What happens when your craving become overwhelming and lead to overindulgence and feelings of guilt? When people follow restrictive diets or completely cut out groups of foods, cravings can become more intense and can lead to a vicious cycle of indulging, overeating and guilt. A balanced eating plan that allows foods you enjoy — even high-fat, high-calorie foods — will be easier to maintain since you aren’t eliminating those foods outright from your life.
If you sometimes crave chocolate, keep some dark chocolate on hand. Eat it mindfully, enjoy the experience and put it away when you’re satisfied. When you always have chocolate on hand, you’re less likely to overeat it.
Why We Crave Foods
While food cravings may seem (and sometimes sound) like they originate in your stomach, your brain is the more responsible party. In fact, our cravings for fat, sugar and salt seem to date back to the Stone Age. Early humans consumed fatty meat (a rich source of necessary calories), sweet plants (which were mostly safe to eat) and salty substances (which helped their bodies conserve fluid), but these foods weren’t always readily available. So, whenever our ancestors did enjoy them, their brains registered the message that they had done a good thing — programming them to want to have more, as a means of survival. Although food is more abundant and available today, this primitive drive still makes itself known from time to time.
Boredom, stress, anxiety, loneliness — how we feel can also dictate when cravings set in. Certain types of food, and even lifestyle choices, can have an impact on our neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that transmit signals throughout the body. Though the act of eating may be a way some people comfort themselves, food itself can impact our mood: Carbohydrates, for example, can help calm us by increasing the levels of the hormone serotonin. One pair of very efficient hormones — leptin and ghrelin — are responsible for telling the brain when we’re hungry, and whether to store excess calories as body fat or use them for energy. When blood sugar levels dip (when we skip a meal, for example), it causes an increase in ghrelin, leaving you ravenous and craving something to eat. When levels of leptin, a blood protein that helps suppress appetite, decrease — which happens when you’re sleep deprived, among other times — it causes ghrelin to increase, again leaving you famished.
Here are other tips for handling food cravings.
Eat more often. Eating every few hours can help you keep your blood sugar levels steady and make you less likely to desperately crave something to eat. Split your breakfast and lunch into two portions, so you have something to munch on in between each meal.
Eat slowly. It can take up to 20 minutes for your stomach to send the message to your brain that it’s full. If you slow down and savor each bite, reaching for candy right after dinner may seem less appealing.
Distract yourself. If a craving strikes, do something else until it passes. Exercise, go for a walk around the block, call a friend, sort the mail — anything that keeps you busy and your mind off food for a bit. If you’re still hungry after 30 minutes, have a little snack.
Make smart substitutions. Craving a cupcake from the corner bakery? Try making your own and tweaking the recipe to make it healthier. Or, eat a better-for-you option — like a juicy apple or a decadent fig — to satisfy your desire for sweetness.
Limit your trigger foods. Your body can develop a tolerance to certain foods, much like alcohol or a drug, making you want more and more of it. The more you consume, the more you’ll want to consume. Try buying foods you can’t seem to resist in small amounts, or only once a month.
Try to skip artificial sweeteners. Eating or drinking something that contains artificial sweeteners can actually increase your appetite for sweetness more than something with real sugar, meaning you may end up eating more than you intended. Try turning to 100 percent fruit juices or honey for a touch of what you crave.
Schedule your snacks. Plan for nutritious snacks to keep your body biologically fed. Keep portable, nutrient-dense snacks in your desk, backpack or car.
Take a walk, work on a hobby or call a friend. When an intense craving hits, take a moment to consider what else you might be needing at that moment. Are you actually hungry or are you bored or lonely?
Keep a craving journal. Note the time of day your craving appeared, how long it lasted, the food you craved and how you handled the situation