Cravings: Why They Strike, How to Curb Them
Sweet, salty, irresistible? Why you crave certain foods and how to regain control.
Good Mood, Bad Mood
Certain emotions, including stress, sadness, and boredom, can promote cravings, Pelchat says. "That's another very strong correlate of cravings. A bad mood can become a conditioned cue for eating. Just like walking by the donut shop, being in a bad mood becomes a cue that elicits going over to the refrigerator."
Those negative moods get all the press, but Wansink suggests that happy moods might be even more likely to cause cravings. In his survey of about 1,000 Americans, 86% reported that they craved comfort foods when they were happy, and 74% had cravings when they wanted to celebrate or reward themselves. In contrast, 52% had cravings when they were bored and 39% when they were sad or lonely.
The happy eaters craved food to maintain their upbeat mood, he explains: "I want to do something to extend my happy feeling or my happy experience." Furthermore, they tended to prefer "more meal-like, healthier foods," he says. In contrast, people in sad moods were much more likely to seek out ice cream, cookies, or potato chips.
You also learn to crave certain foods in certain situations. "If you have a cookie every day after school, just walking into the house cues you to have a cookie," Pelchat says. "If you don't get that cookie right away, your mind obsesses about it and turns it into a craving."
Taming Your Cravings
So you want to put your cravings back in their place. What should you do?
Don't waste your time on bizarre methods. They don't work for most people. For example, some models deal with cravings for sweets by taking one bite from a candy bar and spitting it out, or carrying a candy wrapper to sniff, Wansink writes in his book.
Here are some expert tips to try instead:
Eat the Food You Crave Less Often
You may have heard that having a little bit of the food you crave is a good way to break the craving. Maybe not.
"We used to think that eating a small amount of those foods would extinguish a craving. For a long time, we thought that that was the way to deal with cravings, and it just doesn't seem to work for most people," Wansink says.
Rather than quitting the craving, continually eating the food may just strengthen the habit. "The more you eat sweets, the more you reinforce the cravings for sweets," Pelchat says.
So should you go cold turkey? No, Wansink says. Feeling deprived of a favorite food often backfires and you end up eating too much. "You can indulge in it, but just do it less frequently," he says.