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The Truth About Food Cravings

Craving a big, fluffy hunk of warm bread does not mean your body is deprived of grains. Food cravings have little to do with nutrients and plenty to do with the brain chemistry of pleasure and reward. Cravings may center on texture (creamy, crunchy) or taste (sweet, salty) but they all have something in common -- overindulging can sabotage your diet.

Ice Cream

People who get cravings tend to have higher BMIs -- no surprise since fattening foods are often the object of desire. The combination of cool, creamy, and sweet makes ice cream an irresistible treat -- but a costly one in terms of calories. A typical serving of vanilla has 230 calories.

Better Bet: Half a cup of slow-churned ice cream has less fat and half the calories.

Potato Chips

It's the combination of salty and crunchy that gives potato chips their allure. Depending on the flavor, a 1-ounce snack bag has at least 150 calories. Munch your way through a large 8-ounce bag and you're looking at 1,230 calories -- not counting any dip.

Better Bet: Dip celery or carrot sticks in hummus. You'll get a satisfying crunch with fewer calories and more nutrients.


Almost half of American women crave chocolate on a regular basis. There have been many theories to explain why, ranging from magnesium deficiency to mood swings. But one thing is certain: Downing a candy bar is a quick way to add a couple hundred extra calories to your day.

Better Bet: Have a small square of high-cocoa dark chocolate. It has less fat than a typical candy bar and may be good for the heart.


Sometimes a setting can trigger a craving, like the desire for popcorn at the movies. Memory plays a big role in cravings -- you've enjoyed popcorn at the movies before, so you expect to again. Popcorn itself can be a healthy snack, but movie theaters tend to pop it in coconut oil and top it with buttery sauce. The result: 400 to 1,200 calories per tub!

Better Bet: Skip the butter sauce.

Ballpark Food

If the game's not the same without a corndog, you may be prone to another example of setting-induced cravings. Just seeing or smelling the concession stands can make it tough to resist. But consider these numbers:

  • 8 ounces of cheesy nachos - 900 calories
  • 8-ounce bag of raw peanuts - 800 calories
  • Corn dog on a stick - 400 calories

Better Bet: Corn on the cob with butter has about 150 calories. Some ballparks even now offer sushi, fish tacos, and paella. 


If you're dieting, doughnuts are like the forbidden fruit. That fact alone may be enough to trigger a craving. Research suggests that a yo-yo pattern of eating favorite foods one week and putting them off-limits the next can intensify cravings. If you are really having a craving, better to have just one bite than to put it off-limits completely. The trouble with doughnuts is they offer very little nutritional bang for the caloric buck.

Better Bet: Whole-grain bagel with peanut butter.

Red Meat

Do you feel like a meal is not a meal unless it involves a big hunk of meat? The good news is you don't have to give up meat to achieve a healthy weight -- just be choosy about your cuts. A typical flank steak has about 700 calories (more if you don't trim the fat).

Better Bet: One lean pork chop has 170 calories, so two chops have less than half the calories of a steak.


Pizza is America's favorite food, according to an Oxfam survey. It does have some health benefits: A typical slice has 12 grams of protein and 2.5 grams of fiber. But pizza also has about 280 calories a slice -- more if you add meat toppings – so the calories add up quickly.

Better Bet: Make pizza at home with a whole-wheat crust and a sprinkling of reduced-fat cheese. Top with fresh tomato slices, broccoli, or other vegetables.


Pasta ranks among the top five favorite foods in many countries. The trouble is most people eat white pasta, which is made with refined flour. White pasta has only a fifth the fiber of whole-grain pasta, which means it may take more to fill you up. Pasta sauces can be diet-killers, too. A large bowl of fettuccine Alfredo has 800 to 1,200 calories.

Better Bet: Eat whole-grain pasta with a vegetable-based sauce.

French Fries

Want some fries with that? This salty side is hard to turn down when ordering at the drive-thru. But a large order of fries can have as many calories as a burger -- about 500 at a typical fast food restaurant.

Better Bet: Opt for a side salad or fruit cup, if available. Or if you have willpower of steel, go ahead and order fries but limit yourself to five or six.


Whether at a bar or party, it's easy to keep dipping your hand into the nut bowl, but all those handfuls add up. A cupful of roasted mixed nuts packs more than 800 calories.

Better Bet: Stick to nuts with the shells on. Peeling them will slow you down.


Coffee cravings may go beyond your typical food craving, thanks to the addictive powers of caffeine. You may feel you can't fully wake up without your morning dose. Fortunately, coffee has very few calories -- until you load it up with cream and sugary syrups. Large flavored lattes and mochas can have more than 400 calories.

Better Bet: Opt for non-fat milk or soy milk and skip the flavors.

3:00 Snack Attack

If the snack machine always calls to you in the mid-afternoon, you may be experiencing a between-meals drop in blood sugar. Unfortunately, a pack of chocolate chip cookies is just a short-term fix, and a high-calorie one at that.

Better Bet: Eat snacks that combine a protein with a whole grain, such as reduced-fat cheese on whole-wheat crackers. Healthy snacks can actually ward off food cravings and help you stick to your diet.

Nervous Nibbles

Do you find yourself reaching for the cookie jar before a visit from the in-laws or a presentation at work? Sometimes food cravings are not triggered by hunger but by unpleasant emotions, including stress and anxiety. This is called emotional eating, and if you do it regularly, it's likely to undermine your diet.

Better Bet: Replace nibbling with stress management techniques -- take a vigorous walk, do yoga, or relax in a hot bath.

Bad Day Binge

Emotional eating is also common at the end of a bad day. You may use "comfort foods" to soothe feelings of anger or sadness. In extreme cases, emotional food cravings can lead to bingeing -- eating large amounts of food without stopping when you’re full.

Better Bet: Look for emotional comfort outside the fridge. Phone a friend, listen to some favorite music, or write in a journal.

Control Cravings: Eat Snacks

If cravings mainly strike when you're hungry, try eating healthy snacks between meals. Carefully planning your snacks can help you keep hunger -- and cravings -- at bay. Portion control is vital -- each snack should be less than 200 calories. Good choices include yogurt with fresh fruit, a hard-boiled egg, a fruit smoothie, or peppers and bean dip.

Control Cravings: Take a Walk

You already know that exercise can help you lose weight by burning calories. But now there's evidence that brisk walking can help you eat fewer sweets. In a study published in the journal Appetite, participants who took a 15-minute walk were half as likely to eat chocolate at their desks compared with those who took a 15-minute rest.

Control Cravings: Low-Carb Diet

Putting favorite foods off-limits can make you crave them in the short-term, but the opposite may be true down the road. That's the conclusion of a study in the journal Obesity. After sticking to a low-carb diet for two years, a group of overweight adults craved carbohydrates and starchy foods less. A second group following a low-fat diet reported fewer cravings for fatty foods.

Control Cravings: Indulge a Little

A taste in time saves nine! Resisting sweets when you're at a party can be tough. Rather than depriving yourself until you cave, try indulging in a small serving of the desired food. You may find that just a taste will satisfy your craving.

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Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on April 16, 2014