The World of Food Cravings


The previous post and this one gather together some of the information that has been considered about cravings, urges, appetites, and temptation. Where do cravings come from, and how, aside from taping one’s own mouth shut, can they be quelled? Among the overweight and obese, this knowledge is valued far above nutrition facts, on which, as Dr. Pretlow’s constituents put it, they have long ago overdosed.

By now, most people pretty much know what is good for them to eat and what ought to be shunned. What they really need to know is how to not experience cravings for food-like substances that are not good for them. Researchers have devoted a ton of time and energy to figuring out the mystery of cravings. In “The Compulsion of Food Cravings” we characterized the problem as “the star of the whole childhood obesity epidemic.”

Appetites have three different points of origin — physical, emotional and mental. There are three possible effective counter-forces: avoidance, protection and defense. By simple multiplication, this makes nine points at which cravings can be addressed.

We discussed here how one of the major and most contentious sources of craving creation is advertising. Ads for junk food and fizzy drinks constitute a massive, lavishly funded assault on the malleable and impressionable minds of children.

The dilemma of youth

Unfortunately, one of the most important avoidance techniques is to change the person’s environment. “Unfortunate” is the word used, because for children, changing their environment is a tall order. Even a child who goes away for summer “fat camp” will in most cases be delivered back into the same home with the same parents and siblings, in the same neighborhood, to start a new year at school with the same friends. In practical terms, the “avoidance” technique may prove totally useless for a minor who has few choices in terms of exercising her or his own volition.

We quoted Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, on the subject of willpower, to which brain-scan experiments with cocaine addicts seemed to lend some credence. This is a good opportunity to quote another expert, Dr. Vera Tarman, medical director of Canada’s preeminent drug and alcohol rehab institution, Renascent. She describes willpower as a real but limited gatekeeper, which inspires the listener to think of Will Power as a hulking fellow who guards the door of a nightclub — but if someone manages to slip through the door, he can’t chase them inside.

How many adults can unfailingly exert willpower? Sadly, the answer is “few.” Expecting it from children is ridiculous.

Elaborated Intrusion Theory and a Toy” explores the idea that food cravings are intimately connected with the ability to form a mental image. If the mental picture can be made to dissolve, the craving is weakened and disarmed.

Elaborated Intrusion Theory is an invention of psychology. The goal is to selectively block the cognitive processes needed for imagery, and this leads to reduced desire, aka less craving. Here is a quotation from that post:

One way of selectively blocking is to ask the experimental subject to conjure up a neutral picture, like a field full of wildflowers. This second visualization counteracts the first image by pushing it aside. Another way of selectively blocking is to present a neutral yet interesting visual stimulus for the brain to latch onto, keeping it too busy to imagine chocolate-covered bacon.

We recommended a paper titled “Conscious and Unconscious Processes in Human Desire,” written by Jackie Andrade, Jon May and David Kavanagh, which gives a thorough but not easily summarized explanation.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Guest Post: Food Abstinence for Food Addicts: Deprivation or a New Freedom?,”, February 2015
Photo credit: David Simmonds via Visualhunt/ CC BY-SA

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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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