When you really want a chocolate bar, it may seem pretty hard to take control of your food craving. Hankerings like that can get the best of you if you’re not mindful, causing you to go overboard in your indulgence and take a detour from your healthy eating goals. First, don’t shame yourself for eating something that might not be the best for you. We all give in from time to time, and completely depriving ourselves of what we desire can take the joy out of food. It’s when those food cravings overcome us often that we may compromise good nutrition and a healthy weight.
Pangs can happen for a variety of reasons, and knowing how to control those cravings when they set in—or at least ride them out in a healthy way—can give you a strong defense against their alluring ways.
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 gherlin—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 gherlin, 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.
How Can You Control Your Cravings?
Every food can have a place in a well-balanced diet, as long as it’s eaten in moderation. But if you find that it is time to get control over your food cravings because they’re impacting your weight or your other efforts for better health, try these tips:
- 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 satisfying 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.
- Skip artificial sweeteners. Eating or drinking something that contains artificial sweetener 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% fruit juices or honey for a touch of what you crave.