Scientists discover how to stop unhealthy food cravings

food cravings
© iStock/Kontrec

Do you struggle to fight off the temptation of unhealthy food cravings? A team of US researchers may have found the solution, suggesting that intense exercise can help to alleviate the desire for high-fat diet choices.

A study collaboratively performed by researchers at Washington State University and the University of Wyoming found that rats on a 30-day diet resisted the urge for high-fat food pellets due to intense exercise. The findings may offer an effective intervention for people who struggle to adhere to healthy diet plans due to food cravings.

The team’s investigation was designed to test the theory of ‘incubation of craving’, which outlines that the longer a desired substance is denied, the more intense the signals for wanting it will become. The study highlighted that exercise regulated how hard the rats were willing to work for cues associated with the pellets, showing how much they craved them.

Travis Brown, a Washington State University physiology and neuroscience researcher and corresponding author on the study, said: “While more research needs to be done, the study may indicate that exercise can shore up restraint when it comes to certain foods. A really important part of maintaining a diet is to have some brain power—the ability to say, ‘no, I may be craving that, but I’m going to abstain. Exercise could not only be beneficial physically for weight loss but also mentally to gain control over cravings for unhealthy foods.”

How did exercise impact food cravings?

For their investigation, the researchers put 28 rats through training with a lever that, when pressed, turned on a light and made a noise before releasing a high-fat pellet. Following this training, they investigated how many rats would press the lever solely for the light and tone cue.

Next, the rats were split into two groups, one that performed a programme of high-intensity running on a treadmill and one that did no additional exercise on top of their regular daily activity, with both groups denied the high-fat pellets for 30 days.

After this period, the scientists gave the rats access to the lever again, only this time, when the lever was pressed, they only gave the light and the noise cue, not the high-fat pellets. The rats that did not perform additional exercise pressed the levers considerably more than those who exercised, suggesting that the physical activity suppressed food cravings.

Are foods addictive?

In addition to investigating how different levels of exercise impact food cravings, the team is planning to study how exercise works in the brain to stop the desire for certain unhealthy foods. It is uncertain whether food can be addictive in the same way that drugs can be, and not all foods seem to have addictive properties; for example, people do not tend to binge-eat broccoli but will regularly consume fast food.

However, people do appear to be triggered by cues such as fast food ads that encourage them to eat high-fat or high-in-sugar foods, which become more challenging to resist the more prolonged the individual is dieting. The researchers believe that the ability to disrupt these signals may be another way that exercise enhances health.

Brown concluded: “Exercise is beneficial from a number of perspectives: it helps with cardiac disease, obesity and diabetes; it might also help with the ability to avoid some of these maladaptive foods. We’re always looking for this magic pill in some ways, and exercise is right in front of us with all these benefits.”

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