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Serious Medicine. Extraordinary Care.

Coping with Food Cravings

If you've ever felt like you had to have a candy bar, some potato chips, or a bowl of ice cream, you've had a food craving—an intense desire for a certain food or foods.

Some people experience such cravings only now and then, while others have them daily or weekly.

Depending on the person and the craving, food cravings can have a physical and/or psychological basis. There are a number of theories why food cravings occur:

  • The body lacks certain nutrients. Because of a nutritional deficiency in the body, the brain will signal which foods are needed to replenish the missing nutrients.

  • A change in hormone levels. Women often have food cravings during pregnancy or just before their menstrual cycles.

  • Low blood sugar. Heavy exercisers crave carbohydrates because their glycogen stores have been depleted.

  • Restrictive diets. Many dieters crave simple carbohydrates such as bread, cookies, and sweets. Or, they often crave "forbidden" foods, such as ice cream. When they give in to their cravings, they often binge on the food.

  • Smells. The smell of baking bread or chocolate chip cookies can trigger a strong desire for the food.

  • Emotions. Some people crave the "comfort" foods they enjoyed as children when they feel anxious or stressed.

Managing cravings

Occasional cravings for a particular food are nothing to worry about. But cravings that occur consistently can lead to weight gain and/or an overload of fat, salt, or sugar in your diet because foods that cause cravings often are packed with these unhealthy elements. If you suffer from cravings, try these coping strategies:

  • Eat a balanced diet. Food cravings often result from a lack of some element in your diet. Talk to your health care provider about taking a multivitamin.

  • Try to determine if your craving is emotional or physical. If it's emotional—you're lonely, bored, or sad—do something that addresses the issue. For example, try calling a friend or a family member and talking about what's bothering you if you're blue. If you're bored, read the newspaper, work in the yard, or clean out a closet.

  • Have a glass of water. People often mistake dehydration for a food craving. If you don't want water, try this no-calorie alternative: Chill a large mug in the freezer, then fill with ice, 12 ounces of water, half a lemon or lime, and two packets of artificial sweetener.

  • Don't skip meals. It's harder to resist dinnertime cravings if you've skipped breakfast or lunch. It may be helpful to determine how many calories you'll eat each day and spread them among three meals and two to three small snacks during the day.

  • Give in to a desire before it becomes a craving. If you crave potato chips at lunch, buy a single serving bag and enjoy it. Doing so may help you resist eating a full-sized bag when you get home.

  • Choose a healthy substitute for your unhealthy craving. For example, if you want ice cream, substitute fat-free ice cream, frozen yogurt, or sherbet.

  • Listen to your cravings. If you crave something salty, you may need salt. Add a little salt to your food instead of having a bag of salty snacks. If you crave sugar, eat a piece of sweet fruit, such as a pear, or sweeten a bowl of healthy cereal with an artificial sweetener.

  • Avoid restrictive diets. Include some of your favorite foods in your diet plans.

  • Keep a diary of your cravings. This will help you determine their triggers, so you can take steps to deal with them.

Finally, give in to your cravings now and then. Being too rigid often results in feelings of deprivation, which can lead to eventual bingeing. As long as 80 percent of your food intake is healthy, feel free to enjoy some foods that aren't so good for you, but that satisfy your desires.