Between L’Espalier in Boston Le Cirque, Eleven Madison Park and Bouley in NY, Restaurant August in New Orleans, Mélisse in LA, and Lulu in Palm Srings – I admit I’m having major food “cravings” just thinking about them as I write this article. These are the best in their respective cities in our opinion and our absolute all-time favorites.
Who can decide between organic Long Island duck, wild rice, wheat berries, black dates and Hudson Valley polenta at David Bouley’s holy temple of eating in Tribeca, or anything from the cheese cart at L’Espalier, or wild Japanese snapper, turnips, tatsoi and a truffle-lime vinaigrette at the epitome of fine dining at Mélisse in LA?
Behavior science experts have studied the psychology of food cravings for decades. I wrote my thesis on the psychological aspects of obesity in the early 1970s and have been helping folks manage weight for more than 40 years. What we’ve discovered is that there are normal cravings and pathological cravings. My cravings, fortunately, aren’t for cookie dough ice cream or bar-b-que potato chips at midnight. That kind of craving can pose serious health risks and lead to obesity and other eating disorders. If that’s the type of craving you have, intense desire to eat certain types of food, instead of simply enjoying great food in the best restaurants in the city in which you reside or at home, then this research is important to your well being.
Here’s the skinny on cravings (er, uh, excuse the pun): a key ingredient of food cravings, the bad kind, involves mental imagery and negative self-talk. Stated simply, when you crave a specific food, you have vivid images of that food and tell yourself –think – that you must have it and can’t stand not having it. What’s more, the strength of your cravings are linked to how vivid your images are of that food and the Demand, Insistence and Expectations (D.I.E) you maintain about having it. Of course, when you imagine something, a specific food for example, you are using up valuable brain-power that that actually makes it hard to accomplish certain other tasks. It’s like your brain is so focused on your image of the food you crave, and your mind is so full of the demanding thinking and the, “It’s not fair I can’t have it” thinking, that you don’t have enough brain energy to do other things until you get rid of that image.
And that sheds light on how to reduce a craving. You can use a “cognitive task” to curb your craving. Doing a simple math problem, or imagining something other than the specific food you are ready to kill for, erases the vivid imagery, reducing the craving. Visualize in your mind that vacation island you enjoyed last year or hope to visit someday, your favorite movie, a song that you begin to sing or a hole in one.
Certainly it’s essential to recognize the irrational thinking you have about eating, rejecting it and replacing it with healthier thoughts, “It’s just a craving and it’ll pass,” is one example. “I can either eat what I want or become healthier,” is another example.
Today, with the proliferation of mindfulness, and mindful eating, we know we would be wise to eat slowly (not to the tune of the William Tell Overture!), try eating in silence for at least part of your meal or for a few sips of tea or coffee, be sure the table is a no device zone and while you are at it, be sure the TV is not distracting you in the background, and to really know your food, be sure you pay attention to the flavor, texture, feel, smell – in other words, savor what you are blessed to be able to eat.
It’s worth a try—it’s free, relatively easy, you can do it on your own, and there’s evidence that it actually works.
Of course there are conflicting theories, depending in part, on who is funding the study, I suppose. There are the cortisol stress theorists selling supplements that claim to slim you down by reducing cortisol levels without having to give up foods you like. Then there are the addiction treatment folks, who believe that the underlying problem is dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates pleasure. They are selling addiction treatment and medications to normalize dopamine. Then there are the clinical ecologists who believe we crave foods that we are allergic to, selling what I don’t know, but something for sure. Truth is, nobody really knows for sure what causes a craving—unless there’s profit and then they seem to know for sure.
Vivid imagery is one thing. Obesity is another. Worldwide, people eat much more than they used to. Thanks America’s best restaurants and junk food hangouts ☺. Billions are spent on public awareness campaigns to encourage healthy eating and yet more than a third of our population is obese. Now my favorite restaurants all serve the healthiest foods in easy to enjoy portions, so let’s not blame the best restaurants in town for our muffin tops. We can always ask for a doggy bag.
Leading a sedentary lifestyle is another waistline killer. Remember when kids played outside and shopping meant actually walking through a mall?
Sleep deprivation is another fat builder. Sleep deprivation may lead to hormonal increases in Ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates appetite, and a decrease in Leptin, a hormone that suppresses appetite. Of course there are other factors that lead to pathological weight gain such as endocrine disruptors and certain medications.
Food cravings, based on runaway, undiluted powerful vivid mental imagery of certain foods, are the last thing an overweight or obese person needs. They are far from “pesky” little annoyances. Food cravings can kill you.
Meaningful daily dietary changes, increased consistent physical activity, prescription medications for losing weight, or weight loss surgery are some of the major interventions for overweight or obese individuals.
Becoming aware of your physical and emotional cues will help you recognize your non-hunger triggers for eating. You can then redirect your thinking and meet those inner “needs” in ways other than through eating.
It’s important to know why you are eating, be clear about when, what and how much you eat, and how much physical activity you are getting to burn some of your DIEt.
The Spanish saying, “the belly rules the mind” just simply is inaccurate. Based on contemporary psychological research, we see that the mind rules the belly. An empty belly may make the best cook, but an empty mind makes a wonderful antidote for life threatening food cravings.
Now if only I could stop thinking about Lulu’s in Palm Springs!

Author's Bio: 

Michael R. Mantell earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. at Hahnemann Medical College, where he wrote his thesis on the psychological aspects of obesity. His career includes serving as the Chief Psychologist for Children’s Hospital in San Diego, and as the founding Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. He also served on the faculty of UCSD’s School of Medicine, Dept. of Psychiatry.

After retiring from practicing clinical psychology for 40 years, he has become a highly sought after transformational behavior coach and power mentor for professional and elite amateur athletes, senior executive business leaders, and trains the nation’s top leaders in fitness in transformational leadership. He has worked in the media for nearly 40 years, appearing on every major talk and news show, and has been interviewed in, and written for, every major health and fitness magazine.
Michael is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the International Council on Active Aging, the Chief Consultant for Behavior Science for the Premier Fitness Camp at Omni La Costa, and served as the Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for the American Council on Exercise.

Michael is an Organizational Advisor to Fitwall, Rock My Run, amSTATZ, Outburst Mobile, and speaks regularly for Rancho La Puerta and the Asia Fitness Conference in Bangkok, in addition to numerous other fitness-health organizations throughout the nation. He has been a keynote speaker for the University of California’s system wide “FitCon” and for UCLA’s “Stress Less Week” as well as for the Transformational Leadership Council.

He is a best-selling author of three books including the 25th Anniversary updated edition of his 1988 original “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, P.S. It’s All Small Stuff,” and his 1996, “Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace.” He is listed in’s 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.” His fourth book is due out soon.