Most people have experienced an intense desire to eat a particular type of food, also known as a craving.
Whether it’s a hankering for mint chocolate chip ice cream or barbecue-flavored potato chips, many find cravings extremely hard to resist. They can keep you eating late into the night, diminishing hard-fought weight-management efforts.
Here’s what to know about cravings and how to control them.
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What Are Cravings?
Humans tend to crave high-calorie sweet and salty foods, although it’s not uncommon to crave fruits for their refreshing, sweet taste.
Food cravings are complex, involving brain messages, long-time habits, and abundant access to food that our brains find “rewarding.”
Studies show foods that stimulate the reward regions of the brain influence our food choices and eating behaviors. After eating certain foods, like those packed with sugar or salt, neurons in our brain’s reward region are very active and form a positive association with these foods, making us feel good.
Some of these foods trigger the release of hormones like dopamine — a happy hormone. This is often how we develop “comfort” foods.
What Triggers Cravings?
There are many reasons someone may experience cravings, but here are some of the most common.
Stress: Stress can affect eating behaviors in a number of ways, but sustained, chronic stress is associated with cravings for high-fat, calorie-packed foods. As the brain releases cortisol, the stress hormone, it triggers cravings for comfort foods and can keep your blood sugar levels high, increasing those cravings.
Irregular sleep: Inadequate or unsteady sleep patterns can upset the body’s metabolic functions, leading to imbalances in leptin and ghrelin levels that may prompt cravings for sweet, starchy, and salty foods.
Hormones: Certain changes in hormone levels can intensify cravings. For example, women whose estrogen levels are low may experience stronger cravings because of the link between higher levels of estrogen and greater post-meal satisfaction.
Medications: Certain medications like antidepressants, which affect serotonin, can increase appetite.
Food deprivation: Crash diets and all-or-nothing approaches to eating your favorite foods often lead to overindulgence. Rather than completely eliminating the foods you crave, eating them mindfully and in moderation is more likely to yield long-term results.
Nutrient imbalance: In some cases, cravings for certain foods may signify your body needs more protein, fat, vitamins, or magnesium. For example, if you’re craving chocolate, your magnesium levels might be low.
Healthy sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, legumes, and cashews. If you’re concerned about your body’s nutrition, consult a health professional.
How to Stop Food Cravings
- Eat small, nutritious meals packed with protein and fiber regularly throughout the day to stay satisfied and avoid hunger that can prompt cravings.
- Carry healthy snacks with you on the go to stave off temptations during the day.
- Maintain a regular sleep schedule whenever possible, eliminate electronics and screens before bed, and develop a comfortable routine that works for you. The later you’re awake, the more likely you are to give in to late-night snacking.
- Limit the number of processed snacks you eat that are high in sodium, fat, sugar, and calories without nutritional value. These types of foods may trigger “rewards” in the brain that lead to overindulgence and more intense cravings. Instead, choose fruits, nuts, or satisfying snacks that are less processed.
- Eat mindfully. Avoid eating while watching television or scrolling through social media, and ask yourself why you’re eating a particular food or snack. (Are you stressed? Bored? Frustrated?) If you’re eating emotionally, find different coping mechanisms that work for you. You may find that you need help from a nutritionist or mental health professional to do this.
- Limit salty, sugary, and fatty snacks in the house. Buy only single servings of the foods you crave most. This will make it easier to satisfy those cravings without overindulging. In most cases, moderation is key to meeting your health goals.
- Drink water. Sometimes, you can temper a sudden urge for a certain food by drinking a large glass of water. This means you were likely just thirsty.
- Plan meals. Knowing exactly what you plan to eat during the day will reduce the chances of unplanned snacking and keep you satisfied.
- Choose exercise. Any physical activity, like a brisk walk, can help curb cravings and even reduce stress. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Sunlight helps your body produce serotonin, too. A little time outside can help boost your mood and reduce cravings. Remember sunscreen!
For more information about weight management and UPMC’s comprehensive weight-loss program, click here.
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