Have you ever craved a specific food but resisted because you know it was bad for you? I frequently experience cravings for many of my junk food weaknesses, namely cake and chocolate chip cookies. While I do attempt to limit how much I consume, I always give into my cravings. Why? Because I know that if I do not, I will continuously crave cookies and/or cake, and when I do eventually give in, I may end up overeating because I feel like I "need" it.
One of the many myths of dieting is that by not giving into junk food cravings, you will no longer crave the food. However, some research shows that when you crave something sweet, your body may be telling you that it needs some sugar to replenish calories burned in order to provide you with some energy. This makes sense because when your body is dehydrated, you crave fluids to help decrease that sensation. With a similar idea, when you crave something salty, it may indicate that your body is deprived of vitamins/minerals. Studies have shown that low potassium, calcium, and iron levels in the body cause people to eat saltier foods. In addition, if you crave both sweet and salty foods at the same time, your body is indicating exactly what you crave: glucose and sodium, suggesting you may need to eat something to increase your energy levels.
Another point to keep in mind is that there is a difference between cravings and hunger. Once your body has digested and processed all the food that you have eaten, the hormone ghrelin is released which communicates with the brain letting you know that you are hungry. Cravings, on the other hand, are basically your mind playing tricks on you. Research has shown that certain parts of the brain, specifically the hippocampus (important role in short and long term memory), insula (plays a role in your emotions), and caudate (involved in learning and memory), trigger your cravings because they bring thoughts of emotional pleasure when eating certain foods or helping you remember a good time you had associated with a specific food. Foods associated with emotion are usually high in fat and sugar. Stress or anxiety may also give you cravings because you may be using food to calm yourself.
There are some ways to help fight food cravings. If you are craving something sweet or salty, try to find a healthier alternative to that option. For example, if I crave cake, perhaps, I could make it with whole wheat flour, no icing and applesauce so as to reduce fat. You could also try to find a more nutritious version of anything sweet, such as fruit or graham crackers. Also remember that cravings may occur because your body is lacking in a specific nutrient. Therefore, make sure that you do not skip meals so your body does not feel deprived. Your best option is to consume small, frequent meals throughout the day, with a mix of foods that you typically crave. This will also help prevent you from overeating. In addition, since cravings may also be linked to your emotions, to keep your sanity in check. If you are stressed, take a break or take a walk. Find support through your family and friends. It may also help to keep track of your cravings by logging the days you have cravings and noting the foods you have eaten that day. Perhaps you may notice a pattern that you discover is triggering your cravings.
In sum, cravings are not something that will go away because you have stopped giving in to them. In fact, it's probably the opposite. The best way to deal with cravings is by giving in- but do not over do it. A small portion will be just fine.
Rhea Li is a Registered Dietitian who received her Bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Master's degree in Public Health from the University of Texas. She has a special interest in working with children and has received her certification in pediatric weight management. Currently, she is working on a research study to determine the importance of nutrition in pediatric cancer patients. In the past, she has worked with pregnant women and their children. In her spare time, she enjoys being with family, exercising, traveling and of course, eating.