Cravings are Lifesavers

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

September 2005

Have you ever had cravings? If you've been on a diet of almost any type you almost certainly have. And you probably had at least a twinge of guilt for having given in to them.

Voluntary restriction of food intake is a uniquely human behavior. We are no more meant to limit our food intake than we are to limit our intake of air. Our natural instinct for survival prevents us from doing either.

Prehistoric men and women never deliberately starved themselves. That is, they never "went on a diet." The rare ones that did, the shamans or medicine men or women, were aware of the mind-altering effects of severe fasting. They probably used it to induce visions and hallucinations. Is there a message in that?

If we miss a couple of meals we'll begin to draw energy from our glycogen and fat stores. Glycogen is a starch-like carbohydrate that accumulates in muscle and liver cells. If we take in more calories from carbohydrates than we need for immediate energy we begin to store the excess as glycogen. The excess fat in our diet accumulates in specialized storage cells that seem to pile up in all the wrong places.

After a couple of days without any food we use up all of our stored glycogen. If we are very active we'll burn it off faster. Long distance runners will use up most of their glycogen stores in a couple of hours. Marathoners who "hit the wall," that is, they become too exhausted to continue, simply haven't stored enough energy.

It's logical to think that when our glycogen stores are gone we'll begin to live off our accumulated fat. However, even though you don't think that your fat is worth holding onto, your body does. It's as if your subconscious self recognizes an impending famine and urges you to look for more food before using up those precious (!) stores. As hunger deepens, cravings emerge. It's no wonder that extreme hunger or extreme thirst lead us to seemingly irrational behavior; nothing is more important than survival.

Cravings make dieters do embarrassing things, such as raiding the refrigerator or hiding a box of Oreo cookies. This kind of behavior is not only normal, it's biologically correct. It would be unnatural for the body to ignore cravings and allow death by starvation to occur.

To avoid cravings while reducing calories, trick your system into thinking that it's getting enough food. Eat several meals a day. Three regular small meals and three filling snacks will turn off the hunger hormones by keeping some food in the stomach most of the day. All the food that you eat while trying to burn off fat should be calorie-sparse. That means that it contains lots of water and fiber. Instead of raisins, eat grapes. In place of orange juice, eat an orange. Replace a piece of apple pie (400 calories) with two apples (150 calories). Whole-grain bread is more filling than white or whole wheat. Forget soft drinks. They leave you more hungry, not more full. Drink lots of water.

With a little planning you can lower your calorie intake by at least 350 calories a day and thus lose a pound every 10 days. And you'll never be embarrassed about a craving again!

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.