Help! I Can’t Stop These Cravings!

The first in a two part series on how to handle food cravings

Posted Jun 13, 2013

In last week’s blog, we discussed 5 simple steps to help you stop dieting and start living. Today, I’d like to explore Step 1 a little bit further: Understand why you eat what you eat.

A common question I hear from my students and clients is, “Why do I crave _____ (fill in the blank)?” It’s a good question with many possible answers. So let’s dive in.

My client Jennifer craves chips and salsa - every day at 3:00 pm like clockwork. I get those same 3:00 pm cravings, but I want chocolate pecan date bars or Brendan Brazier’s curry lentil crackers (not together – it’s one or the other). But what causes us to have these cravings? There are a variety of reasons that we crave different foods. Sometimes we want a certain taste – like Jennifer’s spicy and salty combo. Sometimes we seek comfort after a bad day. Regardless, there’s a reason for your cravings. Your body is screaming loud and clear – but what is it actually screaming for? Today we’ll explore some of the emotional reasons you might be having food cravings. Next week we’ll tackle the biological and environmental reasons.

1)      Rewards – When I was a child, chocolate was presented as the solution for every bad thing that ever happened to me. Skin your knee? Have some chocolate. Get a bad grade? Have some chocolate. Get bullied at school? Have some chocolate. So when I’m having a stressful or bad day, what do I crave? Chocolate. There’s actually a biological reason for this. There is a portion of our brain (the paraventricular hypothalamus, for those that like big words) that is responsible for signaling that we are hungry. Unfortunately, this happens to be the same part of the brain connected to addiction. Much like an addict craves a drug, if eating a certain food has become rewarding for us, our brain will make us crave that food. In other words: I like chocolate because chocolate makes me feel good, so when I feel bad, I crave chocolate. Hey Presto! Problem solved! Unfortunately, probably not. Which leads us to the second reason we crave certain foods.

2)      Inappropriate Coping Tactics - A lot of us, myself included (see Rewards above!), sometimes reach for our favorite comfort food whenever we feel stressed. Unfortunately, eating chocolate won’t actually solve the problem you are struggling with. So, before you reach for that chocolate pecan date bar, ask yourself “WHY do I really want it?” You might be surprised at the answer. Maybe you’re craving chocolate because you just got in a fight with your spouse. Or maybe you have a term paper due in 4 hours and you haven’t started on it. Regardless, eating a chocolate pecan date bar is not the answer. In the first scenario, you need to work things out with your spouse or talk it over with a friend. In the second, you need to work on that paper. No donut required!

3)      Social Expectations - If you are craving something at a party or other social occasion, make sure you really want it before you dive in. Because we associate certain foods with certain feelings, we may “crave” something because it’s what we always do in that situation. Like eggnog and Christmas. After 40 years of drinking eggnog every year around the holidays, my friend Bill finally asked himself why he wanted that eggnog, and he realized that he doesn’t even like eggnog. So he looked around for other ways to satisfy his “holiday craving” like taking a drive to look at Christmas lights or going out and making a snowman.

So what have we learned here? Sometimes our cravings stem not from physical needs, but from emotional needs. And while eating that food may make us feel better temporarily, it’s probably not going to solve the problem that caused you to turn to food in the first place. When we find ourselves craving a certain food, the first thing we should do is “check in” with ourselves and figure out what our body (which includes your mind and spirit) is really craving. This can sometimes be a difficult process after possibly years of misinterpreting your cravings. But it can be done. In a future blog, we’ll discuss mindful eating and how it can help you overcome your cravings.

About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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