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Cravings: Why They Strike, How to Curb Them

Sweet, salty, irresistible? Why you crave certain foods and how to regain control.

Use Portion Control

"Allow yourself to have a food, but do it in a portion-controlled way," Pelchat says. For example, don't keep tempting foods at home, because it's too easy to wolf down excessive amounts. Instead, go out for one scoop of ice cream or one slice of pizza.

Also, know yourself. Portion control doesn't work for everyone, especially if tempting foods are on hand. Some people can count out and eat only 15 smoked almonds; others routinely barrel their way to the bottom of the can.

"If you can't manage portion control, then you want to weaken the link between cues in the environment and eating that food," Pelchat says. Hide the food in the back of a cupboard; don't keep it on a kitchen counter or in plain sight. "If you resist, you weaken the link between cues and mindless eating," she says.

Substitute a Healthier Food

"There's a very fine line between eating an unhealthy food and a healthy food in terms of how it satisfies cravings," Wansink says. "You may be dying for that chocolate sundae or whatever, but eating something that's healthier will eliminate that craving almost as effectively."

For instance, eating apple slices with peanut butter might satisfy your craving as much as if you really did splurge on ice cream, he says. The sense of satisfaction might not happen immediately or even five minutes later, but it will kick in 15 to 20 minutes later, he says.

Just make sure to eat an amount equal to the volume of the craved food. Otherwise, "you're still going to be hungry," Wansink says -- and your craving will still be there, waiting for you to give in.

Distract Yourself With an Activity Unrelated to Food

"Substitute something else until the craving goes away. It could be in the form of taking a walk or doing pushups or calling a friend," Wansink says. Cravings are fleeting, he says. They'll diminish or go away within an hour, if not sooner.

Don't wait out a craving passively. An activity that's "somewhat absorbing" will help you to resist, Pelchat says. "Even counting to 10 does help," she adds. "People are less likely to eat the craved food. It gives them more control over it.

Have a Plan to Combat Chronic Cravings

"The most dangerous cravings are the ones that are chronic. Those are going to be the most difficult ones to deal with," Wansink says.

Let's say that on most days, around 3 p.m., you crave a sweet or salty food -- jelly donuts or a big bag of cheese puffs. "In those cases, it can't be a piecemeal, day-by-day strategy," he says. That's a set-up for failure.

It's better to have a steadfast plan. Make sure to have sugarless gum on hand, ready to pop into your mouth when the craving strikes. Or make it routine to take a walk at that time. "Habitually, you replace that craving," Wansink says.

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Reviewed on December 21, 2011

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