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How to Deal with Food Cravings

Posted by Joan Salge Blake  August 26, 2013 05:44 PM

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Photo Source:  Nutrition & You
Many people have them.  It is an all-encompassing feeling.   Your body is craving for chocolate, chips, or whatever, and you have to have it.  You begin hunting through your kitchen cupboards looking for the specific food or anything close to it that you think will satisfy that food craving.  You’re not content until you eat it.

Food cravings, which are an intense desire for a specific food and the overwhelming desire to obtain and consume it, occur in over 50 percent to up to 97 percent of individuals.  By far, chocolate is the most frequently cited food that cravers would “die for” with salty snacks such as chips and French fried potatoes as a close second, according to a study in the International Journal of Obesity.  

While the exact cause of food cravings is still unknown, there are multiple theories as to why people have these intense feelings for a food.   Some studies suggest that restricting your food intake, aka, dieting, can trigger these cravings.  In a study of almost 130 women, those who were dieting to lose weight had significantly more intense craving for chocolate than non-dieters.  This is the Adam and Eve syndrome.  If you make a food “forbidden,” you are going to want it more.

Sleep deprivation can be another trigger.  Researchers at the University of California Berkeley purposely deprived healthy young adults of sleep and monitored their food choices.  They also monitored the change in their brain activity using a specialized type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that measures blood flow to the brain.  In a sleep-deprived state, the subjects not only had a change in their brain activity but also an increased yen for sweet and salty foods.   “What we have discovered is that high-level brain regions required for complex judgments and decisions become blunted by a lack of sleep, while more primal brain structures that control motivation and desire are amplified,” says Matthew Walker, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, and senior author of the study.  In other words, when you are at a restaurant and tired, the more complex decision to skip dessert because you want to stay on your diet and fit into your jeans is overtaken by the immediate desire for “Death by Chocolate,” which is calling out your name under the dessert section of the menu.

Hunger can also feed into food cravings.  In a study at Tufts University, the food cravings of 32 healthy women were accessed prior to restricting their typical calorie intake by 10 to 30 percent daily.    After 6 months of a restricted calorie intake, hunger was shown to significantly increase the frequency and intensity of their food cravings compared to when their calorie intake was not restricted.  

Lastly, cravings can be a release for emotional issues such as stress and boredom, according to  Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It. “Keeping a food journal can help identify food cravings and potential emotions that may trigger them.”  Once these triggers are identified, “taking a walk, calling someone, or taking a bath may help you relieve your stress or boredom for less calories and potentially less regrets rather than eating.”

If you experience food cravings, here are some tips that may help you reduce or minimize your intense yen for specific foods:
  • When dieting to lose weight, you may want to factor in a 50 to 100 calorie daily or weekly “treat” so you don’t feel deprived.  If you are craving chocolate, buy an individually wrapped small piece of a good quality chocolate such as a Lindt chocolate ball that you can often get in convenience stores.  Walk to the local store, buy only one, and savor every bite.
  • Don’t run yourself ragged.  Get an adequate amount of sleep nightly so that your brain is rested and you are mentally stronger to make healthier food choices.
  • Avoid hunger between meals.  If you noticed that you consistently have cravings late in the afternoon, it may be a signal that you are not eating enough at lunch.  Make sure that your meals contain adequate amounts of fruits, veggies, whole grain, and lean protein.  Add some healthy oils for staying power between meals.  If your schedule causes you to delay a meal, plan on a healthy snack to hold you over.
  • Keep a food record to see if there is a pattern to your cravings.  Find “life outside the kitchen” by keeping yourself busy to prevent boredom and look to physical activity to walk off the stress or anxiety during your day.  A quick 10-minute brisk walk may be all you need to manage emotions that are triggering unplanned, impulsive eating.
Do you experience food cravings?  Please post your thoughts.

                                          Follow Joan on Twitter at:  joansalgeblake


If you have a nutrition topic that you like to see covered, please email me at: salge@bu.edu
Originally published on the blog Nutrition and You!.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, LDN, is a clinical associate professor and registered dietitian at Boston University in the Nutrition Program. Joan is the author of Nutrition &You, 2nd Edition, More »

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