Exercise and Cravings

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we’ve explored how the timing of exercise and the timing of meals can affect both body weight and blood glucose levels. We’ve never, though, addressed the topic of whether exercise can reduce junk-food cravings or appetite. After all, that sounds too good to be true, right? But a recent study suggests that a short bout of exercise can, in fact, improve self-control and reduce sugar cravings.

The study, published last week in the journal PLoS One, involved 47 overweight younger-adult participants (their average age was 28) who admitted eating “highly caloric sugary snacks” daily. As noted in a Huffington Post article on the study, participants were told not to eat such snacks for three days before the experiment took place. On the first day of the experiment, they arrived at the lab and were divided randomly into two groups. One group walked on a treadmill for 15 minutes and was told to walk briskly, while the other group simply sat for 15 minutes. After another 5-minute break, all participants were then given a test called the Stroop test, which presents the names of colors (such as the word “green”) written in a different color (such as red) and asks participants what color the word is. This test is known to induce a high level of stress.

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After being put in this stressful situation, all participants were then given a high-calorie, sugary snack and told to unwrap it and examine it — but not eat it — for 30 seconds. During this entire time, participants’ level of emotional arousal was measured, as was their blood pressure and heart rate. According to these measurements, participants who were assigned to walk on the treadmill experienced less stress than the others when given the Stroop test, and they experienced less emotional arousal and stress while examining the sugary snack they were given. This finding was maintained when all participants came into the lab again, less than a week later, and switched to either sitting or walking from what they had previously done.

The researchers speculated that according to this study’s results, people who experience a junk-food craving might be able to resist it if they get up and go for a brisk walk. Of course, many people who experience such cravings — especially during times of stress, which the study tried to replicate — can’t get up and go for a walk, precisely because of the stressful situation they’re in. In the real world, junk-food triggers and short bouts of exercise may be largely incompatible.

What’s your strategy for dealing with junk-food cravings when they arise? Have you ever tried going for a walk or engaging in some other form of physical activity? Is it best to respond to cravings for unhealthy snacks with healthier snacks? Have you found that you crave different types of food after exercising than you typically do otherwise? If so, are these foods more or less healthy than what you typically crave? Leave a comment below!