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Conquer Your Food Cravings

Find the best, research-proven ways to keep chocolate and cookies and chips from wrecking your diet.

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Denise Foley
Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo

You're going along, minding your own business, when it hits — an intense, out-of-the-blue desire for a candy bar or a cupcake or a bag of Fritos. If, at that moment, a Girl Scout were to come to your door, she could earn her cookie badge right on the spot. Hellooo, Thin Mints!

Almost all women experience that powerful "gotta have it" feeling at some time. The object of desire is most often chocolate, studies say, and we crave it with the same fervor with which Catherine longs for Heathcliff (or, perhaps more aptly, Dracula lusts for blood). It's a brain thing: Ask people to imagine their favorite foods, as scientists using MRI technology did, and chocolate and chips light up some of the same brain regions as the most powerful addictive drugs, reports lead researcher Marcia Levin Pelchat, Ph.D., a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. While you're probably not going to drive to the bad part of town to score some 70-percent-cacao chocolate, you might OD — er, eat too much — once you lay your hands on it.

Sadly for dieters, this science is still in its infancy, which is why the advice on how to beat cravings tends to fall into two camps: Some experts favor giving in (at least in moderation), while others say, "Sorry, you've gotta give it up." There's support for both. For example, research has shown that animals deprived of the sugary treats they'd come to enjoy will crave them even more for at least a month. But other studies suggest that many of us simply can't stop — one good yearn deserves another (and another). In research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, when rats were given loads of high-fat pellets, then deprived of the treats, they gave up pushing the lever that had delivered them. But when the researchers later dropped some of the pellets into the rats' cages, the animals became driven to get more, pressing the lever over and over. One taste of that extra-special pellet seemed to flick on some "want more" switch in their brains.

That switch is powered in part by dopamine, a brain chemical linked to both drug addiction and food cravings. Studies suggest that once you experience something pleasurable, your brain produces dopamine, which makes you want to have more of the treat. Later, if you see or smell the food that gave you the high, you want it again.

As to whose advice you should follow, it really comes down to your "cravings personality" — how well you can spot danger and keep it from derailing your weight-loss goals. Are you someone who can satisfy your urges with just a little smidgen of brain delight — in the form of chocolate or Cheez-Its — or is having even just a taste inevitably the first step on the road to diet ruin?

To find out, follow the experts' "Give In" or "Give It Up" tips to help you stay in control. And don't be alarmed if you fall into the "give it up" group: We've found a way you can learn to eat your favorites again and still lose weight.

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