It's been another one of those days: places to go, deadlines to meet, meals to cook. You find yourself daydreaming about crisp, salty potato chips. Pretty soon it's an insistent, must-have-it-now craving, and before you know it, your hand is deep in the bag.
Rather than berate your lack of willpower, once in a while, indulge yourself. In a 2007 Tufts University study of healthy women, 91 percent reported having food cravings (which the researchers define as an intense desire to eat a specific food). In other words, cravings are common, and the key to successful weight management, experts say, is learning to address cravings rather than always deny them.
"You first have to accept that having cravings is normal, but you don’t have to give in to every one," says Tufts study coauthor Susan Roberts, PhD. "The people in our research who manage their weight the best are not those who crave foods less often but those who give in some of the time."
Brian Wansink, PhD, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, has made a career of studying people’s behavior relating to food. He says cravings fall into two basic categories: snacks (with potato chips, ice cream, cookies, and chocolate leading the list) and meal foods (pizza, pasta, burgers, casseroles, and the like). Which comfort food you choose can be affected by age and gender.
"Women tend to crave sweet stuff, men salty stuff," Roberts says. "And premenstrual women’s cravings are more likely to be insistent." What triggers a food longing? Hormonal fluctuations are thought to be the cause in premenstrual women, though no one knows for sure, says Roberts. Other theories include a physical need for calories and emotional cues.
"If you haven’t eaten for hours and you’re really hungry, that is a physical craving, and you should eat," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Emotional yens, on the other hand, may be set off by almost anything: a song, a person, a feeling, a situation that’s associated with a particular food―any reminder can kick a hankering into gear, "even if you’re not hungry," Taub-Dix says. Although stress is a commonly cited culprit, research shows that positive events trigger cravings even more than negative feelings, says Wansink. "In one of our studies, we rigged games so that people would either succeed or lose, and we found that they ended up having a stronger craving when they won."
Read more for six strategies for handling cravings.
Strategies that work
Given cravings’ universal nature, experts agree that "if you deny all cravings, something’s going to backfire," says Wansink. If you rarely enjoy a food you crave, you’re more likely to go overboard when you finally do give in. Indeed, according to the Tufts study, people who occasionally give in to hankerings manage their weight most successfully. These healthful strategies can help, too.
1. Eat regularly. Waiting too long between meals can turn normal hunger pangs into an out-of-control craving. "It’s hard to make a good choice when you’re starving," says Taub-Dix. Her suggestion: Keep healthful options―energy bars, skim milk, even an almond butter and jelly sandwich―on hand to keep hunger in check.
2. Delay gratification. When a craving hits, slip your mind into rational gear by saying, "not now, maybe tomorrow," suggests Roberts. Saying "later" rather than "never" may help decrease the frequency of cravings, she adds.
3. Keep it real. Eating an apple isn’t likely to satisfy a yen for chocolate. Instead, enjoy what you really want―in moderation. Wansink’s research shows that "each subsequent taste of a food is rated as less enjoyable than the previous taste. The first bite is always the best; the second bite, second best." If you eat half of what you’d normally want, Wansink says, "your satisfaction rating (will still be) very, very high."
4. Practice portion control. It’s easy to overeat if you munch straight from a box of cereal, for instance, or a bag of pretzels. Taub-Dix suggests portioning one-cup servings into zip-top plastic bags. "This way you won’t eat to excess." In fact, snacks are fine. The USDA Dietary Guidelines allow 100 to 300 of "discretionary" calories daily. (To calculate how many discretionary calories you can enjoy per day, visit MyPyramid.gov). An ounce of dark chocolate (142 calories), for example, or 1.25 ounces of baked potato chips (166 calories) fall well within that range.
5. Choose high-quality foods with nutritional benefits. Tapenade spread on a fresh baguette will offer salty-meaty flavor from the olives (as well as heart-healthy fatty acids) and tasty carbs from the bread. If chocolate is your weakness, go for gourmet dark chocolate, which offers beneficial antioxidants along with great flavor. If you want something creamy, try thick Greek yogurt drizzled with honey (you’ll gain some calcium as well as the rich creaminess you really want).
6. Keep a food diary. This can help if cravings are frequent and often lead to overeating. "I suggest my patients write down what they’re feeling" when they have a craving, says Taub-Dix. "It helps to transfer your feelings onto that piece of paper, and you may find you don’t have to eat." Also note the types of food and even the times you eat; look for patterns so you’re not caught off guard. Addressing underlying issues such as physical hunger or boredom or stress may help people minimize cravings, says Roberts. "The idea is to live with your cravings and not let them control you." Simply anticipating what triggers a craving may help you be better prepared with a healthful option. We developed these recipes based on an informal survey on the CookingLight.com bulletin boards. Overall, our readers tend to crave salty, sweet, creamy, and ethnic flavors. And chocolate is in a category by itself.