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New Study: Food Addiction Succumbs To Exercise

By L. K. Regan

In 2007, researchers at the University of Exeter found that people quitting smoking could fight nicotine fits by going for a short, brisk walk. Now, they have extended that research to other areas of addiction, and found that a similar strategy might work for your waistline. Specifically, in the endless battle against chocolate cravings, a brisk walk can help you get a grip.

Research shows that most people have food cravings and, while women are much more prone to experience this affliction, over 60 percent of men are estimated by the Exeter researchers to have strong cravings for particular foods. Usually, those foods are salty or sweet and high in fat. Often, that food is chocolate. In fact, chocolate operates on the brain in ways that make it addictive, by enhancing mood and reducing stress. Not surprisingly, people find it pretty hard to resist.

So, the researchers at the University of Exeter set out to discover whether the same processes that work for a known physical addiction—nicotine—would help to quell the chocolate craving. Participants in the study, published in the online journal Appetite were subjected to three (we're sure pretty stressful) days of abstinence from chocolate. Then, they were given a randomly assigned task: either go for a brisk, 15-minute walk, or take a little rest. After the allotted time, they were given a chocolate craving-inducing task (either a mental chocolate exercise or actually opening a chocolate bar) and asked about how badly they wanted it. The results: the exercise participants had far fewer cravings, both during the walk and for roughly a quarter of an hour afterward, and had fewer cravings in response to the chocolate challenges.

On the one hand, this suggests a net gain for dieters. If you go for a walk, and don't eat the chocolate you crave, you'll be in pretty good shape. But it also suggests that we might benefit from thinking about our relationship to food in terms of addiction. In 2007, the same team of researchers found that short bouts of exercise (as little as 5 minutes, and as moderate as a quick walk) reduced nicotine cravings and the withdrawal symptoms—stress, anxiety, lack of concentration—that accompanies them. Dr. Adrian Taylor of the University of Exeter says that it appears the same neural mechanisms will function with food. "Our ongoing work consistently shows that brief bouts of physical activity reduce cigarette cravings," he says, "but this is the first study to link exercise to reduced chocolate cravings. Neuroscientists have suggested common processes in the reward centres of the brain between drug and food addictions, and it may be that exercise effects brain chemicals that help to regulate mood and cravings. This could be good news for people who struggle to manage their cravings for sugary snacks and want to lose weight."

Part of the issue, he says, is understanding why we turn to sugary snacks to begin with. In short, exercise may not only be the cure for your cravings—a lack of that exercise may in fact be causing them. "Short bouts of physical activity can help to regulate how energized and pleasant we feel," he points out, "and with a sedentary lifestyle we may naturally turn to mood regulating behaviors such as eating chocolate." So, don't wait until you have a craving to get your walk on—use the walk to kill the craving at the source. "Accumulating 30 minutes of daily physical activity," Dr. Taylor says, "with two 15 minute brisk walks, for example, not only provides general physical and mental health benefits but also may help to regulate our energy intake."

Go out there and get walking. Oh, and throw out the Mallomars.