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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

From the WebMD Archives

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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You Are What You Eat

Gender also plays a big role. In Wansink’s research, men were more likely to crave pizza, pasta, and soup over cakes and cookies. Why? Hot, savory foods reminded them of attention from their mothers or wives.

Women associated those foods with preparation and cleanup, so they tended to want hassle-free snacks, such as candy, cookies, ice cream, and chocolate.

Good Mood, Bad Mood

Certain emotions, including stress, sadness, and boredom, can promote cravings, Pelchat says. "A bad mood can become a conditioned cue for eating. Just like walking by the doughnut shop, being in a bad mood becomes a cue that elicits going over to the refrigerator."

But happy moods might be even more likely culprits. In Wansink’s survey of about 1,000 Americans, 86% craved comfort foods when they were happy, and 74% had cravings when they wanted to celebrate or reward themselves. Only 52% had cravings when they were bored and 39% when they were sad or lonely.

The happy eaters wanted to maintain their upbeat mood, Wansink explains: "I want to do something to extend my happy feeling or my happy experience,” he says. They tended to prefer "more meal-like, healthier foods," while people in sad moods were much more likely to seek out ice cream, cookies, or potato chips.

Taming Your Desires

In his book, Wansink writes about models who attempt to crush their cravings by carrying around a candy wrapper just to sniff it, or by taking one bite from a candy bar and then spitting it out. He says not to waste your time with these methods. Instead, try these tips:

Eat the Food You Crave Less Often. You may have heard that having a little bit of what you crave is a good way to break the craving. But continually eating the food you crave only strengthens the habit. "The more you eat sweets, the more you reinforce the cravings for sweets," Pelchat says.

So should you go cold turkey? Not exactly, 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.

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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.

Trick Yourself. Portion control doesn't work for everyone, especially if tempting foods are on hand. 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 [environmental] cues and mindless eating,” Pelchat says.

Substitute a Healthier Food. "You may be dying for that chocolate sundae, but eating something that's healthier will eliminate that craving almost as effectively," Wansink says. For instance, eating apple slices with peanut butter might satisfy you as much as if you did splurge on ice cream, he says.

The sense of satisfaction might not happen immediately or even in 5 minutes, 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 desired food. Otherwise, you’ll still be hungry, and your craving will still be there -- waiting for you to give in.

Do Something Else. Distract yourself with a non-food-related activity until the craving goes away. “It could be taking a walk or doing pushups or calling a friend," Wansink says. Cravings are fleeting, so they'll diminish or go away within an hour, if not sooner. But don't wait it out passively. An activity that’s "somewhat absorbing" will help you resist, Pelchat says. "Even counting to 10 helps," she says.

Make a Plan. "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 jelly doughnut or a big bag of cheese puffs. "In those cases, it can't be a piecemeal, day-by-day strategy," he says. 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. You’ll eventually learn to replace that craving, Wansink says.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on December 21, 2011

Sources

SOURCES:

Marcia Pelchat, PhD, food researcher, Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia.

Brian Wansink, PhD, director, Cornell Food and Brand Lab; professor, consumer behavior, Cornell University.

Wansink, B. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Bantam Press, 2006.

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