Snack Attack: Coping With Cravings

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

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

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.

How to Cope

If you're not physically hungry, Wilborn offers several recommendations for handling your cravings:

  • Brush your teeth and gargle with an antiseptic mouthwash like Listerine. "Part of wanting to eat is the taste. Nothing tastes good after you've gargled with Listerine," Wilborn says.
  • Distract yourself. "Take yourself out of the situation for 45 minutes to an hour," says Wilborn. "Then if you still want whatever it is you're craving, have a small amount."
  • Exercise.
  • Relax with deep breathing exercises or meditation.
  • Choose a healthy substitute. If you want ice cream, spoon up some fat-free, sugar-free ice cream, frozen yogurt, or sorbet. Wilborn also recommends freezing a container of Dannon Light yogurt. "It takes on a wonderful consistency," she says. If you want potato chips, try baked tortilla chips instead.
  • Listen to your cravings. If you want something salty, you may very well need salt. Add salt to your food instead of having salty snacks.
  • If you know what situations trigger your cravings, avoid them if possible.
  • Drink at least 64 ounces of water a day. "Often hunger is a signal that we're thirsty," says Wilborn.

But allow yourself some moments of weakness, too. "Give in now and then," Wilborn says. "It's really not healthy to be so rigid."

Jennifer Grana, a registered dietitian with the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease in Pittsburgh, agrees that if there is no medical reason for you to avoid your favorite snacks, you should cut yourself some slack. "If you're reaching for a bag of chips only now and then, that's OK." As long as 80% of your food intake is good for you, you can play with that other 20%, she says.

Think of your favorite foods as a reward, she says -- a small treat after you've finished your exercise for the day, perhaps. "Don't think of a food craving as a negative," she says. "For most people, anything is OK in moderation."

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