Why We Have Cravings? An entire bag of dark-chocolate chips was devoured in the writing of this story. I stash them in the fridge. Sometimes I can eat only a handful. But then there are days when I'm on deadline, exhausted, or just in the mood for chocolate - or today, when I'm experiencing all those things simultaneously. That's when the bag sits on my desk while I work. In the time it took me to type the last three sentences, my hand snaked in three times.
It's not just chocolate. At lunch I'll decide to have a few potato chips with my sandwich, and the next thing I know, the bag is empty. In the summer it's usually ice cream, which my husband likes to eat. As I enjoy a spoonful or two - or half the pint - I tell myself that it doesn't count if it's his mint chocolate chip.
It's no wonder I can't stop my cravings: Every time I turn on the TV, drive along the highway, or walk past a vending machine, I'm tempted by sugary, fatty, salty treats. "You're not being weak when you want to eat something that's in front of you," says Susan Roberts, PhD, professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, and author of The "I" Diet. "Our brains are programmed to tell us to go right ahead."But why do we crave these foods so intensely? I stepped away from the snacks to get some answers.
How Food and Cravings Affect Your Brain
Our desire for high-calorie treats can be traced to our early ancestors. "When food was scarce, we craved nutrients that we needed to sustain ourselves," explains Nicole Avena, PhD, assistant research professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. "If you're not sure where your next meal is coming from, it's smart to eat foods that are high in fat and calories, because your body can store the extra fuel. And if you're foraging for berries, the sweet ones are generally safer to eat than the sour ones."
As a result, our brains now reinforce and reward this way of eating. They release powerful chemicals like endorphins, which make us feel pleasure, and dopamine, which can motivate us to keep munching.
But unlike cavewomen, we can walk into any supermarket and find countless varieties of chips and an entire aisle of candy. And we're hardly jonesing for berries anymore. We get the biggest endorphin rush from decadent things, like cookies and french fries, says Ashley Gearhardt, a food addiction researcher at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale.
To Curb Cravings...
Avoid your triggers. Spend a day taking note of where you are and what you're doing when you experience cravings; then try to change one trigger at a time. "Take a different route to work if it's impossible to drive by the doughnut shop without stopping," suggests Kathy McManus, RD, a fitness advisory board member and director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
Take control. Develop strategies for the triggers you can't avoid. For example, if someone brings cupcakes to a meeting, resolve that you'll split one with a colleague or take just a couple of bites. "Remember, you have the power to make healthy choices," Gearhardt says.Stick to a schedule. Aim to eat only at set meal and snack times - about every four hours - to help prevent mindless grazing.
Get some satisfaction. If you bring a salad for lunch every day, it's no wonder you're likely to ditch it for pizza. Include indulgences a few times a week, but keep portions reasonable. "Packing a few cookies to satisfy your need for something sweet is a better strategy than depriving yourself until you rebel and eat a huge sundae," says Leslie Bonci, RD, a fitness advisory board member and director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences.
Cut back on coffee. "Too much caffeine can lead to a sugar craving, because you'll need a pick-me-up a few hours later," Koff says. Drink no more than two cups of java a day and pair them with protein, like almonds, to keep your energy level steady.
Give your meal a happy ending. Come up with an "enough" signal that lets you know when a meal is over. Nutrition and psychiatry professor Roberts, for example, likes to finish dinner with a cup of decaf tea: "I enjoy it, and then I know eating is done for the day," she says.
When a Craving Hits...
Wait 10 minutes. "If you still want the food, take a little and then wait another 10 minutes," McManus advises. Ask yourself if it's really going to satisfy you or if you'd rather have, say, a homemade brownie later. "Make sure you're going to get maximum enjoyment from it," she says.
Eat something smarter. When junk food catches your eye, figure out a satisfying nutrient-rich option you can have instead. Nonfat Greek yogurt with some roasted peanuts and a drizzle of honey is a healthy alternative to a Drumstick cone from the ice cream truck.
Have some good with the bad. If you want chips but you're watching your weight, portion out a handful of them with a healthy salsa and some vegetables, Roberts says. "You'll end up eating fewer chips but still feel full."
After You Overindulge...
Don't beat yourself up. "Too often we think, I'm a terrible person for eating that," Bonci notes. "Or we say, Oh well, I already had the chips; I might as well eat the ice cream, too." Associating food with guilt or negative emotions can cause a snowball effect.
"Tell yourself, I enjoyed my treat, and now I'm done," Bonci says. Limit the damage. If you guzzled sugary drinks all day, prevent it from happening in the future by weaning yourself off the sweet stuff. Roberts suggests mixing 90 percent juice or soda with 10 percent water or seltzer for a few days. Then go to an 80:20 ratio and so on, until you hit 10 percent juice, 90 percent water. "Transition gradually and you'll barely notice the change," she says.
Stop the second meal effect. The day after a big splurge, eat a half cup of high-fiber cereal (eight to 10 grams a serving) with your usual breakfast, then again as an afternoon snack and after dinner. "This will help counter your increased hunger by putting a layer of slow-to-digest fiber in your stomach," Roberts says. It's easier to resist cravings when you feel full.
The writer is a freelancer
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