3. Compared to the LFD group, the LCD group had significantly larger decreases in cravings for carbohydrates/starches and preferences for high-carbohydrate and high-sugar foods3. The LCD group also reported being less bothered by hunger compared to the LFD group3. While the LFD groups had significantly larger decreases in cravings for high-fat foods and preference for low-carbohydrate/high-protein foods, compared with the LCD group3.
Restrict the Food You Crave to Reduce Cravings
In what some might consider as surprising findings, the above study seemed to show that diets that are designed to restrict intake of specific types of food also result in decreased cravings and preferences for those same foods3. So with a bit of will power, you should be able to overcome those troublesome cravings with time.
All-in-all this research is pretty good news for those individuals needing to employ a strict diet with a view to losing weight or preparing for competition. If you need to undertake a pretty low calorie diet you should find after several weeks that your food cravings will decrease, and if you have tried to specifically restrict certain foods, then your cravings for these foods should also decrease. Lastly, it seems that fat may have an important role in satiety, given that when compared to a low-carbohydrate diet, a low-fat diet results in greater hunger.
1. White MA, et al. Development and validation of the food-craving inventory. Obes Res. 2002;10:107–14.
2. Martin CK, et al. Changes in food cravings during low-calorie and very-low-calorie diets. Obesity. 2006;14(1):115-121.
3. Martin CK, et al. Change in food cravings, food preferences, and appetite during a low-carbohydrate and low-fat diet. Obesity. 2011;19(11):1963-1970.