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Cravings: Why They Strike, How to Curb Them

Why you’ve just gotta have certain foods -- and how to regain control
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Is that bag of potato chips or candy bar calling your name?

If your cravings start to run amok and demand satisfaction every day, take heart: You're not at the mercy of your food desires. You can learn to outsmart them.

Food Cravings From the Inside Out

Brian Wansink, PhD, makes it his business to understand food cravings. He directs Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, which studies people’s relationships with food. (The lab's motto: "We uncover eating traps and change them.") He also wrote the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

Insight into cravings is important because our environment is loaded with cues that can prompt us to overeat, Wansink says. Environmental triggers -- such as seeing or smelling an enticing food -- are to blame for many of our cravings. "You walk by a Cinnabon," he explains, and the rich, sweet aroma can automatically trip a strong desire for cinnamon rolls.

Don't Blame Nutrition

One popular myth is that people crave certain foods to fill a nutritional deficiency.

"The naive view has always been that cravings represent wisdom of the body," says Marcia Pelchat, PhD, a food researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

But it's not so. Pelchat’s work has shown that people have cravings even with a diet that's adequate in calories and nutrients.

"People will often say things, like, ‘Gee, I'm craving potato chips. I must need the salt,'" Pelchat says. "But really, how many of us -- aside from runners in hot weather -- are deficient in salt?"

We feel virtuous blaming cravings on nutritional needs, Pelchat says. But "unfortunately, humans rely less on instincts and more on culture or individual experience to determine what they eat.”

"If you have a cookie every day after school, just walking into the house cues you to have a cookie," she says. "If you don't get that cookie right away, your mind obsesses about it and turns it into a craving."

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