Cravings are intense desires for a particular food. Whether you're a stressed caregiver, a premenstrual or pregnant woman, or a tired-to-the-bone multitasker, you probably know the insistent gnaw of a craving -- maybe for salty chips? A fizzy drink? Cheesy pizza? Chocolate, in any form?
"Cravings are often more in our head than our belly or our body," says Beth Reardon, director of nutrition at Duke University Integrative Medicine and Caring.com senior food and nutrition editor. "The question to ask yourself isn't whether you should give into the craving, but what the craving is really about. Understanding that can help you make healthier choices that also feel satisfying."
Here's what's behind common cravings -- and how to curb them:
Craving cause #1: The pleasure system in your brain
It's no coincidence that many of the foods we crave feature three components nearly irresistible to the human palate: fat, salt, and sugar. These substances light up parts of the brain known as the reward system. Before we even taste these fatty-salty-sweet foods, the very prospect of doing so triggers associations that fuel cravings, says former FDA commissioner David Kessler, author of The End of Overeating. Merely passing the golden arches at a certain time of day can trip a rabid desire for fries.
The food industry has a name for this special quality of fat, salt, and sugar used to tantalize the brain in multisensory ways: craveability. Restaurant dishes and packaged foods -- and their marketing campaigns -- are carefully engineered to appeal to the emotions, memories, and sensory stimuli that goose the pleasure system. Your brain can develop a powerful addiction response similar to one triggered by nicotine or alcohol.
To break the craving: Curb the cues.
One of the most effective ways to help break those food associations, Kessler says, is to avoid being cued in the first place. If you crave a certain fast food, drive a different route so you don't see the restaurant. If midday M&Ms are your downfall, don't routinely keep a jar of them on your desk. Have an idea what you plan to order in a chain restaurant, so you don't have to see the mouth-watering photos on the menu.
You can also change the mental associations that trigger the reward system. Research by Australian psychologist Eva Kemps has shown that once you fixate on a particular food, mental images of it distract the brain from performing other tasks well. You can harness this effect in your favor to fight cravings, she says, by thinking of a substitute image when the urge for curly fries starts to distract you: colorful flowers, or the strong smell of eucalyptus.
You can even substitute a negative association, Kessler says: When you crave nachos, tell yourself, "That's hundreds of calories on a plate." Daydreaming of a cookies-and-cream ice cream cone? Picture yourself in a bikini or swimming trunks while eating it.
Craving cause #2: Roller-coaster blood sugar
Cravings may start in your brain's reward centers, but once you give in, the results cascade through the rest of your body. Soon after you swallow that melt-in-your-mouth glazed doughnut, the snack's simple carbs cause blood sugar to spike -- and, later, to crash. The drop in blood sugar, in turn, makes you irritable, less focused, and craving another energizing carb hit.
"Foods that exacerbate blood sugar spikes tend to be white, refined-grain, highly processed simple carbs," Reardon says. "We reach for them because we think they'll make us feel better, but they wind up making us feel worse."
To break the craving: Eat more protein and complex carbs.
The best way to stop the cycle of short-term satisfaction and continued cravings is to keep blood sugar levels consistent, Reardon says. The right foods for the job: a mix of lean proteins (fish, beans, poultry, eggs), healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados), and complex carbs (such as ancient whole grains -- spelt, barley, quinoa, millet -- which are less processed than most wheat), as well as fruits and vegetables. These foods take longer to digest and keep blood sugar from spiking and crashing. For snacks, choose easy-to-eat variations like trail mix, sliced apples, or berries.
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Craving cause #3: Depriving yourself of trigger foods, or any food
Hunger is a basic human drive -- the reminder to eat keeps us fueled. Craving fatty, filling foods may have evolved as nature's way of ensuring that we seek out enough to eat. It's little wonder, then, that the foods people crave most often are high in calorie density, rather than less energy-dense foods such as fruits and veggies, according to research at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University. On its list of the most-craved foods: chocolate, chips, and French fries.
Cravings don't always evaporate when you completely swear off foods that trigger them, research shows; they can even intensify. A similar effect occurs when you skip eating all day, as when stressed or dieting: You risk intensifying the food cravings -- and giving in when you're tired and really hungry. Cravings can even lead to bingeing this way.
To break the craving: Expect it, and make a smart substitution.
Given that cravings for calorie-dense foods are so normal, USDA researchers suggests putting that knowledge to work for you by expecting them -- and subbing lower-calorie versions of similar foods. You might be just as satisfied (and do less damage) amid a milk-and-cookies jones if the milk is skim and the cookies are gingersnaps rather than chunky-chocolate-chip, for example.
Try having a fun-sized bar of candy or a 100-calorie-sized snack pack instead of a big one. Better yet, substitute something with similar sweetness that's healthier, such as dense, sweet dates instead of a candy bar. Swap frozen whole-fruit bars for ice cream cones. (Don't believe they deliver the same kick? "Try it before you dismiss it!" Reardon urges.)
Craving cause #4: Sheer familiarity
Notice that most Americans don't crave much red-bean paste, popular in Chinese desserts, or French macaroons, the cookie found in every corner patisserie in Paris. "Basically, we crave what we know," says Reardon.
Fast food, or packaged goods like candy, chips, and cookies, are often objects of American desire because they're so visible and readily available. In fact, research has shown that chocolate is the number-one craved food in America. Japanese women crave sushi, a study at Tohoku University found, while rice cravings are common in other Asian cultures.
To break the craving: Try branching out.
It can take as many as 20 different servings before a child will start eating a new food; repeated exposures to different choices can, with diligence, build new habits for you, too. Look for swaps that echo your current craving in some way -- for example, if you're addicted to popcorn, try subbing air-popped kernels, or salted edamame, which are similarly crunchy and eaten with the fingers. Have an apple at the time you'd normally open a bag of corn chips. Be persistent; after a few weeks, you'll build a positive association to the new food.
Craving cause #5: Family history and lifestyle
Men often crave "comfort foods" such as Mom's meatloaf, greasy mac-and-cheese, or homemade chocolate chip cookies -- foods that someone else made for them that they associate with being nurtured. Women, in contrast, often go for packaged snacks like crackers or pints of ice cream, quick "bottomless" foods that they don't need to prepare and whose quantity can be ignored.
Occasions become linked to foods we crave, too: cake and birthdays, popcorn at the movies, pizza to celebrate good grades.
To break the craving: Stop to assess whether you want the food -- or the feeling.
Consider the association behind the hankering. Are you really in the mood for Mom's famous brownies, or would calling her up to hear her voice fill a need? Label what you're feeling: "I'm anxious." "I'm feeling lonely." Make healthier associations: Cheer yourself up with fresh flowers, rather than fresh cinnamon buns. To reward yourself, hit a local gift store rather than a vending machine. Remind yourself that you've come to see a movie, not to eat yourself sick.
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Craving cause #6: Self-medication
Cravings often escalate when we're feeling stressed, rushed, or depressed, says Reardon. That's when the positive emotional associations of simple carbs and their quick-fix to blood sugar seem to make us quickly feel better. The seeming improvement makes us crave the "cure" all the more next time. Thus, we learn to "treat" PMS with chocolate or fix fatigue with a double espresso latte, biscotti on the side.
Even the common premenstrual chocolate cravings seem to be driven by culture and psychology rather than any underlying hormonal trigger or magic ingredient the body is craving, reported University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate Julia Hormes in a 2010 dissertation on this topic.
To break the craving: Practice other forms of self-care.
Cravings typically last less than 15 minutes. University of Exeter researchers found that taking a short walk for a quarter hour when cravings strike eases them -- possibly because the immediate boost to brain chemistry governing mood overrides the craving's triggering of the reward system.
Feel-good measures that can ease stress or pain better than cookies: exercise, hot baths, scented lotions, a nap, and other forms of self-soothing.
Craving cause #7: Sleep deprivation
Many insomnia sufferers and night owls fail to make the link between tossing and turning at night -- and munching and crunching by day. Sleep deprivation changes the way the body responds to food, say Harvard Medical School researchers. Brain scans showed that men and women who had less sleep showed impaired judgment and less decision-making ability when looking at images of high-calorie foods, compared to a control group.
Stress levels go up when we're sleep deprived, causing the adrenal glands to work overtime, producing excessive cortisol (known as the "stress hormone") in order to better manage the stress on the body. When cortisol levels go up, levels of the hormone DHEA, which is central to maintaining proper levels of sex hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, go down -- a sequence of events that can lead to an increase in sugar cravings. High cortisol levels also can depress mood because of the impact on serotonin. Net result: a growing gnaw to nibble as the day wears on.
To break the craving: Feast on sleep.
Start with basic sleep hygiene -- in a room that's dark, cool, quiet, and has no TV or laptop -- to sleep better. When you seek to snack at bedtime, try foods that help you sleep, such as toast and oatmeal, which elevate blood sugar in a steady way. If you have an ongoing sleep problem, seek a doctor's help to fix it.
A nap can help carry you past the mid-afternoon slump that lack of sleep can worsen. Sunlight, a short walk, and a midday meal with protein can also help.
Craving cause #8: A nutritional deficiency
Many people assume that we snarf pretzels because we need salt, or dream of burgers when we're low in protein. But craving foods rich in nutrients our bodies lack is actually rare, Reardon says. "You're not craving chocolate because you need the tryptophan, serotonin, and magnesium in it, or you'd be eating a banana," she says.
One unusual exception: pica, a craving for nonfood items (often: paint chips, clay, chalk, or dirt) that's often rooted in an iron deficiency or other mineral deficiency. Some people develop a compulsion to chew ice.
To break the craving: Get medical help.
A compulsion to eat nonfood items should always be checked out by a physician.