By Diana Burrell
The kids are asleep; you've got a great movie lined up to watch and the craving hits: Chocolate. Now. Does it matter that you've stuck to healthy eating all week? No. Chocolate! That you haven't consumed chocolate in weeks? Chocolate! Chocolate! The craving grows stronger every second. Resistance is futile, and soon you're digging around a cupboard for the bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips you bought for baking emergencies. Soon after though, competing feelings of relief, guilt and remorse begin to swirl around your mind. Crisis averted ... or was Pandora's box opened?
Some dieters may believe a craving—an intense desire for a certain food—is a signal their bodies need the nutrients that food provides. A craving for chocolate, for example, would signal a physiologic need for more antioxidants. However, a bowl of red beans, which is higher in antioxidants than chocolate, would better meet that supposed physiological need, yet red beans are low on the craving scale.
"It's an age-old question whether cravings are physiological or psychological," says Bethany Thayer, RDN, MS, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "I'm not sure we definitively know what causes a craving; it could be a little bit of both." She points out that when children are sick, a bowl of Mom's chicken soup makes them feel better; it relieves congestion and has proven antibacterial properties. When that child grows up and falls ill, what does he crave? A bowl of chicken soup, not just for its curative powers, but it brings back comforting memories of being cared for by Mom.
What happens when your cravings become overwhelming and lead to overindulgence and feelings of guilt? When people follow overly restrictive diets or completely cut out groups of foods, cravings can become more intense and can lead to a vicious cycle of indulging, overeating and guilt. A diet that allows small amounts of foods you enjoy—even high-fat, high-calorie foods—will be easier to maintain since you aren't eliminating that food outright from your life.
If you sometimes crave chocolate, keep some dark chocolate on hand. Dark chocolate contains phytochemicals that may aid in the prevention of heart disease and may decrease the effects of sugar on your teeth. But enjoy it in moderation. Calories do add up. When looking for dark chocolate, read the label to make sure that cacao is the first ingredient on the list rather than sugar.
Here are other tips for handling food cravings:
- Put your craving off. Tell yourself you'll deal with the craving in 20 minutes. Food cravings are typically short-lived, and while the desire for chips, chocolate, or cake feels overwhelming now, it will wane, especially if you can find a healthier food substitute or distract yourself.
- Choose alternatives for your cravings. Yearn for potato chips? Buy a brand that's low-fat or fat-free. Desire something crunchy? Skip the chips: try fruit or a salad packed with crisp greens and veggies. Want something sweet? How about baking an apple or even roasting some veggies? Roasting brings out the sweetness in many foods.
- Buy single servings of foods you crave. "Instead of buying a whole box of cookies," says Thayer, "buy just one cookie from a specialty bakeshop."
- Schedule your snacks. Plan for nutritious snacks to prevent between-meal hunger. Keep portable, healthy snacks in your desk, backpack or car.
- Take a walk, work on a hobby or call a friend. Thayer points out that what you really may be craving is social support. A chat with a sympathetic friend can get you through a tough craving.
- Keep a craving journal. Note the time of day your craving appeared, how long it lasted, the food you craved, and how you handled the situation. Thayer says you'll start noticing patterns so you can be better prepared to handle cravings in the future.
Reviewed April 2013
Diana Burrell is a Boston-based freelance writer and recipe developer whose food writing has appeared in Cook's Illustrated, Kiwi, Clean Eating, Oxygen, and The Boston Globe. Visit Diana at www.dianaburrell.com.