The Compulsion of Food Cravings

Charlize watching TV

The main thing to know about food cravings is, this is not some kind of sideshow act. The topic is front and center, the star of the whole childhood obesity epidemic. It appears that food cravings have emotional, biological, and mental origins. Feelings, internal chemistry, and the mind are all breeding grounds for cravings, so their origins lie in three places.

Then, in each realm, there are at least three ways where the potential exists to deal with cravings — keep them from starting up in the first place; provide armor against them; return an active defense by exerting some counter-force against them. So, that makes at least nine different starting points:

  • Physical — avoidance, protection, defense
  • Emotional — avoidance, protection, defense
  • Mental — avoidance, protection, defense

The third category of assault is one that Childhood Obesity News has talked about a lot, and what it boils down to is advertising. A massive industry, with millions of dollars in discretionary income, is in the business of inducing cravings by getting into kids’ heads through their eyes and ears.

On an individual level, it can be fought off to some extent, for a while at least. Parents can provide avoidance by not having a television in the home, and protection by limiting the amount of advertising kids are exposed to, and defense by having some good old-fashioned talks about brainwashing methods.

On a societal level, that third category isn’t going away. Sure, TV advertising can be limited to certain hours of the day, and so forth, but the old model of network TV, where programs come on at fixed times, is hardly operative any more. While old-school TV becomes more irrelevant every day, there are a thousand other ways to deliver the insidious message, “YOU WANT THIS.”

So it makes sense to concentrate on the first two categories. But it also makes sense to figure out how to use the mental route for good, rather than ill. All that mind power can be captured to serve, rather than work against, a person.

Dr. Pretlow equates food cravings to withdrawal symptoms. As previously mentioned, almost half the kids who have communicated their thoughts to his website report “intense cravings.” When they actively start trying to lose weight, the proportion of kids who report incessant urges or cravings leaps to over 50%.

But here is the main thing to know, and hidden within it is the reason why school lunch programs and other well-intentioned interventions can take us only so far toward a solution. As Dr. Pretlow noted in his National Obesity Forum presentation “Why Are Children Overweight,” kids say they have learned more than enough about nutrition, and about such basic concepts as portion control (see Slide #6). The plea expressed by more than 2/3 of overweight and obese kids is:

… Tell me how to resist cravings.

One difficulty is that not everything works for everybody. Some pretty wild ideas are out there, and they are mentioned here for purposes of information and entertainment, not to imply Dr. Pretlow’s endorsement of them. For instance, there are various kinds of skin patches. One says it has the power to “enhance dietary management” by promoting “health and wellness without any side-effects as is the case with many diet patches.” However, this product’s pitch uses the word “compliment” instead of the correct “complement,” so it’s difficult to put much credence in the rest.

The patch idea has been around for at least 10 years, and apparently there was some science behind vanilla-scented patches, as BBC News reported:

Researchers from St George’s Hospital, London, found that the patch was as effective as some of the new slimming drugs, but without the side effects… Chief dietitian Catherine Collins said… ‘the chocolate score was halved for people wearing the vanilla patch.’… However, the patches did not affect people’s appetite for boiled sweets, savoury snacks or alcohol.

A couple of years ago, Richard Alleyne, science correspondent for The Telegraph, reported that American researcher Dr. David Sinclair was working on a nasal spray whose ingredients worked to block the effectiveness of endorphins, so the connection between bingeing and the brain’s reward circuits can be broken. The article says:

This in turn allows the user to unlearn bad behaviour and adopt more healthy patterns of consumption… Already the treatment, which is starting human trials in Finland, has shown almost 100 per cent effectiveness in animals. In alcohol trials it has been 78 per cent effective.

Would this work? Maybe for some people, maybe for most. Maybe it would only help the most desperate cases, like teens who get bariatric surgery and then circumvent its benefits by finding ways to overeat anyhow. Something like this could be just the boost they need. What could the unintended consequences be? Too soon to tell.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Vanilla patch ‘cures sweet tooth,’BBC News, 07/24/00
Source: “Nasal spray to prevent bingeing could be on sale in five years,” The Telegraph, 05/15/10
Image by Urijamjari (Shawn), used under its Creative Commons license.

One Response

  1. Weaning my two boys from additives, preservatives, sugar (and the combination of all) was a struggle for the first few months. Modern foods are designed to hijack your tastebuds and keep you coming back for more. It is not a quick fix, addiction is addiction. The all-or-nothing approach will not work as your brain will protest and win. Replace poor low quality foods with high quality foods, example – weaning bad fats from your diet and incorporating good fats. Also be aware of situations where a certain activity was accompanied by eating (certain foods). Environment plays a significant role and can trigger cravings. Eliminating emotional-eating is the main topic of my book.

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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