When a food craving is upon you, it’s hard to resist with decorum, never mind moderation. Your body may be trying to tell you something critical about its nutritional needs, or you may trying to self-soothe during a particularly stressful day. The causes for cravings are myriad, complex and pretty insistent. And truth be told, it takes a lot of juju to deflect, distract and redirect a craving. So the first step is figuring out why they strike. Just what causes those cravings, anyway?
While being stressed does not always correlate with eating more, it does tend to lead to less healthy food choices. And many people do find themselves eating more when they are stressed. In a study published in Appetite in 2012, researchers found that normal weight and obese women who felt stressed did exhibit a greater drive to eat—and were more likely to binge eat and less able to control their eating.
Fix: Slow down and practice more creative forms of self-care, such as going on a walk, getting a massage, or confiding your troubles in a trustworthy friend.
Certain foods, typically fatty or sugary ones, can act like a gateway drug, making you feel out of control. You may be literally unable to stop reaching for more because of the food’s addictive effects on your brain. The saturated fats in foods like hamburgers and cheese may impede the brain’s normal ability to regulate appetite, so you don’t realize you’re full until it’s too late. In a similar vein, high-sugar foods amp up your levels of ghrelin—a hormone that increases cravings. You may tell yourself one more bite, but in truth be helpless to stop.
Fix: Keep track of what foods are your personal trigger foods, and avoid those foods by not keeping them around. If you do give into a craving, try redirecting to something healthier after a few mouthfuls.
Lack of protein
A giveaway that you are low on protein: you never feel full, and your sweet tooth feels insatiable. It would seem more reasonable to crave protein, but the body is always on the lookout for a quick fix. One of protein’s most critical functions is keeping your blood sugar steady. When you don’t eat enough protein, glucose levels go haywire and the body starts to lose energy—which means if you’re lacking, your glucose levels will be all over the place, encouraging you to give your body an immediate boost (read: sugar).
Fix: When you make a point to eat a high protein diet you may notice your sugar cravings start to disappear.
You: On a diet
Any kind of extreme dieting that puts the body in starvation mode will cause intense food cravings. The more restrictive the diet, you can pretty much guarantee, the more obsessive the urges.
Fix: Make sure you eat a wide variety of foods, as many studies show that eating a diet lacking in variety can lead to more food cravings. Think moderation rather than perfection, as a little taste of chocolate may be all you really need to get you through a craving attack.
Advertising is built on persuasiveness—and commercials have turned the power of suggestion into an art form. Every screen we turn on, whether it’s our phone, laptop, tablet or TV, seems to be screaming at us to eat more junk food. Beware of all food ads, especially late at night, when willpower is lower than normal anyway.
Fix: If you are hunkering down to binge-watch a few episodes of your favorite series, plan ahead. Make yourself a bowl of unbuttered popcorn, or cut up some crudités.
There’s nothing like understanding the crux of your cravings to help you disarm their power over you. With understanding, compassion and some tolerance for backsliding, you should be well on your way to being a bonafide craving curber.