Conquering Cravings

The best way to get over a food craving may be to give in to it.

Posted Sep 21, 2014

Can you eat just one?

When you get a food craving, it’s usually not for a kale salad drizzled with fresh citrus dressing. No, most of the time, we crave fat-sugar combos like chocolate blackout cake or a milkshake, or fat-protein foods like burgers, hot dogs and fried chicken. When surveyed about foods that satisfy cravings, many people also put salty foods, bread products and sweets at the top of the list. “Forbidden” foods—those you tell yourself you can’t have for one reason or another—are probably those you crave most.

Many different theories exist about food cravings. Some say they are related to primal impulses to fill up on food whenever we can. (For our ancestors, that would be in anticipation of famine or not knowing where your next slab of meat or handful of berries is coming from.) Others say we crave food because it is all around us and some of it just tastes too good to resist. In the past, many people believed that cravings were our bodies way of telling us we are deficient in certain nutrients. But nobody really buys a theory that says we need to get nutrients from potato chips, pastries or jelly beans. Nutrition experts agree that cravings rarely have anything to do with a shortage of nutrients. It has been established that a longing for salty snacks does not mean you need sodium and craving crème brulee is no indication you’re low on sugar and fat. 

Brain chemistry is thought to play a huge role in what you crave and why you keep craving it. Although the neurochemistry behind food cravings isn’t fully understood, researchers know, for instance, that a brain chemical called galanin triggers cravings for fatty foods like pizza and ice cream. The more of these types of food you eat, the more galanin you produce, and the more cravings you get.

Eating sweet or starchy carbs raises brain levels of the neurochemical serotonin, which helps stabilize mood. That’s why a protein-based meal won’t quite satisfy someone who is craving carbs; she might feel full after eating but her mood isn’t as likely to improve. Surveys have found that chocolate is the most craved food among American women and increased serotonin levels could explain why. Premenstrual cravings are common, and it is known that serotonin levels drop at this stage of the cycle. 

Indulging cravings for sweet or fatty foods also triggers the release of endorphins, brain chemicals that can help you feel calm. Endorphins are also responsible for the “high” you feel after a strenuous workout or when you fall in love. That could help explain why you rarely crave a simple salad. It may be better for you, but it doesn’t stimulate any “feel good” brain chemicals!

Whenever you have any type of food craving, if you can satisfy your urge with just a small indulgence, and only from time to time, you should just go ahead and do it, since you’re less likely to find yourself eating an entire pint of ice cream or a second slab of cake. In fact, many people keep their cravings under control by doing just that—eating their “forbidden” foods from time to time, just to make sure they don’t develop uncontrollable cravings to begin with.

But if you’re someone who can’t “just eat one,” and you struggle with weight issues, you may have to find other ways to control your cravings. The best thing you can do in the moment is distract yourself for 15 or 20 minutes. That’s how long it usually takes for a craving to subside. Get up and take a walk outside or call someone. Whatever you do, get out of the kitchen and stay away from food stores! 

If you are an emotional eater, your cravings may stem from psychological needs. In that case, confronting the underlying issues is the first best step to controlling food cravings. On the other hand, if your cravings are due to real hunger, you can probably control them by making sure you plan and eat three balanced meals every day, supplemented with planned snacks (rather than waiting until you are hungry and eating anything and everything in front of you). Try not to go any longer than three or four hours without eating. This pattern not only helps control food cravings, it helps avoid abrupt brain chemical changes and keeps your blood sugar steady throughout the day.