Even the health-minded can fall victim to temptation, reaching for cheese puffs as the antidote to stress, boredom, or plummeting energy. The ensuing cycle of craving leaves guilt and dissatisfaction in its wake -- not to mention less room in the belly for healthier fare come mealtime.
What's the attraction? "When people have cravings, it's usually for simple carbs," explains Rena Greenberg, author of "The Craving Cure." That's partly because carbohydrate consumption increases the release of serotonin, the brain chemical responsible for calming us down, she says. To compound the issue, food cravings can get deeply ingrained in memory. "When you experience a craving, you're essentially remembering how good it felt to eat that particular food," explains food psychologist Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D. Her own study revealed that during food cravings, areas of the brain that govern memory become more active than areas associated with reward. Basically, you may crave that doughnut not only because it's delicious but because eating one in the past lifted you to sensory nirvana.
Fortunately, conquering cravings isn't about willing yourself to deflect each one. By establishing simple changes to your diet, you'll arm yourself with an all-day resistance plan.
Cracking down on cravings, even if they occur late in the afternoon, starts with a balanced breakfast. "Often cravings occur because we're not nourished enough," Greenberg says. Meals high in simple carbs and sugars -- like waffles, white toast, and many cereals and breakfast bars -- cause your blood sugar to surge and then crash, requiring another infusion of carbs. If you have something too sweet for breakfast, often you'll be hungry again soon, warns Barbara Olendzki, R.D., M.P.H., nutrition program director at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
To curb the cycle, start the day with a mix of protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs, says Jennifer Workman, R.D., author of "Stop Your Cravings!" "If you include an egg, cottage cheese, or some nut butter in your breakfast, you should feel full or at least satiated for the next three hours." Findings from a 2005 study from the Journal of the American College of Nutrition support this approach: After eating eggs for breakfast, a group of overweight women felt fuller, had fewer cravings, and consumed fewer calories later on than those who ate bagels for breakfast.
For extra protection from a blood-sugar crash, keep healthy snacks at the ready -- again, with a mix of complex carbs, protein, and fat. A few of Workman's favorites? Edamame and a cup of miso soup, hummus with feta cheese and olives wrapped in pita bread, and energy bars made from whole foods like nuts, seeds, and fruit.
Lunch should be your biggest meal of the day, says Workman. "People usually start craving carbs and sugar to keep them going between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.," she says. "But if you eat a big lunch and have a protein snack (like nuts or tuna) sometime around 4, you probably won't have those cravings." Dinner, on the other hand, should be your smallest meal, with dishes like soups and stir-fries offering an easy way to balance protein, fat, and carbs.
Fill Up on Flavor
Your next step might sound counterintuitive: Get the most flavor out of every bite. As Workman explains it, going bland in an effort to be healthy -- baked chicken and steamed broccoli, hold the salt -- can backfire. "You'll compensate by bingeing on chips or cookies," she cautions.
Part of the problem, Workman suggests, is that we're used to sweet and salty, since American cuisine focuses on these two flavors. But it's also too easy to forget that food is supposed to taste good. The solution: Use spices liberally, and broaden your palate by exploring Japanese, Indian, and Middle Eastern cuisines. Play around with peanut satay sauce and ginger-mango chutney, or round out your meal with a spicy cup of chai. Incorporate more sour and bitter foods as well.
Target any lingering sweet and salty hankerings with healthier alternatives, like tamari almonds or dried cranberries. A hunger for salt may signal that your body needs more minerals, and loading up on leafy greens can help replenish them, says Olendzki.
Let yourself indulge once in a while, too. A study published in the journal Appetite found that a group of female dieters craved chocolate with more intensity than did nondieters. What's more, the study's authors noted that denying such richly flavored, pleasure-giving foods may induce feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression.
Get to the Heart of It
Finally, work to untangle the association of food and comfort -- sometimes easier said than done. Many of us grew up eating carbs as a way to placate feelings of unhappiness or unease. "When we got upset over something as children, our caretakers would tell us, 'Have a cookie, have some candy,'" says Greenberg. "So we learned to soothe ourselves with food, and the pattern became deeply ingrained."
Although carbs can be effective as quick tension-melters, start learning to unwind in healthier ways. Workman suggests looking to exercise and practices like yoga, deep breathing, and meditation as ways to relax. And keep in mind that "your cravings may be trying to tell you something," she says. Perhaps that chocolate you eat after each and every staff meeting is a sign that you need a change at work. Whatever the underlying message, says Workman, facing it directly -- rather than placating it with Cheez-Its -- will be healthier in the long run.
When Cravings Strike
Even with careful plotting against the allure of coffee, ice cream, and cupcakes, you might still feel inspired, on occasion, to pull an Augustus Gloop at the Wonka factory. How to deal?
1. Distract yourself. "If you can ride out a craving, it will usually fade after 20 or 30 minutes," says Olendzki. To make that time pass faster, phone a friend or pick up a crossword puzzle. "There's an obsessive component to cravings" says Maria Pelchat, Ph.D. "But sometimes you can silence them by focusing on something else."
2. Make a swap. Selecting a healthier version of the food you want -- choosing whole-wheat crackers with peanut butter over peanut butter cookies, for instance -- can satisfy your cravings and leave you feeling guilt-free.
3. Find a new obsession. "Cravings seem to be learned; they have a lot in common with habit," explains Pelchat. Although opening a bag of candy when 3 p.m. comes around can quickly become a workday ritual, so can reaching for a handful of grapes and cashews. "It is possible to crave foods that are good for you," she says. "Some cravings might never go away completely, but if you can develop new habits, over time the probability of triggering those old cravings will be diminished."
Elizabeth Barker is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
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