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Joanna Dolgoff, M.D. Headshot

Control Your Cravings

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Cravings -- those intense desires to eat a particular food, strong enough that you may go out of your way to get it -- are complex urges that most people frequently experience. Researchers know we have cravings, but they still don't know exactly why. A craving can mean you're being too restrictive, it can be emotional, it can mean you're eating unhealthy foods too frequently, or could even be due to the time of year. Everyone has cravings, but it is how we handle our cravings that will affect our health and/or our weight loss success. It is possible to manage your cravings in a healthy way. Read on to find out what your must-have-now urges mean and how you can control them.

In order to decipher why you are craving that salty or sweet snack, we first need to decide if there were in external triggers present that would have lead you to want that certain food. Some possible external triggers are:

  • Have you seen an ad for or read an article about that certain food? The power of suggestion and seeing the food presented in a positive light can lead to a craving for that food.
  • Did you see or smell the food you're craving lately?
  • Even sounds -- like the beeping of the microwave, a co-work crunching on chips, or the sound of popping open a drink -- can lead to a craving if you associate those sounds with foods you enjoy.
  • Cold weather can trigger those cravings for warm, rich foods that are often high in calories.

If you determine that the craving does not stem from an external trigger, decide if it stems from an emotional trigger. Some examples of emotional triggers are:

  • Stress -- if you tend to reach for a certain type of food whenever you feel stressed, you are actually training yourself to crave this food when under stress. Studies suggest that these cravings can occur up to 24 hours after the stress-response system is activated.
  • When you were a child, did your parents feed you a certain type of food when you were sick, hurt, or upset? If so, you may experience cravings for these comfort foods even as an adult.
  • We often don't think of positive emotions when it comes to emotional eating, but celebratory eating and craving certain "reward" foods can also be the result of an emotional trigger.
  • Last, but not least, are you feeling guilt or shame? Do you feel like you failed following another diet? If so, this may trigger cravings for certain "forbidden foods" that you were trying to restrict.

And if your craving does not seem to be brought on by an external or emotional trigger, it is possible that it was brought on by a biological trigger. Some examples of biological triggers are below.

  • Has it been more than four hours since your last meal? If so, you may be experiencing a craving for something sugary or starchy due to a drop in blood sugar.
  • Being physically tired -- if you didn't get enough sleep last night, that can increase your cravings for something sweet.
  • Do you have an intense craving for ice? If so, this could be a sign of pica, a phenomenon that happens when people have iron-deficiency anemia.
  • If you are craving chocolate, that could be a sign that you need magnesium. So nosh on some nuts and seeds, which are a good source of magnesium, instead.
  • Have you been drinking plenty of water? If not, your body maybe mistaking your thirst signal for a hunger signal. With any craving that you experience, start by drinking some water and waiting 10 minutes and you may find that your craving subsides on its own.
  • Eating lots of simple carbohydrates -- without the backup of proteins or fats -- can quickly satisfy hunger and give your body a short-term energy boost, but they almost as quickly leave you famished again and craving more.

After deciphering why you are craving a certain food, you will be much better equipped to handle the craving and prevent cravings in the future. It can be as simple as getting more sleep, taking a different route to work so as not to pass the bakery, or drinking more water! See below for some tips to help control the specific types of cravings mentioned above.

How to control cravings due to...

External triggers:

  • Distract yourself -- When you notice a craving setting in, find something else to think about. Take a walk, listen to your favorite playlist, call a friend. Just set your mind to something else.
  • Trick your brain -- Try eating the lowest-fat, lowest-calorie variety of the item you're craving. If you find yourself wanting sweets like chocolate, opt for nonfat chocolate frozen yogurt instead of chocolate cake. If you're prone to overdoing it, however, don't bring the coveted food into the house, no matter how low-fat or fat-free it is. Instead, go out for your frozen yogurt and order a single-serving cone or cup.
  • Grab some gum -- If you want to avoid giving in to a sugar craving completely, try chewing a stick of gum which has been shown to reduce food cravings.
  • Reach for fruit -- Keep fruit handy for when sugar cravings hit. You'll get fiber and nutrients along with some sweetness.
  • Give in a little -- Eat a bit of what you're craving, maybe a small cookie or a fun-size candy bar. Enjoying a little of what you love can help you steer clear of feeling denied. Try to stick to a 150-calorie threshold.
  • Lighten up -- Light deprivation leads to depression in some people, and depression could fuel food cravings. So if you tend to feel blue in winter (the severest form of wintertime blues is called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD), try getting outside for a walk during the sunniest part of the day.

Emotional triggers:

Dig deeper -- If cravings linger, get at the root of them. Have you been too restrictive? If you suspect so, plan your meals differently, including more variety and more foods you enjoy in your diet. Is there something going on in your life that's making you anxious, angry or stressed? If that's the case, face the issue head on. By being proactive and making yourself aware of why you may be craving a certain food, you may just make that craving disappear.

Biological triggers:

  • Get at least eight hours of sleep each night to prevent cravings.
  • If you have iron-deficiency anemia, be sure to eat foods high in iron and check with your doctor to determine if you should take an iron supplement.
  • If you are low in magnesium, nosh on some nuts and seeds, which are a good source of magnesium.
  • Eat full meals. If you skip meals -- out of fear that you'll gain weight or out of the hope that you'll lose faster -- you're more likely to overeat at meals you do eat, and even more likely to fall prey to mindless snacking in between.
  • Be sure to drink water throughout the day -- eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day is the average amount needed, unless you are extremely active.
  • Combine foods -- If the idea of stopping at a cookie or a baby candy bar seems impossible, you can still fill yourself up and satisfy a sugar craving, too. Combine the craving food with a healthful one. For example, spread a little Nutella on a banana or mix some almonds with chocolate chips.

For more by Joanna Dolgoff, M.D., click here.

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