We all have cravings. Some of us calmly plan our weekly menu around them, while others impulsively reroute our drive home to gratify them. Either way, there's no doubt that the desire for particular foods, flavors, and textures is strong, frequent, and pretty much universal.
Researchers have spent plenty of time studying cravings, but that doesn't mean they can pinpoint exactly why you really, really want something specific at any given moment. Still, they've been able to draw some general guidelines about what contributes to certain cravings, and what you can do to rein them in.
"Wait," you say, "why would I want to fight an urge?" After all, it can feel pretty satisfying to want something, track it down, and gobble it up. If you have ever felt guilty or ashamed after caving to a craving, then you know that creeping feeling that someone or something else was making the decision for you.
In this case, a pervasive craving can be the sign of a larger issue. It could mean that you're being too restrictive with your diet, that you lack important nutrients, or simply that your secret junk food habit is out of control.
"Control" is the operative word here. I'm not telling you to resist all food urges, but rather to work toward dealing with them consciously. It is possible to manage your cravings in a healthy way! The answer could be as simple as getting more sleep, not passing the bakery on the way to work, or drinking more water.
The first step is to know what types of factors feed your cravings to make them so intense. Once you know your opponent, you can face it on a level playing field!
From the moment you wake up until you close your eyes at night, you navigate the world using your senses. You hear, see, touch, taste, and smell your way to work and back home, and all along the way, countless companies are in stiff competition to make sure you encounter their products.
If you live in a city, you may barely notice the advertisements anymore—they're just part of the scenery or background noise. But many millions of dollars have gone into making sure they do their job, whether you realize it or not.
You think you're immune to sensory temptation? I doubt it. How many times has a certain smell led you to leave the grocery store with, let's say, some fried chicken that was nowhere on your shopping list?
Fresh fried chicken one example of an external trigger. Countless more bombard you all the time. If you have specific dietary restrictions—either for health or physique—it's essential that you bring these traps out of the background and into stark focus. Common external triggers include:
Have you seen an ad or read an article about a certain food? The power of suggestion, and seeing the food presented in a positive light, can lead to a craving.
Did you see or smell a food you're craving lately? That giant billboard may stand out more, but don't underestimate the power of smell in spurring cravings.
You may not eat with your ears, but you certainly hear the beeping of the microwave, a co-worker crunching on chips, or the sound of someone popping open a drink. If you associate those sounds with foods, expect a craving to follow. When you're surrounded by these sounds, it can feel like everyone except you is enjoying themselves.
Taking Control Of External Triggers
Sure, you could just turn off the radio or television. But to truly cut modern society's external triggers out your life, you'd probably have to either walk around blindfolded and wear earplugs every day, or spend the rest of your life in remote cabin in the mountains. Then again, if you think your fond memories of your favorite sweet treat or salt-laden guilty pleasure wouldn't follow you, you're dreaming!
In the meantime, try a few of these proven techniques to gain the upper hand:
When you notice a craving setting in, find something else to think about. Take a walk, listen to your favorite playlist, or call a friend. Just set your mind to something else.
Try eating the lowest-fat, lowest-calorie variety of the item you crave. If you find yourself wanting sweets like chocolate, opt for nonfat chocolate frozen yogurt instead of chocolate cake.
If you're prone to overdoing it, never bring the coveted food into the house, no matter how low-fat or fat-free it is. Instead, go out for your frozen yogurt and order a single-serving cone or cup.
If you want to avoid giving in to a sugar craving completely, try chewing a stick of gum. This has been shown to reduce food cravings.
Keep fruit handy for when sugar cravings hit. You'll get fiber and nutrients along with the sweetness you desire.
Eat a bit of what you crave—maybe one small cookie or a fun-size candy bar. Savor it, and try to stick to a 150-calorie threshold. Some people claim they're incapable of the self-control this demands, but they can do it with practice. Enjoying a little of what you love can help you steer clear of feeling denied.
Light deprivation leads to depression in some people, and depression can fuel food cravings. If you tend to feel blue in winter, get outside for a walk during the sunniest part of the day. If you suffer from the severest form of wintertime blues, called seasonal affective disorder, SAD, recognize it and take appropriate action.
The three trigger categories I present here fit more on a spectrum of gray than in a black-and-white classification system. Advertisers know this; that's why fast food ads are so carefully crafted to appeal to you on both a sensory/external level and an emotional level. They make you laugh, appeal to your memories, and tell you all the reasons you deserve whatever they're selling, all while presenting it in the most mouthwatering full-color footage possible.
The ad game is rigged! But you have knowledge on your side. Here are some of the most common emotional triggers that factor into your cravings:
If you reached for a certain type of food when you felt stress in the past, you were training yourself to crave this food when stressed in the future. Don't think you're out of the woods just because you resist an urge the moment it strikes. Studies suggest that cravings can remain up to 24 hours after the stress-response system is activated.
When you were a child, did your parents give you a certain type of food when you were sick, hurt, or upset? If so, you may experience cravings for these comfort foods as an adult.
We often don't think of positive emotions when it comes to emotional eating, but celebratory eating and craving certain "reward" foods can also be the result of an emotional trigger.
Do you feel like you "failed" a diet? If so, this may trigger cravings for certain forbidden foods that you were trying to restrict. It's a case of guilt eating if before you eat something, you find yourself saying "What's the point? I might as well."
Taking Control Of Emotional Triggers
Emotional triggers are complex and difficult to combat, because they're tied deeply into our memories, expectations, and notions of who we are. You can't eliminate them entirely—nor would you want to—but you can bring them out into the open rather than simply capitulating and eating nothing but so-called "comfort foods."
If you suspect that a lingering craving has an emotional component, dig deep and get at the root of it. Have you been too restrictive in your diet recently? If you suspect so, plan your meals differently; include more variety and more foods you enjoy in your diet.
Is there something going on in your life that's making you anxious, angry, or stressed? If that's the case, face the issue head on. By being proactive and trying to make yourself aware of why you may crave a certain food, you model the sort of behavior that will make you a stronger and better person in the long run.
When you make the switch from unstructured, uncontrolled eating to a more systematic and goal-based plan, it's normal to find yourself subject to unpredictable and intense cravings. If your craving doesn't seem to be brought on by an external or emotional trigger, it's possible that it was brought on by a biological trigger. These can be some of the most difficult triggers to resist—especially if you're hungry and tired after training.
Some examples of biological triggers include:
Has it been more than four hours since your last meal? If so, you may experience a craving for something sugary or starchy due to a drop in blood sugar. This can lead to impulsive decision making.
If you didn't get enough sleep last night, that can increase your cravings for something sweet.
Do you have an intense craving for ice? If so, this could be a sign of pica, a phenomenon that often happens when people are deficient in iron. If you crave chocolate, that could be a sign that you're low in magnesium.
Have you been drinking plenty of water? If not, your body may mistake your thirst signal for a hunger signal.
Eating lots of simple carbohydrates—without the backup of adequate protein or fat—can quickly satisfy hunger and give your body a short-term energy boost. However, sooner than you think, these carbs leave you famished and craving more.
Taking Control Of Biological Triggers
Biological triggers are a case where the trigger is a sign of something else you need to address. It could be as simple as better time management or drinking more water, or it could be something that you need a doctor or nutritionist's help to get control of. In either case, your reward will be a better overall diet.
Get at least eight hours of sleep each night. It sounds simple, but not enough people do it, and its connection to cravings and lapses of self-control is real.
If you have iron-deficiency anemia, be sure to eat enough dietary iron, and check with your doctor to determine if you should take an additional iron supplement.
If you are low in magnesium, nosh on magnesium-rich nuts and seeds rather than chocolate. Given that more than half of the population is magnesium-deficient, a supplement might also be in order.
If you skip meals, either out of fear that you'll gain weight or hope that you'll lose it faster, you're more likely to overeat at the meals you do eat. You're also far more likely to fall prey to mindless snacking.
Sixty-four ounces of water per day is the average amount needed. Drink even more if you are extremely active. Any time you experience a craving, start by drinking some water and waiting 10 minutes. You may find that your craving subsides on its own.
If the idea of stopping at a cookie or a baby candy bar seems impossible, you can still fill yourself up and satisfy a sugar craving, too. Combine the craving food with a healthful one. For example, spread a little Nutella on a banana or mix some almonds with chocolate chips.