The truth about food cravings

Surveys estimate that nearly every woman and 70 percent of men have had a food craving in the past year. So, basically every one of us, huh?

You crave the salty, then want the sweet, and then maybe something crunchy to be followed and balanced by something smooth.

Food cravings are different than being hungry. When we are truly hungry, it is a physiological pang where eating anything will help. A craving, though, is much more specific and typically overpowers and disrupts your mind.

That particular food is all you can think about. There have been studies conducted where individuals who crave chocolate actually took longer to solve math problems and recall assignments because they were distracted and focused on the food, not the task at hand.

Many people think a craving stems from our bodies telling us we are missing a nutrient. A desire for chocolate is a need for more antioxidants.

A yearning for ice cream is because of a lack of protein or dairy. In reality, a half cup of red beans has more antioxidants than chocolate and a can of tuna is almost triple the protein of ice cream. But when was the last time tuna was really what hit the spot for you?

What causes cravings?

It’s a toss-up as to whether cravings are psychological, physiological, environmental, or some sort of combination of them all.

When you are sick and crave chicken noodle soup, is it because of its magical healing powers or the comforting memories from your childhood that come along with it?

If you go to a baseball game, you look forward to the Italian sausage because it’s the best in town, or does the atmosphere make it seem that way?

Get control!

Are there ways to control these cravings before they control you? Absolutely!

One of the keys is knowing your kryptonite. Everyone is driven by something different so know yours and be aware of it. Don’t look at yourself as being weak because you decide not to have the food around you, but a smart person for staying on your eating track.

That being said, there is that fine line between avoiding foods you love and having the occasional treat. Elimination diets are short-term because you drive yourself crazy thinking about what you “can’t” have and you start tasting and smelling the food when it’s not there. And then once it’s in sight, it’s all over.

It’s about willpower

If you are like me, and don’t always have the willpower to have a bag of potato chips in the house and only pull out a handful of chips at a time, buy individual servings so you have a stopping point. You may be surprised to find that you can get your chocolate fix by eating a mini candy bar versus the two piece-serving of chocolate cake. A lifestyle that allows small amounts of foods you enjoy (even high fat and calorie foods) will be easier to maintain than eliminating something completely.

Carbohydrates have typically gotten a bad rap when it comes to cravings. People are usually searching pantries for chips, pastas, or cookies. But the fat content is usually just as high as the carbs and that can be equally, if not more, addicting. Getting past a craving doesn’t have to derail your healthy eating. Try finding healthier alternatives: If you want something sweet, try dried fruits; something creamy, yogurt; or salty, pickles.

Sometimes even taking a few minutes to gather yourself are enough to beat a craving. Most cravings only last 20-30 minutes. Try not to give in right away, but tell yourself you’ll eat what you want in one hour and then go and do something else in the meantime. If you are still hungry when that time comes, go for it, but chances are, the craving has subsided.

And be sure to take care of yourself. Emotional eating can lead to cravings as well as just overeating in general. Avoid eating when you are feeling down, but instead call a friend, go for a walk, or work on a hobby­—natural ways to de stress help emotionally, psychologically, and physically much more than any pint of ice cream could.


Gina Keilen, RD, is a registered dietitian and culinary coordinator for Culinary Services at Michigan State University.




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