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Snack Attack: Coping With Cravings

Moderation is key to satisfying your sweet tooth or salt craving.

WebMD Feature

Have you ever felt you absolutely must have a piece of chocolate, a potato chip (oh, let's get real -- an entire bag of potato chips), or a box of Krispy Kremes?

Those food cravings are not a sign of weakness on your part. If you crave certain foods like cereals, grains, and sugar, you may actually be addicted to them, says James Braly, MD, medical director of York Nutritional Laboratories and author of Food Allergy Relief.

People with a food addiction may have symptoms like headaches, insomnia, irritability, mood changes, and depression, Braly says. They can relieve these symptoms -- but only temporarily -- by eating the foods they crave.

Most often, the foods we crave are processed carbohydrates. These change the brain's chemistry, increasing the level of serotonin, our feel-good neurochemical.

Boost Serotonin Right

"People with food cravings may actually have neurochemical and hormonal imbalances that trigger these cravings," Braly says.

If you think you may be serotonin-deficient and want to increase your serotonin levels without resorting to a pint of mint chocolate chip, Braly suggests trying these alternatives:

  • Identify and eliminate suspected food allergens -- paying special attention to gluten (wheat, rye, oats, etc.) and milk products.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Avoid stimulants like caffeinated drinks, cigarettes, and amphetamines.
  • Increase your exposure to bright light or sunlight to 1-2 hours a day.
  • Get 60 minutes of moderate or moderately intense exercise every day.
  • Make sure you get enough deep, restful sleep every night.

Although they have not been proven to be helpful, certain supplements might help, according to Braly. These include:

  • 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Acetyl-L carnitine
  • St. John's wort
  • Vitamin B-6
  • NADH (vitamin B-3 derivative)
  • SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine)

Body or Mind?

"It's important to distinguish whether your craving is physiological or psychological," says Rebecca Wilborn, director of the Midtown Diet Center in New York City. "Pay attention so that you can determine whether you are feeling actual hunger in your stomach."

Physical cravings may be a result of low fat intake or low blood sugar. For many of us, the mid-afternoon cravings we feel are merely our body's way of telling us it has been too long since lunch and we actually need to eat. A piece of fruit, yogurt, or a handful of nuts can get the blood sugar levels back up and keep us from reaching for the no-no snacks we think we're craving, according to Wilborn.

Emotions play a big part in food cravings, too, Wilborn says. "When we're stressed, anxious, frustrated, lonely ... all those feelings can trigger our cravings." She adds that we may have memories of how good certain foods made us feel when we were younger.

Sensory triggers, like smells and visual cues, can also set off cravings, says Wilborn. If you walk by the pizza stand on your trip through the mall, chances are you're going to start salivating.

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