Joy Bauer, better known for her appearances on The Today Show as the resident “diet expert,” wrote this little ditty for Woman’s Day on cravings and how to overcome them. Check her out below:
Food cravings are a normal part of life; after all, who hasn’t at some point found herself staring into the freezer, ready to eat more than just a few scoops of that mint chocolate chip ice cream? While the occasional “crave-in” isn’t a big deal, if it happens regularly, it can lead to weight gain, not to mention a slew of other health problems including headaches, bloating and feeling downright blech. Though you may not be able to curb your food cravings entirely (in my book, spinach and celery will never satisfy a hankering for chocolate or chips), understanding what causes them can help you develop a realistic plan for dealing with them.
Blame it on the brain. A few good theories explain what’s going on. One is that eating sugar, fat and salt triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical that can also make you want to eat when you’re not really hungry. Over time, the mere sight or smell of certain foods is enough to make your brain say “Gimme!” This wouldn’t be a problem if we ate foods high in sugar, fat or salt (or all three) as rare treats, but due to their increased production, availability and visibility, that desire to eat is constantly being triggered, suggests David Kessler, MD, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, in his book The End of Overeating.
Certain types of foods also leave behind a sensory imprint. Once our brains experience the feel-good effects of dopamine when we eat those foods, we always associate the two— and this could also explain why some of us turn to food to deal with negative emotions.
…and hormones. Feeling like you absolutely must have certain foods during “that time of the month” is not all in your head, especially if you suffer from premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD, a severe form of PMS). Both conditions are marked by a decrease in serotonin, another mood-boosting brain chemical that responds favorably to—you guessed it—carbs! And that can make muffins, chips and cookies feel like a girl’s best friend. We can also be cranky and emotional during this time of the month, which typically magnifies comfort food cravings (for me, it’s ice cream).
One thing that doesn’t cause cravings: nutrient deficiencies. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard women say they need to eat that chocolate because they’re low in magnesium or they’ve got to have a juicy burger because they need more iron. Sorry to disappoint, but science has never been able to show a connection between nutrient deficiencies and cravings.
So… how do you handle them?
Now it’s time to plan an intervention.
1. Turn off the dopamine. Let’s start with Dr. Kessler’s theory that junk food being easily accessible is to blame. He says (and I agree) that by avoiding highly processed foods that are packed with fat, sugar and salt, we can derail the overproduction of dopamine that happens when you taste, see and smell these foods. The best way to do this is to mainly shop the perimeter of your supermarket, where you’ll find fresh foods. When you do choose packaged foods, go for items that have the shortest ingredients list possible; the fewer ingredients, the less processed it is.
Also try to avoid situations that stimulate your senses and lead to mindless eating. Some triggers—especially emotional ones like stress—are hard to avoid, but others just require a little planning. Here’s how to manage common craving-inducing scenarios:
a. You’re around goodies at the office. Choose one treat to enjoy, but save it for later in the day (not before lunch!). This way, you don’t open the floodgates and nibble on junk for the rest of the day. If the treats are in your direct line of sight, ask if you can move them into the office kitchen (or as far from your desk as possible!) so they’re not staring you down all day.
b. You’re throwing a birthday party for your husband and are making his (and your!) favorite foods. Squash the desire to nosh while you cook with positive self-talk before you get started (I will not lick the batter, I will not lick the batter) and distract your taste buds by sipping on herbal tea or a skim latte. You can also keep your mouth busy by chomping on crunchy raw veggies like carrots or sugar snap peas. For me, a stick of sweet mint gum and singing along to a CD does the trick!
2. Picture this, not that. Research shows that replacing the mental image of the food you’re craving with a nonfood one, such as a Caribbean beach (minus the piña colada!) can help quash the desire to eat it. In other words, if you walk past a bakery and want that slice of double-chocolate fudge cake, imagine relaxing on the beach or dial up a friend on your cell phone. Good chance the cake urge will dissipate.
3. Eat to beat them. The best way to tame carb cravings is to incorporate healthy carbs such as vegetables, fruit and whole grains into your meals and snacks. This can help regulate the production of serotonin, so take particular care to do this around your period, when serotonin levels may be low. High-quality “comfort carbs” that can also help quell hormone-induced cravings include bean burritos, baby carrots dipped in hummus, whole-wheat penne tossed with marinara sauce, hearty vegetable soups and stews, and a bowl of warm oatmeal topped with fresh fruit.
4. Don’t forget the basics. One of the biggest triggers for those “I gotta eat that!” urges is skipping meals. The most important thing you can do to prevent chronic cravings is to establish a regular eating pattern that includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and one or two snacks.
If you tend to skip one or more of these meals, try including them for one week. I bet you’ll find that you eat less at each meal, choose healthier options and have fewer cravings.
5. If all else fails… Of course, there are times in which you’ve called a friend, crunched on carrot sticks and still found yourself dead-set on digging into a pint of ice cream. In those instances, I find it’s best not to reach for a substitute food, like rice cakes instead of potato chips, because chances are you’ll eat too many of them, or you’ll eat them and then have the real thing anyway. Double whammy!
Thoughts? Let’s hear ’em!