Dubai: The obesity statistics of the UAE don’t paint a positive picture. According to the World Health Organisation, 66 per cent of the people in the UAE are overweight, according to figures revealed at the Gulf Obesity Summit and Regional Congress held in Abu Dhabi in April.

A leading cause of being overweight are food cravings and impulses. Understanding a food craving or a food impulse is the first step to acknowledging the problem and then working to resolve it.

In fact, recent research throws interesting light on this issue. In a Washington Post story, Julia Hormes, an assistant professor of psychology at State University of New York at Albany, who co-authored a study on cravings in undergraduate students, explained: “Cravings start with a trigger. This could be external, such as the scent of chocolate chip cookies. Or it could be internal, such as being angry or bored. Second, you elaborate on these thoughts by using mental imagery, and this is what turns it into a full-fledged craving.”

To banish the craving, you need to interrupt this process. One approach is to practise mindfulness, accept the thoughts and move on. Another is to try to suppress the thoughts altogether by distracting yourself.

In another study, researchers at the University of Salzburg in Austria exposed two groups of participants — those who experienced frequent and intense chocolate cravings in everyday life, and those who didn’t — to images of chocolate.

Each group was alternately told to either think freely about anything, or think about anything but chocolate.

The chocolate-loving participants were able to stop thinking about chocolate by focusing on future events, other people or even traffic lights. (Non-chocolate lovers didn’t show such an effect, probably because they weren’t particularly craving chocolate in the first place.)

Gulf News asked Juliot Vinolia, clinical dietician, Medeor 24/7, Dubai, to throw light on the world of cravings and impulses.

“A food craving is an intense desire to relish the taste of a specific food or food type that is hard to resist,” said Vinolia. “It is a temporary state of mind where soon after consuming it, it activates the happiness centre of the brain. For many, craving is satisfied by consuming 1-2 servings of the desired food,” said Vinolia.

“A food impulse, on the other hand, is the urgent need to overeat large portions of a particular food within a few minutes and later, experience guilt and shame. These sudden impulses mostly occur after a stress-induced activity, physical and mental.

“An impulse can also be the result of restricting sugary or fatty comfort foods over a period of time.”


Food cravings are physiological responses that arise due to imbalances in hormone levels or alterations in chemicals that link the digestive system and the brain.

Food impulses are more psychological which develop due to imbalances in the neurochemicals of the brain that regulate mood, appetite and memory.

Food cravings are more of a core component of food addiction and food impulse is a component of emotional eating disorder. Both, however, contribute to a large extent in weight gain and obesity.

A food impulse is more intensive to manage than a craving.

“Food cravings can be met with alternative healthy food choices. After enjoying a reasonable amount of the comfort food, the craving disappears. It can also be avoided by diverting the mind.

“Since a food impulse is more mood /emotion driven, it can become more challenging for a person to continue the day without finding an alternative way. They can be chronic and recurrent affecting a person’s emotional well-being,” said Vinolia.

Here is a primer on the various aspects of cravings vs impulses.

1) What is the brain’s role in a food craving?

Neurochemicals like endorphins, opioids, serotonin and dopamine control our reward-seeking behaviours like overeating.

When an imbalance in hormone levels or in these neurochemicals occurs, the brain creates triggers that are similar to hunger.

These triggers are coded based on memory of good feelings that arose from the previous consumption of those comfort foods. So one might crave those foods that were consumed and recorded in memory at happier times.

Cravings can also be driven by emotions that associate with happy memories.

Brain’s role in food impulses
Living a stressful lifestyle increases the level of cortisol, known as stress hormone. This hormone causes the brain to increase appetite as the body constantly needs energy to combat stress.

Increased cortisol levels and the deficiency of these feel-good chemicals trigger a sudden food impulse, an urgent need to eat a particular food which our brain associates with reward and pleasure.

2) What triggers food cravings and impulses?

Men have shown to exhibit most intensity with food impulses than women, who are known for their hormone-driven food cravings. Biochemically, food cravings happen the same way as substance addiction and alcoholism.

a) Deficiency of essential amino acids like tyrosine and tryptophan leads to reduced synthesis of the neurochemicals that control the reward centre of our brain.

b) Excessive intake of refined sugars blunt the brain’s receptors for receiving signals from neurotransmitters that induce happiness.

c) Lack of sleep and an unhealthy lifestyle alter hormones like ghrelin, leptin and insulin which play a major role in controlling appetite and induce cravings.

d) Deficiency of B-complex vitamins affects the transmission of messages between the brain and digestive system.

e) The smell and sight of desired foods equals psychological sensory and visual triggers.

f) Extreme dieting-induced anxiety.

g) Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) — there is a drop in serotonin levels. This causes a mood-driven eating pattern.

h) Most people interpret thirst as hunger and food craving.

i) During pregnancy, depression, fear or anxiety, the body is in a physiological reaction of fight and flight response where the brain turns on the mode for all hormones and chemicals to be in an energy demanding and conservation state. These brain signals translate as food cravings and impulses.

j) Psychologically, food has a higher impact on sensory receptors of the brain. For example, craving for home-cooked food at the time of sickness equals comfort. 
Chocolates and cakes equal reminder of celebrations.

3) Am I having a food craving or a food impulse? How can I tell the difference?

One has to consciously stay calm and first identify the cause of their urge to eat.

Food craving
Triggered by:
Hormones and body chemicals
What happens: Urge to eat particular foods; usually these foods are highly sugary, fatty, salty or spicy and are usually instant or junk foods.
Result: Feeling satisfied within 2 servings.

Triggered by: Emotion/mood/stress
What happens: Tendency to feel hungry intensely and suddenly. There shall be a lack of patience or desire to self-cook and consume those foods wanted during an impulse.
Result: Ordering/portioning large quantities and consuming it all at once.

True hunger
Triggered by: Body’s need for energy.
What happens: The feeling of true hunger is gradual and slow. One feels more relaxed and does not feel very choosy with one particular food and might take time to decide his meal.
Result: Mindful eating and achieving satiety.

4) What can be done to curb food cravings?

Selective indulgence: Do not deny the brain’s triggers especially during emotional distress and PMS. Restricting yourself can make cravings worse leading to impulsive eating.

Manage PMS cravings mindfully: Include serotonin-rich foods and see your cravings fade away. Examples: Eggs, dairy, fish, banana, nuts, dates, chocolates.

Avoid restrictive diets: Research has shown that extreme restrictive dieting leads to greater frequency of cravings. Follow a flexible diet mindfully, choosing your foods and watching your calorie intake, and allowing small treats occasionally.

Small is satisfying: Choose to buy portions of that food in very small servings.

Opt for a healthier, similar-tasting alternatives: Choosing dark chocolates can be a better option than regular ones. Buy chocolates you like of the smallest size and go for the almond/Brazil nut-coated ones. Thereby, you’ll end up eating less chocolate and still be satisfied.

Change the environment: If you are determined, once your craving sets the alarm, just take a 5-minute walk or change your location which will divert your mind.

Confuse your senses: Taking a whiff of your favourite perfume or chewing gum can trick your senses.

Record your cravings: A recent study showed that cognitive defusion by accepting cravings and noting this in a diary increased the possibility of curbing the cravings.

Slow breathing: Another 2017 psychology study showed paced breathing either at 6 or 9 breaths per minute while watching a picture of the favourite food curbed the craving within 2 minutes.

Periodic curbing: Consume another smaller portion of the same food the next day at the same time. This way the brain re-codes and you might get bored of this food soon.

Drink water or herbal tea: Chilled water can trigger curbing effects on our brain. Chewing gum can also be another way to curb cravings.

5) What are the disadvantages of cravings?

Food cravings when it originates from physiological needs of the body should be curbed wisely. Overindulging in the wrong kind of foods can impair both physical and mental well-being.

Giving in for cravings all the time can lead to emotion-driven eating disorder.

It becomes harder for the brain to control appetite and hunger.

Food cravings gradually lead to food addictions, by blunting the serotonin and dopamine receptors of the brain which induce happiness resulting in low moods and depression.

Choosing sugary foods add stress on insulin leading to insulin resistance, hormonal imbalance and PCOS.

Giving in for frequent cravings make weight-loss efforts a failure.

6) What role does conditioning play in these responses? For example, every time you watch a movie, must you eat popcorn?

Certain practices along with the consumption of certain foods become a conditioned stimulus for cravings. For example. eating popcorn while watching TV/movie. Every time a person watches, he is tempted to eat popcorn. The brain associates popcorn to the movie and the triggers necessary to activate the reward centre of the brain are released in the form of cravings for popcorn. Several studies have shown that ignoring these cravings associated by certain actions causes a relapse into the food craving.

Frequent exposure to the craving triggers or cues and not addressing the cravings has shown to reduce the future occurrence of cravings.

Classical conditioning therapy: Every time a craving arises which is associated with an action, the ideal thing to do is choose to eat healthier foods where the brain dissociates the craving and the action/practice. Consume water or just ignore the craving will make the brain dissociate popcorn with movies.

Aversion therapy: When a craving arises in association with an action, choosing foods which we dislike makes the brain decode the associations. For example: Choosing to snack on green apples in the place of popcorn will eventually control the urge to eat popcorn the next time while watching a movie.

Mind games: It is not the property of the food which leads to a craving but the complexity of the human mind.