Coping with food cravings

April 2, 2003 in Healthy Eating, Weight Management

Coping with food cravings


A food craving is an intense desire for a particular food. It is not just an increased appetite, but rather a need for a specific food, right now. And the food you crave must have three ingredients: fat, sugar and or salt.

Women experience food cravings more often than men. In fact, studies estimate that between 40 and 97% of women have experienced food cravings. Women are more likely to crave carbohydrate foods -- but not just any carbohydrate. Women crave sugar-fat mixtures such as cookies, cakes, ice cream, desserts and chocolate. Men, on the other hand, often crave protein-fat-salt mixtures like hamburgers, French fries, pizza, nachos and potato chips.

Studies show that most food cravings occur in the late afternoon or evening. Often night time snacking is just a habit people get into. Some people feel they are entitled to eat at the end of a hard day. Others haven't eaten enough at lunch or have not included a late afternoon snack and walk in the door at then end of the day ravenous'and then the eating starts ' snacking before dinner, after dinner and throughout the evening.


The causes of food cravings

There are a number of theories as to why people experience food cravings:

1) Food cravings are a way of telling you your body lacks certain nutrients. For instance, your craving for chocolate might mean your body lacks magnesium. Chocolate is a rich source of magnesium and by eating it, you get the magnesium you need. This theory has not been proven.

2) Food cravings may be a psychological reaction to a negative mood or stress. This type of 'comfort eating' has no biological basis to it. Craving a food becomes a way your deal with negative moods. Ironically, many cravers actually feel guilty after they give in to their cravings.

3) Food cravings are a way to increase levels of 'feel good' brain chemicals like serotonin and endorphins. This theory has been widely studied and may play a role in carbohydrate cravings, especially in women during the premenstrual week. Brain serotonin, a chemical associated with happiness, may become depleted during the premenstrual stage, and eating carbohydrate rich foods increases serotonin levels in the brain. Studies have shown that women with premenstrual depression experience an improvement in mood after they eat a carbohydrate rich snack or drink.

4) Food cravings may be a response to low blood sugar and hunger. If it's 4:00 p.m. and your craving a chocolate bar from the vending machine at work, your body is telling you that it needs fuel, it's time to eat.

5) Food cravings may also be a response to a deprivation diet. And we know that many dieters experience food cravings for the foods that they eliminate from their diet. Depriving yourself of your favourite foods is a sure-fire way to eventually crave them, and often end up bingeing.

6) Food cravings may be a response to your environment ' you always feel like snacking when watching television, you crave pizza when you walk by a pizza stand, and so on.


Strategies to cope with food cravings

First of all, it is important to know if your craving is a physical need for food (i.e. you're hungry) or a psychological need for food (i.e. you're stressed, upset or bored). That way, you may be able to prevent strong cravings. Here are some tips that may help you pass up the chocolate bar or bag of potato chips:

Eat every 4 to 5 hours to prevent your blood sugar from dropping too low. Plan for between meal snacks. Choose snacks that have some protein and carbohydrate; these will give you longer lasting energy. A low fat latte, yogurt and fruit, fruit and nuts, whole grain crackers and low fat cheese, or an energy bar.

If you are dieting, include your favourite food ' be it a rich dessert or a plate of nachos ' once a week to prevent feeling deprived.

If your cravings have nothing to do with hunger, brush your teeth and gargle with an antiseptic mouthwash. This works for many of my clients who crave foods and snack after dinner. Not only does this signal the end of eating, but nothing tastes good after you've gargles with a strong mouthwash.

Distract yourself. Take yourself out of the situation for 45 minutes. If you still want what you were craving, then give yourself a small serving.

Choose a healthy substitute. If you crave ice cream, have a small bowl of low fat ice cream or frozen yogurt. Or have fat free Creamsicles to Fudgsicles on hand. If you want chips and salsa, have baked tortilla chips.

Avoid alcohol, which can trigger or intensify a food craving, especially for sweets. Alcohol can lower your blood sugar and disrupt levels of brain chemicals.

Avoid situations that trigger cravings, if possible. Instead of passing by the donut shop on the way to work every morning choose a different route. If TV sets of constant night time munching, cancel your cable!


Tips to manage chocolate cravings

  • Keep portions small by eating chocolate with or soon after a meal.
  • Buy good quality chocolate in small serving sizes. Chocolate actually has antioxidants that might help prevent heart disease. The healthiest chocolate contains 70% cocoa solids.
  • Regularly include chocolate in your diet to avoid binges associated with abstinence.
  • Try low fat chocolate milk or light hot chocolate as an alternative to a chocolate bar with far less fat.


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