Mac n’ cheese, ice cream, chocolate, potato chips, French fries! We might find ourselves craving these comfort foods when we are stressed, sad, depressed, anxious or lonely. Sometimes when we are celebrating, happy or just bored we give in to cravings and reach for fast food or unhealthy snacks. But what is it that makes us crave these foods, and what exactly is a craving?
Cravings are psychological urges, or in other words, an intense desire to eat certain foods. Most of the time, we give into these cravings in hopes of elevating our mood. This kind of “emotional eating” usually has nothing to do with being hungry and the urge to eat during a craving is much stronger than the physical need for food.
There are many theories about why we have cravings. Some believe cravings are the result of low serotonin levels in the brain, which in turn makes us want to eat more to balance these levels out. Others believe cravings are associated with the production of endorphins, which occurs when we consume fat or carbohydrates. This literally means that eating fatty or starchy foods makes us feel happy.
Glucose (sugar) also has a major effect on cravings. This is why we crave chocolate or ice cream (foods high in sugar), rather than broccoli or spinach. When we eat foods high in glucose, we feel the urge to eat more. This is because our bodies release serotonin (happy hormones) when glucose is present.
So, there actually IS something going on in our bodies that helps create and “feed” a craving. This does not mean we should give in every time we have the urge to splurge on high-fat, high-carb foods. If you want to identify, prevent and beat these cravings altogether, follow the tips below:
Beat Cravings: Ask “Am I really hungry?”
Cravings often have nothing to do with hunger. We associate food with a number of things. Think about it, when we were babies our biggest soother was our mother’s milk. As a toddler we were given cookies and milk after falling and getting hurt. In school we were rewarded with sweet treats when we got good grades. It is no wonder as college students we still use food as a tranquilizer when we are anxious and stressed out, as a mood elevator when we are depressed, as a comforter when we are lonely, as a reward when we have had a hard day, or even as an entertainer when we are bored!
So how do you determine if you are experiencing a craving or really just need to eat? I suggest trying the four D’s:
• Delay. If you are not sure whether or not you are actually hungry, wait 10-15 minutes before acting on your craving. This is how long it usually takes for a craving to pass. If you still feel hungry after this time, then your body is probably telling you that you need to eat.
• Determine. It is important to take a moment to figure out what is going on. Try asking yourself, “why is my desire to eat so high right now?” “Am I physically hungry?” If not, “what do I really want or need?”
• Distract. Distracting yourself is a great way to help combat cravings. This can include calling a friend, walking the dog, going for a short jog or heading to the ARC for a workout. Remember, cravings only last for 10-15 minutes, so this is all the time you need for the distraction. It is great to have these distractions accessible and to plan for them ahead of time.
• Distance. Distancing yourself physically from the temptation is a good way to avoid giving in. If this means leaving home, or heading to a different part of campus (step away from the McDonald’s!), then do it! Stocking up on healthy snacks will help keep your hunger at ease. Still need your favorite “cheat” food? Go to the store and buy a single serving/individual serving size to satisfy you, but without leaving you leftovers for later.
Beat Cravings: Try SIMPLE SWITCHES
Can’t quite kick that craving? Try making a simple switch. This means you find a healthier option to substitute for the unhealthy food you are craving. If you are craving something salty, try grabbing some whole wheat pretzels or a dill pickle instead of potato chips. If you are craving something sweet, dried fruit, particularly dates, prunes or raisins are high in natural sugar and will satisfy your sweet tooth. If you are craving something creamy, try Greek yogurt. It is lower in sugar than other yogurt and definitely healthier than ice cream. If you want to make Greek yogurt even more like your favorite frozen yogurt, mix with fruit and honey and freeze.
Beat Cravings: Stay Hydrated
Sometimes we crave food, or think we are hungry when we are actually thirsty. Try drinking a glass or two of water before you dive into a meal. This might help you eat less, or you may decide you are not actually hungry after all. The best way to stay hydrated is to keep a water bottle in your backpack, car or apartment… anywhere you will be, and anywhere that it is accessible!
Prevent Cravings: Eat the Right Foods
Our diet can be one of the best ways to prevent cravings in the first place! Choosing snacks that are high in fiber (at least 3 grams per serving), and contain protein are our best weapon against those crazy cravings. Snacks containing one or both will help you stay full for longer, and will help satisfy hunger with a smaller amount of calories. Try snacking on an apple with 2 tbsp. peanut butter, low-fat or fat-free dairy products such as string cheese, yogurt or cottage cheese, or ½ turkey or chicken breast sandwich on whole wheat bread (skip the mayo) with veggies.
Eating often (every 2-3 hours) will also help you prevent cravings. Eating smaller meals/snacks throughout the day helps control and prevent hunger in the first place. If we are keeping our bodies satisfied, there will be no need to binge or give in to cravings!
Prevent Cravings: Eat Breakfast
Rolling out of bed and into the kitchen is one of the best ways to prevent cravings later on in the day. Definitely avoid the typical breakfast foods such as pastries, donuts, croissants and bagels. These foods contain high amounts of sugar and simple carbohydrates, and you will find yourself hungry again sooner rather than later (you will also trigger that happy feeling… and you will want MORE).
Also, substituting coffee for food in the AM might seem quick and easy, but you are setting yourself up for a caffeine crash and major cravings for food after only a few hours (or less). Instead, opt for whole grain cereal with fruit, oatmeal with honey and a small handful of nuts, or a slice of whole wheat toast with peanut/almond butter. Still need your coffee? Have a small cup (8 ounces) with your breakfast. Add low-fat or fat-free milk for added protein. Try and limit the sugar and other additions to your coffee. If you pay attention to your first meal of the day, you will be setting yourself up for success all day long!
What if you try all of these tips, but still slip up and indulge in your favorite treat? Don’t worry! You are no failure! If you had a moment of weakness or just needed to indulge, do not let this define your diet! You can still get yourself back on track. Accept that you did not eat in a healthy way and go back to eating healthy during the next meal, or the next day. Make sure you are not depriving yourself. Try incorporating snacks or sweets into your diet in moderation, and eat healthy during your other snacks and meals to make up for this small indulgence. It is okay to eat all your favorite foods, and with the tips above, you should be able to do so without overindulging or straying too far from your nutrition and fitness goals!
By Lori Bednarchik, MPH, CHES