Why do you want chocolate every day? Why exactly can’t you just eat one serving of tortilla chips?
While there aren’t any clear-cut answers, there is some insightful research and tips on how you can better take charge of those cravings.
1. Your cravings may be more mental than physical.
There are many, many theories about the underlying causes of cravings. Some experts say that certain foods trigger the release of endorphins in our brains, while others attribute our food urges to hormonal changes, eating habits and even our genetic makeup. And while there are definitely physiological reasons why we crave food, a lot of it is also mental, says Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love. So how do you satisfy the urge to eat if you’re not actually hungry?
When you get a craving, try to think it through, suggests Elizabeth Somer, RD, author of Food & Mood. Ask yourself what feeling is triggering the craving, such as boredom, stress or sadness. Or consider the type of food you’re craving, which can often clue you in to your emotional needs, says, Dr. May. For example, if you’ve just had lunch but still want to eat a brownie, think about how the sweet treat typically makes you feel (excited, relieved, comforted, etc.) and address your real needs instead.
“If a craving isn’t caused by hunger, food will never satisfy it,” notes Dr. May. But calling up a friend or going for a brisk walk just might, she adds.
2. It’s OK to give in to cravings on occasion, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
“People who have struggled with overeating tend to view cravings as something they have to learn to resist in order to control their weight,” says Dr. May. But doing so may have the opposite effect because you could end up eating more to make up for the fact that you aren’t getting what you really want. Most experts agree that feeling satisfied with what you eat will make it much easier to eat less, so Dr. May suggests indulging your cravings—just in smarter portion sizes.
For instance, if you’re really craving a chocolate bar, opt for a square of dark chocolate instead, which has less fat and sugar than milk chocolate and will satisfy your craving in fewer calories.
3. Chocolate is the most common food craving in North America.
While it may not come as that big of a surprise, research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association supports the notion that chocolate is craved more than any other food in our region of the world. But the cause for our chocolate cravings is still unclear; they could be contributed to a number of things, including the endorphin-boosting chemicals, caffeine or magnesium chocolate contains. However, there is some evidence that a brisk 15-minute walk can help curb your desire to eat it, according to a study published in the journal Appetite.
“It may be that exercise affects brain chemicals that help regulate mood and cravings,” says study coauthor Adrian Taylor, PhD. Find out for yourself: When you’re feeling the temptation to indulge, take a walk before you hit the vending machine to see if it helps combat the craving.
4. When it comes to sugar, you may only need a taste to feel satisfied.
The instant sugar hits your tongue, it triggers a rush of feel-good endorphins, says Somer in her book. In a study at Johns Hopkins University in 1990, babies who began to whimper were given either a tiny amount of sugar water or plain water. The sugar water stopped them from crying almost instantly, while the plain water did not. And though a pacifier might have the same effect on a upset infant, Neal Barnard, author of Breaking the Food Seduction, notes that “if the pacifier is removed, crying can ensue immediately; but sugar’s effect lingers for several minutes.”
Test the theory yourself the next time you’re craving a sweet treat by eating just one jelly bean and then preoccupying yourself for a few minutes. When you come back to the bag, you may find that your craving has been quelled.
5. Cut down on salt and you’ll eventually crave it less.
Barnard and New York–based nutritionist Karen Ansel, RD, agree that our salt cravings are a result of what we eat. Ansel explains that since no foods found in nature are inherently salty, we acquire a taste for it because more and more processed foods contain salt. But is it possible to break this habit? James Cocores, MD, who has done research on salty foods and found that they can be as addictive as narcotics because they trigger the same feel-good chemicals in the brain, recommends weaning yourself off salt much as you would any other physically addictive substance.
If you do find yourself craving super-salty foods, satisfy the urge with smaller and smaller portions, to see if the cravings for it eventually decrease.