You try so hard to be good: You go to the gym, eat smaller portions, and walk straight past the Ben & Jerry’s aisle at the grocery store. But still your hand strays to the Cheetos bag, your mouth waters for cheesecake, and your mind fixates on one thought: chocolate. Got cravings?
Whether you’re dieting or simply trying to eat more healthfully, certain foods seem impossible to pass up. But by tweaking your food choices—and your mindset—you can vanquish both the biological and psychological causes of cravings.
The sugar cycle
“Most people with cravings crave sweets and carbohydrates,” says Dr. Leo Galland, author of The Fat Resistance Diet (Broadway, 2005). When you eat sweets or refined carbs (like white bread or white rice), your blood-sugar levels spike rapidly. In response, the pancreas floods the blood with insulin, triggering cells to quickly take up large amounts of glucose—so much in fact that blood-sugar levels plummet and, in a rebound effect, you crave more sugar. To break this cycle, choose unrefined carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to elicit a more sustained insulin response, and don’t skip meals, which lowers blood-sugar levels too much.
People also crave sweets because sugary treats boost levels of serotonin and beta-endorphin, the feel-good chemicals of the brain. “There are people who will have cravings because they become habituated to the endorphin-raising effect of sweets, and they actually experience a kind of withdrawal,” Galland says, when they cut out candy.
Fortunately, you can amp up endorphin levels without resorting to a box of Krispy Kremes. Working out regularly releases beta-endorphins and gives you an “exercise high.” It also improves the body’s ability to regulate blood-sugar levels. Additionally, eating at least 20 grams of protein at every meal provides the amino acids essential for synthesizing serotonin and beta-endorphins.
Along with balancing blood sugar and endorphin levels, Galland suggests reducing inflammation, which inhibits the hormone leptin. “Leptin is produced in fat cells, and when it works properly, it goes to your brain and shuts off cravings,” Galland says. He recommends an anti-inflammatory diet high in fruits, vegetables, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, and spices like turmeric.
The mind game
Cravings spring just as much from your moods as from insulin spikes and leptin levels. According to Linda Spangle, RN, a weight-loss coach in Colorado, boredom, loneliness, depression, unresolved grief, and stress all can trigger cravings. We reach for the cookie jar to silence an emotion, rather than addressing the underlying distress. “We don’t want to face our emotional needs and would rather say, ‘I just have a chemical imbalance,'” says Spangle.
When she probes deeper with her clients, she usually finds a psychological culprit behind the craving; for example, “They were really angry with somebody or really stressed and just wanted to chew hard (on crunchy, crisp food),” Spangle says. Becoming aware of your emotions can help you uncover the real reason you hanker for a snack—freeing you to address the actual issue, whether it’s loneliness from a breakup, anxiety about work, or anger over who was voted off Survivor.
Mary Taylor, coauthor of What Are You Hungry for? (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), who suffered from anorexia in her late teens, heightened her awareness of her emotions and body—and developed a healthier relationship with food—in part through yoga. In the past, Taylor yo-yoed between extremes of denial and indulgence, forbidding herself foods but then “eating the whole bag of cookies,” Taylor says. She broke the cycle by opening her eyes to it. By increasing your awareness of habitual behavior patterns, especially through practices like meditation and yoga, “You learn to be conscious of what’s actually happening in your mind and your body,” Taylor says—and you gain more control over your munchies.
But even with monk-like mindfulness, peanut-butter parfaits will still occasionally beckon. And occasionally you should answer that call. Balanced eating matters more than strict denial. In fact, the very act of designating a food “taboo” can create a forbidden-fruit allure. “I realized that a huge part of the battle I was having was the tension I was creating between my desire for a food that was arbitrarily defined as being off-limits and the urge within myself to indulge,” Taylor says.
You can break that tension by permitting yourself the food in moderation. If your cravings test your willpower, however, try Spangle’s tip of savoring just two bites of the food and then stopping. According to Spangle, the first two bites of any food have the most flavor, and “after those two bites, you’re just eating.”
Another way to satisfy cravings involves substituting healthier versions of whatever taste (sweet, salty, fatty, starchy) you yearn for. No, this doesn’t mean settling for fake-sugar, fake-fat goodies that only remind you how much they’re not like the real deal. Rather this involves appeasing your desire for something sweet, for example, with dark chocolate, which improves cardiovascular health and insulin sensitivity, rather than with candy high in refined sugar. Or it involves swapping trans fat-laden potato chips with lightly salted almonds, walnuts, or nuts, shown to satiate hunger and even help with weight loss.
Still longing for a Ding Dong? Try postponement, Spangle says. When a craving hits, she suggests waiting 10 minutes. Distract yourself in the meantime: Work on a crossword puzzle, play with your dog, take a walk. Usually the craving will fade away after a short while.
Whether you long for a food because of imbalanced chemical levels or because of emotional distress, you can take control of the craving. “Figure out what the real issue is and take care of that,” says Spangle, “and you’ll be amazed, a lot of times, that the food craving will go away.”