What is a food craving, and how can we keep them from derailing a healthy diet?
"Craving" is a term that is not well-defined, and totally subjective. People may talk about a craving for certain foods, or certain types of foods. Basically, I think we can loosely define cravings as "impulses to eat in the absence of hunger". Cravings can be for specific foods, or just finding yourself ambling towards the refrigerator for no good reason.
Hunger vs CravingsIt is not always easy to differentiate between hunger and cravings, and there is probably some overlap. Food-specific cravings can occur at the same time as hunger, and hunger can manifest in different ways. For example, if you've just eaten a satisfying amount of food and you still feel like eating, this is most probably what we are calling a craving. On the other hand, people who have gone with insufficient calories for an extended period (e.g. being on the TV show "Survivor" where calories and often protein are very limited) will also report a sensation of wanting more food even when they are full. Therefore, this can actually be caused by extended dieting.
It has been suggested that one way to differentiate between cravings and hunger is to think about a plain but satisfying food, such as a steak. If eating a steak sounds like a great idea, it's probably hunger.
What Causes Cravings?From my experience and reading I believe these are the main causes of cravings:
1) Too much carbohydrate in the diet. A very common reaction to a low-carb diet is a dramatic reduction in cravings. People frequently talk about "feeling normal around food" or not feeling like eating between meals. On this page where reader's share their favorite things about low-carb eating, this is mentioned frequently. For example, one person wrote, "I've only been eating low carb for four days but what impressed me most is that I have had NO sugar cravings. I expected to desperately miss bread - but have discovered I don't. Not a bit! I wish I had known about this twenty years ago!"
Of course, the same people will usually find to their dismay that adding too much carbohydrate back into the diet brings the return of those urges to eat when not hungry. The obvious remedy is to find out how much carbohydrate is best for you, and stick to it. It generally takes about 5-14 days to rid yourself of the cravings (tips for getting through that time). However, this won't help in the moment when you're having the craving! Near the end of this article are strategies for that.
2) Eating processed, "hyper-palatable" foods - In recent decades the food industry has perfected the art of creating foods that leave you wanting more of them. As documented by writers such as Dr. David Kesseler (in the book The End of Overeating), Michael Moss (in the book Fat, Sugar, Salt, which I've written about), and Stephan Guyenet (on his blog Whole Health Source), these foods work in our brains to create yearnings for those foods. These brain circuits actually have some commonality with responses and addictions to opioid drugs.
The remedy for this is to not let the food companies get away with this: don't purchase and eat these foods.
3) Sweet foods - Even apart from highly-processed foods, sweet foods can be a problem for many people, for very similar reasons. Obviously, you don't need to buy highly-processed sweet foods; you can make them yourself, and this can cause problems. This is why even artificial sweeteners should be used in moderation. Sweet foods can be an occasional treat for some, but others find that eating any sweet foods make them want to eat more.
4) Other trigger foods - If you are eliminating sweet foods and processed foods, and are eating the right amount of carbohydrate for you, there aren't many trigger foods left. But there are people who, for example, do fine on a moderate amount of carbohydrate, but find that potatoes or some other specific food trigger unwanted eating.
5) Emotional eating - People do eat for emotional reasons: sadness, boredom, etc. However, before jumping to the conclusion that you are doing this, I urge you to carefully check out numbers 1-4, because many, many people have found that their "compulsive emotional eating" vanishes when they figure out the way of eating that works best for them. I am one of these people. I spent years in support groups trying to figure out why I was overeating. Turned out it was simply "too much carbohydrate".
6) Habits -- If we get in the habit of having certain foods at certain times or in certain settings, we'll often find ourselves wanting that food whether or not we are hungry.
7) Nutrient Deficiencies - I sometimes see claims made that when people aren't eating a nutrient-dense diet they may crave more food than they need, the idea being that the body is still trying to get what it needs. There is very little scientific evidence for this, but it's not impossible, and certainly eating a nutrient-dense diet is a good idea.
8) Menstrual Cycle - It is well-documented that the menstrual cycle can affect the desire for different amounts and types of foods.
How to Combat CravingsThe best overall strategy to combat cravings is to construct a set of very clear specific guidelines for your eating based on what you have learned about what triggers your cravings. Examples:
"I don't eat sugar."
"I don't eat processed grains."
"My snacks always include protein and fiber."
It may help you to think of these guidelines as "rules" you follow. Eventually, these rules become "just the way you eat" -- you don't think about them and you don't have to exercise "willpower". It may surprise you how quickly this happens.
If you have rules about unhealthy foods you crave but you don't want to eat, it helps some people to "demonize" those foods: think of them in some negative light: "harmful", "poisonous", or even (as I do) "not real food".
(If it seems too onerous to say, "I never eat ___", try including a specific exception. One friend had a rule, "Fridays are Fries Days", which worked for him until he didn't need it any more. Now he hardly ever eats fries.)
So, these are overall strategies. Besides repeating your rules and guidelines, what can you do if you're in the middle of a craving?
20 Methods to Stop Cravings in 5 Minutes or LessCravings are mainly happening in your head, whether from habit or from a trigger food. The idea is to get your brain and body onto a totally different track. First, drink a glass of water and take three deep breaths. Then try one of the following. Over time you'll figure out what types of things work best for you.
1) Go outside: take a quick walk, enjoy the fresh air, sniff the breeze, pull some weeds.
2) Exercise for 5 minutes: Walk up and down the stairs, stand up from your chair ten times, do jumping jacks, sit ups or push ups.
3) Dance! If you have kids, dance with them, or play tag.
4) Note of Appreciation: Write a quick email or note thanking someone for something they have done for you, or what you appreciate about them.
5) Say something nice to someone in person!
6) Write down 5 things you're grateful for.
7) Do some stretches, or if you do yoga -- strike a pose you enjoy.
8) Sit, close your eyes, and remember something nice that happened recently, in as much detail as you can.
9) Take a nap - sometimes we reach for food as a pick-me-up, when what we really need is sleep. A 5 to 10 minute power nap can work wonders.
10) Check off something on your to-do list that doesn't take much time. Make the appointment, pay a few bills, clear the trash out of your car, clean out your purse.
11) Laugh! Read, watch, or listen to something funny.
12) Pray or meditate for a few minutes.
13) Focus on something beautiful: Smell some flowers, look at a favorite painting, watch the sunset, or light a candle and admire its scent and glow.
14) Listen to an uplifting song -- better yet, sing one!
15) Spend 5 minutes de-cluttering.
16) Plan something fun to do with a friend or partner.
17) Drink something warm -- a cup of tea, or bouillon with a little olive oil in it (there is recent research showing that olive oil contains a substance that may suppress appetite).
18) Hug someone, or cuddle with a pet. Physically contact with other living things is de-stressing.
19) Write in your journal. If you don't have one, it's as close as opening a file on your computer.
20) Cut up some vegetables to make prep for the next meal easier.
Of course, make sure you have food in your home that is on your eating plan!
Low-Carb Menu Help
Low-Carb Snack List
Do you have cravings? Participate in our poll about cravings.