Research suggests that up to 97% of women and 68% of men experience food cravings. Chocolate is the most common one of the craved foods, typically high calorie.
A number of situations have been shown to experimentally increase cravings of chocolate consumption. For example,chocolate abstinence, stress and exposure to chocolate cues increase urges to eat chocolate. Studies on the effects of exercise on appetite and eating behaviour have considered satiety and hunger but not cravings for specific food types such as chocolate. No studies have examined the effects of exercise on appetite and food cravings during explicitly manipulated stress, or on cue-elicited cravings for specific foods.
Chocolate eating decreases negative feelings, exercise also attenuates physiological and psychological responses to stressors. It has been shown that exercise can reduce the craving for cigarettes in smoking cessation. Can exercise reduce chocolate craving, and can it also attenuates increases in cravings associated with stress and chocolate cue-elicited urges?
The findings show, for the first time, that a 15 min bout of brisk walking, equivalent to ‘fairly light’ intensity exercise, reduces chocolate cravings, with moderate effect sizes, during and for at least 10 min following exercise cessation.
Moreover, this research confirms previous evidence that has shown exercise to suppress appetite and reduce urges to snack. Feeling tired and the need for an energy boost has been associated with the consumption of high-energy food and sitting on the couch does not appear to reduce chocolate cravings, whereas being physically active does.
Craving for chocolate is a difficult concept consisting of different features. Exercise only reduced an intense desire to eat chocolate and it reduced overeating chocolate when starting to eat chocolate due to the possible lack of control over eating chocolate if eaten. In contrast, exercise did not reduce anticipation of positive reinforcement or of relief from negative symptoms.
Opening and handling the chocolate bar increased chocolate craving and exercise attenuated these responses to some extent. Also there was a small (though non significant) attenuating effect of exercise on urges to eat chocolate in anticipation of relief of negative states. This might be due to the mood enhancing effect of exercise.
Why is this important?
Brief exercise may result in self-regulation of sugar snacking whereas higher intensity or longer bouts of physical activity may lead to compensatory dietary behavior and/or chocolate cravings.
Besides the important contribution to weight management due to the role of exercise in energy expenditure and general appetite suppression it can also reduce craving.
How was this study done?
Following 3 days of chocolate abstinence, 25 regular chocolate eaters, took part, on separate days, in two randomly ordered conditions, in a within-subject design: a 15-min brisk semi-self-paced brisk walk or a passive control. Following each, participants completed two tasks: the Stroop colour–word interference task, and unwrapping and handling a chocolate bar. Chocolate urges, affective activation, affective pleasure/valence, and systolic/diastolic blood pressure (SBP/DBP) were assessed throughout.
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A TAYLOR, A OLIVER (2009). Acute effects of brisk walking on urges to eat chocolate, affect, and responses to a stressor and chocolate cue. An experimental study Appetite, 52 (1), 155-160 DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2008.09.004