Food cravings, an extreme desire for a particular food, are common. Who hasn’t had an insatiable wish for salty buttered popcorn at the movies or a candy bar for an afternoon slump? While untangling what’s behind a particular craving is complicated, what is certain is that cravings can derail healthy eating if not kept in check.
“Cravings have little to do with true hunger,” says Lawrence Schlitt, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic, Del Mar. “While there are many different reasons for cravings, from physiological to emotional, you can fend them off with some simple strategies.”
Try controlling craving gremlins with these tips:
Your body gets the nutrients and vitamins it needs from different types of foods, and no single food can supply all the nutrients in the amounts you need.
“Eating a variety of foods makes it easier to get a balanced diet and the essential nutrients you need every day,” says Dr. Schlitt. “Sometimes cravings may indicate that you are lacking in a particular nutrient. For instance, if you crave sweets, you may be lacking in chromium.”
Often, our bodies mistake thirst for hunger. When you are craving potato chips, drink a tall glass of water and wait 20 minutes. You may find that your craving is either gone or dramatically reduced.
You can break a craving’s hold on you by distracting yourself for at least 20 minutes. Focusing on something else for a while and changing your environment interrupts the craving, and it’s easier to make a better choice.
“Separating yourself from a craving can give you some space to think consciously about maintaining a healthy diet and help you realize that what you are experiencing is not true hunger,” says Dr. Schlitt.
Read a book, call a friend, walk the dog, clean your car, garden or take a bath.
Plan your meals and snacks for the day or the week, so that you eliminate the factor of uncertainty. If you know what you will be eating throughout the day you won’t rely on the vending machine for snacks when hunger hits.
“Planning for nutritious snacks can prevent hunger and low blood sugar between meals, which can trigger cravings,” says Dr. Schlitt.
Keep portable, healthy snacks in your desk, car or backpack so the right food is always at your fingertips, making you less likely to give in to a craving for chocolate chip cookies or ice cream.
Hunger can cause you to reach for sugary foods to get your blood sugar and energy up quickly.
“If you get too hungry, you can end up overeating and craving quick-fix foods like candy bars that are absorbed by the body fast,” says Dr. Schlitt. “Snack instead on fruits, nuts, vegetables or seeds.”
Cravings can sneak up when you are tired. When you have a sleepless night, you are more likely to crave carbohydrates and sugar to keep going.
“Lack of sleep is related to an increase in hunger and appetite,” says Dr. Schlitt. “When you’re overtired, your tired brain craves junk food and lacks impulse control — not a good combination for your health.”
“Experiment to see which techniques work best for you,” says Dr. Schlitt. “Once you have your go-to strategies in place, you will find that your cravings are manageable.”