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A Novel Strategy for Beating Food Cravings

Embrace, don't fight your food cravings to master them.

The holidays are coming and you’re already fantasizing about mouth-watering piles of mashed potatoes and gravy. Or you may be looking forward to all the yummy sweets and desserts that abound during the holiday season.

It’s 3 p.m. and a gnawing feeling that you need chocolate washes over you.

Almost all women and nearly three-quarters of men know what I’m talking about: food cravings. They can strike suddenly and feel impossible to resist. Sadly, most of us don’t crave apples or broccoli. We crave foods that are sweet (chocolate and ice cream), salty (French fries and potato chips), and fatty (macaroni and cheese). Where do cravings come from and how can you cope without overindulging?

What Causes Food Cravings?

Food cravings are not random or imagined. They are not a sign of weakness or lack of willpower. They are biological responses that originate in the pleasure, emotion and memory centers of the brain. In much the same way that drugs and alcohol produce dopamine and other chemicals that train the brain to go back for more, our brains remember that certain foods make us feel good and try to ensure that the pleasurable experience gets repeated by generating powerful drug-like cravings.

Humans are programmed to seek out fat and sugar. This survival mechanism helps us through times of famine, but is on overdrive in a time when processed, refined foods are in seemingly endless supply. Our environment makes it even more difficult to ignore cravings. Modern processed foods are cheap, easily accessible, convenient and strategically engineered to tantalize our over-saturated taste buds. All it takes is an image, a description or a smell of one of these foods for temptation to strike.

Froma psychological standpoint, food cravings serve an important purpose. People often find that eating sugar, fat and carbs eases stress and anxiety and satisfies other emotional needs, at least in the short term. Although these are important goals, there are healthier ways to satisfy these emotional needs.

6 Strategies to Manage Food Cravings

The question isn’t if you’re going to experience food cravings, but how you’re going to respond. Here are a few ways to cope with the strongest urges:

Investigate. Instead of beating yourself up for having food cravings, become an investigator. When do food cravings tend to strike? Are there triggers you can avoid? Could hormonal imbalances, fatigue, dehydration, food sensitivities or other health issues be at the root of your cravings? Take care of your general health by exercising, getting plenty of sleep, and avoiding irritants like drugs and alcohol, and talk to your doctor to see if an underlying health issue may be driving your food cravings.

Supplement. Cravings may be indicative of nutritional deficiencies, which can be countered with certain supplements:

  • Vitamin B Complex – boosts serotonin levels and improves the body’s ability to utilize carbohydrates
  • Fish Oil – enhances insulin sensitivity which combats sugar cravings
  • Tryptophan – an amino acid which, combined with other vitamins and minerals, can increase the production of feel-good chemical serotonin in the body and reduce carb carvings
  • L-Tyrosine – an amino acid that is a natural building block of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine
  • Chromium – helps regulate blood sugar and has been shown in some studies to relieve carbohydrate cravings
  • L-Glutamine – an amino acid that stabilizes blood glucose and diminishes sugar cravings
  • Magnesium – helps regulate blood sugar, and combats stress and insomnia
  • Phenylalanine – an amino acid that helps raise endorphin levels to restore chemical balance in the brain

De-Stress. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone that tells your brain to seek relief. Your brain remembers that sweet, salty and fatty foods made everything okay for a while when you felt stressed in the past, and tells you to get chomping. Instead of using food to self-soothe, feel better by doing something you love—take a walk, call a friend, do any activity that directly addresses the feeling you’re trying to medicate. Better yet, exercise, which reduces insulin levels and dampens the desire for sugar, or go to bed early. Lack of sleep decreases levels of the hormone that signals fullness (leptin) and boosts the appetite hormone (ghrelin), which can increase food cravings by as much as 45 percent. Continue reading below...

Make a Snack Swap. You may be able to satisfy food cravings with healthier, nutrient-dense alternatives. For example, there are fiber-packed healthy carbs, such as beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, which have the same relaxing effect as processed carbs without the negative side effects. A handful of nuts or air-popped popcorn may ease salty cravings and will provide more nutrients and keep you full longer than potato chips or French fries. If you’re yearning for chocolate, replace milk chocolate with dark chocolate. It has more nutrients and a small amount is usually enough to appease sweet cravings.

Give In – Moderately. If healthy substitutes fail to satisfy, grant yourself permission to have a small portion of your favorite foods and savor them thoroughly. Restrictive diets and rigid rules about food make cravings worse. If you skip meals or deprive yourself of entire food groups, you’re more likely to misinterpret low blood sugar for food cravings, obsess over what you cannot have, and then binge on “forbidden” foods that don’t meet your body’s real needs.

Take a Hint From Your Body. Get quiet for a moment and listen to your body. Are you physically hungry? A hint: If the only thing that sounds good is sugary, salty or fatty foods, you’re probably dealing with a craving rather than hunger. Often, cravings for comfort food are really cravings for emotional comfort. You may be stressed, lonely, bored or anxious, all of which are feelings that are better served with a hot bath, a “mental health day” away from work, a massage, an uplifting book or song, or a good talk with a friend than food.

If you’re well-acquainted with food cravings, chances are you’ve tried to will-power yourself through them, and then caved more often than you’d like to admit. This holiday season, try a novel approach—befriend cravings. Get to know them. Understand why they exist and appreciate what they’re trying to tell you. By accepting that food cravings will arise and making a plan to cope with them, when food cravings strike this holiday season you’ll be able to enjoy the festivities—and the food—without the guilt.

More from Carolyn C. Ross M.D., M.P.H.
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