When you get that “Must. Eat. This. Now!” feeling about a food, it’s probably not for a baby kale salad with pomegranate dressing. That may sound delicious, but when a craving starts, it’s more likely to be for pickle-flavored potato chips, chocolate lava cake, or some other bad-for-your-health food. Everything from hormones and brain chemistry to emotional upheavals and self-indulgence has been blamed for cravings but no one really knows why we get them. Cravings can surface simply from the sight or memory of good food. Here’s how to keep them from getting out of hand:
If you can satisfy your urges with small indulgences from time to time, you are less likely to find yourself eating an entire bag of chips or three servings of cake when you give in. Rather than avoid indulgences altogether, allow yourself to eat them in small amounts and as part of an otherwise healthful and balanced meal or snack. Learn to enjoy healthier versions of “junk” foods, and have, say, a small handful of baked potato chips with a reduced-sodium pickle and a bit of low-sodium cheese or a few mixed unsalted nuts and a small dark chocolate square.
If you can’t resist temptation, keep your refrigerator and shelves free of indulgence foods. If you don’t see it, you’re less likely to eat it, and if you insist on giving in to cravings, you’ll have to get yourself up and out to buy whatever you cave in to a craving. The extra effort may be enough to convince you to eat something healthier that you have on hand. So make sure you do have healthful foods ready to grab, like cut-up fruits and veggies in the fridge, ready-to-eat yogurt and bean dips, and whole-grain, high-fiber crackers and cereals.
Schedule a snack into your daily meal plan, so you can look forward to an indulgence, rather than wait until you are overcome by a craving and then feel guilty about it. Have foods on hand to create “mini-meals,” with a balance of different foods so you have some carbs, some protein and a bit of fat whenever you snack. That helps keep your blood sugar steady and your hunger satisfied longer than indulging in just one type of food. For example, slice a small apple and enjoy with nut butter spread and a glass of skim milk.
Healthy snack food doesn’t have to be boring and can help satisfy your sweet- or salt-tooth before your craving gets out of hand. Try one of these combos: Toasted raisin bagel half topped with reduced-fat ricotta cheese, sliced strawberries and sliced almonds; seeded flatbread topped with sliced cherry tomatoes and shredded reduced-fat mozzarella cheese, melted in toaster oven or microwave; brown rice cake with apple butter, sprinkled chopped walnuts and grated Cheddar cheese, melted in toaster oven or microwave; or a frozen multi-grain waffle, toasted and topped with small scoop of low-sugar ice cream, diced fruit.
A Yale University study found that stress is likely to induce cravings that, in turn, contribute to stress-related weight gain. Get to the root of the problem with relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, massage, and deep breathing, or even simple exercises like walking or bike riding. Reading, journaling, listening to music, creating art, crafting, or any other relaxing activity that you enjoy can help you focus inward and cope with stress. If these ideas don’t help alleviate stress, you may want to speak with a professional therapist or counselor who specializes in stress reduction.
While you can’t live a life of complete deprivation, you can control some cravings—especially the kind you get when you simply see a food you like—by distracting yourself and avoiding your eating triggers. Don’t drive past fast-food restaurants or bakeries, or walk past vending machines. Never let yourself get hungry; carry snack bags with cut-up veggies and nuts or sunflower seeds. When you feel a craving coming on, distract yourself. Take a walk or take a shower. Chew gum. Brush your teeth often, especially between meals. Make up your own list of distractions to carry with you.