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.