Manage Cravings Like a Pro
This is not a “give up sweet and salty foods” article. This is a “learn how to dodge temptation and keep hitting your eat-good goals” one.
- Holding yourself accountable by recognizing triggers and nutrition gaps can help you control cravings.
- Eat the treats! The trick is to use a rating system to assess how satisfying they really are before you continue noshing.
- Diversify your diet and you’ll focus on the many choices you have instead of what’s off-limits — and stay on track for the long run.
Read on to learn more…
2. Ice cream
3. French fries
If reading this list just made your mouth water and stomach growl, you’re so predictable: These are some of the most commonly craved foods, surveys say.
But what is a craving, exactly, and where does it stem from? Let’s get into the greasy details so you can stop cravings from sabotaging your best eating intentions and your progress overall.
Understanding the Urge
Put simply, a dietary craving is a sudden or nagging need to eat something, and usually a whole lot of that something. And it typically involves food that your personal trainer/coach/doctor might raise an eyebrow at. Cravings often happen when you’re hungry and thus your blood sugar and energy are low — a recipe for eating on impulse, says Katherine Haysbert, a certified nutrition consultant and certified natural chef. But cravings can also strike when you’re stuffed. (Have you ever inhaled a giant chocolate chip cookie after gorging yourself on a soup-salad-sandwich combo? Thought so.)
Giving into a craving may make you feel out of control because in a way, you are. Our bodies have a hedonic, or pleasure-seeking, system. It works alongside your appetite to drive decisions about what you eat based on the “reward” a particular food might deliver, explains Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, the director of curriculum at Precision Nutrition.
Although cravings can be rooted in a physiological need for nourishment — like when you skip breakfast and a few hours later you’re practically drooling at the sight of a stacked sandwich — most cravings are psychologically connected to what Scott-Dixon likes to call the "emotional anesthetic,” or comfort, that some foods can provide. In other words, sure, that cookie’s so good it’s blowing your mind. But it might also remind you of baking cookies as a kid, giving you a sweet hit of nostalgia.
Why We Crave Crap
Wondering why you never seem to lust for carrots or almonds, even if you’re a pretty healthy eater? (And if you do, mad props.) Aside from the comfort food factor, cravings often present themselves when we’re out of homeostasis (essentially, balance), so we tend to reach for carbohydrate-rich foods for a quick energy fix, says Haysbert. But if you’ve ever torn through a candy bar or a basket of fries and fell right back into hangry mode shortly afterward, you know that fix doesn’t last.
On top of that, it may leave you feeling guilty as a result of the clash between your wanting and liking systems, says Scott-Dixon. Sometimes you want a food, then when you eat it, it falls short of your expectations and your brain doesn’t register your reward as, well, a reward. Avoiding that conflict is one way to give in to only the cravings that’ll make you feel better, not worse.
Here’s how to do that, plus other expert-backed ways to manage those get-in-my-belly feelings.
1. Eat well as often as possible.
When we face frequent cravings, it’s often our body communicating, “I don't feel like I have what I need right now.” Next time that happens, have a real-talk moment with yourself to determine the sensation. You could be experiencing big nutritional gaps that are tricking your body into believing it frantically needs this or that to survive, says Haysbert, and it’s on you to pay attention to them. Focus on a balanced diet of carbs, healthy fats and protein, with most of your meals centered around whole or minimally processed foods, and consider working with a nutritionist if you’re still struggling with constant temptation. Cravings may not disappear right away, but with persistence, you should notice an improvement.
2. Get more sleep.
Z’s are a master metabolic regulator, says Scott-Dixon. According to some research, insufficient sleep can ramp up activity in that greedy hedonic system, which can increase your drive to eat and sometimes overeat. Aim for adequate shut-eye (at least seven hours per night, experts agree) to keep your metabolism humming along and lessen the likelihood of cravings.
3. Don’t eat around the craving.
If you’ve ever held out on a yearning for chips by first going for veggie sticks and then pretzels, then finally giving in to the chips, you know that you could have saved yourself some stress and calories had you just grabbed the chips to begin with. This often happens, says Haysbert, because you were eating around the reward your brain was chasing. And the deprivation may detract from progress. Skip the spiral by just going for the food you can’t stop thinking about, but not without owning the following step.
4. Be real with yourself.
That whole wanting-versus-liking system? To navigate it, you have to get superhonest about whether the food you’re all heart eyes for is actually hitting the spot. To do that, slow down, fully taste what you’re eating, and assess it in real time to see how it matches up to the high hopes you had, says Scott-Dixon. Try rating it: Is it a 4 or 5 out of 5, or closer to a 2 or 3? If the latter, maybe put down what’s left and move on (and remember the moment to continue bolstering your resolve in the future). If the former, heck, yeah, enjoy every bite; think of it as taking responsibility, not slacking. And remember that it is completely human — and self-loving! — to eat delicious foods, says Haysbert.
5. Broaden your diet.
On that note, restricting yourself by having lots of rules or off-limit foods and stressing over everything you eat might make you feel neither human nor self-loving — and can contribute to cravings, says Haysbert. Cravings come less frequently when we eat a diverse diet because our bodies are receiving a more satisfying range of nutrients from a variety of food sources, she says. It’s also natural, she adds, to want things we’ve told ourselves we “can’t” have. Shift your focus to all the things you can have (think “grain bowl with tons of veggies and protein” instead of “one protein and two sides”), and expand your options by trying new good-for-you foods, suggests Haysbert.
There you go: You won’t have food FOMO, acing your nutrition goals will feel easier, and you’ll keep the progress coming. Who doesn’t crave that?
Words: Brooke Slade
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi