Ever obsess over a crisp stalk of broccoli? Not likely. Sure, you may actually enjoy eating this goodie-goodie vegetable, but it will never seduce you like your favorite bad guys: thick, hot fudge over cool vanilla ice-cream; the crunch of fresh buttery baguettes; a thick marbled rib-eye sizzling in saturated fat. Fill in your flavor of choice, but chances are your craving isn’t on your clean eating plan.
“When you crave a food, what you’re really doing is thinking about that food’s sensory properties,” says Marcia L. Pelchat, PhD, a physiological psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. You know what you need to eat to satisfy the craving. “The sensory memory is activated,” says Pelchat, who specializes in the mechanisms of food cravings. According to her MRI studies, it’s all about memory structures in the brain. People don’t crave foods they don’t know about, can’t imagine or remember.
Your favorite food fixes can be habit forming and a bit scary. “Like drug cravings, people are often afraid they’ll lose control if they give in to strong food cravings, but they’re also afraid they’ll go crazy if they don’t give in,” says Pelchat. In fact, the part of the brain that activates drug cravings probably evolved to make us crave things we need for survival, like food, sex, and sleep, she explains.
A common belief is that cravings represent a nutritional need, but generally they don’t, says Pelchat. If that were the case, we’d probably all crave dark leafy greens.
Unfortunately, the most craved foods provide few needed nutrients per calorie. In a recent study, scientists at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, Boston, found high-fat, high-calorie, low-protein, low-fiber foods the most likely to be craved. Eat them too often, or in oversize portions, and you’ll gain a higher lifetime body mass index (BMI), the study finds. Not surprisingly, the foods you crave are even more tempting when you’re hungry. Eating small meals several times a day can help stave off hunger.
The challenge of maintaining your clean eating plan increases during the fall when whole fresh foods are scarce (and expensive). Dealing with work stress and getting kids back to school can make the lure of processed convenience foods harder to resist. That’s especially true during the late afternoon and early evening when cravings are more likely to occur, according to other research at Monell.
You’re also likely to crave more calories from fatty foods the week before your menstrual period, according to a recent study at New York State Psychiatric Institute and Department of Psychiatry.
Control and Conquer
The good news is a few simple strategies can help you manage even the most persistent cravings. Learn to decode your cravings (sweet, salty, creamy, crunchy, fatty, carby, or any of these in combination) so you can choose a satisfying alternative.
Sweet. Fruit is naturally sweet, so you’d think it would satisfy your sweet tooth. But sometimes you want something even sweeter, something that feels more intense and special in your mouth, says Ellie Krieger, a registered dietician and host of Food Network’s Healthy Appetite. But don’t just grab a candy bar. Try some pear or orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. “It does something to your taste buds that brings out the sweetness and flavor of the fruit. In Greece they serve fruit this way for dessert.”
When you do indulge in sweets like ice cream or chocolate, pay attention to timing so you can avoid the blood sugar spike and crash. “Mom was right when she said to eat your meals before dessert,” says Krieger. When you’re really hungry, you may crave sweets, she says, because it’s the quickest way to get energy into your bloodstream. Follow your clean eating plan to satisfy your hunger first. That way you’ll meet your muscle glycogen and blood sugar requirements, and your sugary craving will probably go away. Even if you eat desert afterwards, you’re less likely to overindulge.
Salty. Some salt is fine, but many people don’t realize how much sodium is hiding in packaged foods. When you do add salt, Krieger recommends tossing it together with flavorful spices like cumin, coriander, and chili pepper. Try sprinkling the mixture over popcorn for a salty/crunchy snack.
Crunchy. Instead of greasy potato chips, get your crunchy/salty fix from eating a few baked whole-grain chips and salsa, says Krieger. Or munch a few nuts. Try celery with peanut butter, For a crunchy/sweet treat, tuck an almond inside a sweet date.
Creamy. Creamy-textured foods say comfort like nothing else. Try making pudding from scratch using nonfat milk to satisfy a creamy/sweet dessert. Or whip up a creamy soup (without cream) by pureeing vegetables in your blender. To make a mouth-watering cream sauce, Krieger combines feta cheese with a jar of roasted peppers. Puree and serve over whole-grain pasta. (For details, check out Krieger’s new book, The Food Your Crave: Luscious Recipes For A Healthy Life.
Carby. If you cut out all carbs, you may end up going bonkers for bread. “It’s not about saying never or forbidding any one food because that creates a sense of the forbidden and actually makes a craving stronger or more important to you than it needs to be,” says Krieger. “If you don’t forbid it, it becomes less important psychologically.” When you crave bread, skip the oversized rolls and try stuffing mixed veggies and hummus inside 100% whole grain pita or wrap bread.
Fatty. Who doesn’t crave fatty foods? We need fats to stay healthy. Just don’t go overboard. Avoid poor quality fatty salad dressings by experimenting with vinaigrette recipes that call for heart-healthy olive oil and balsamic vinegar. For a sweeter dressing, mash half an avocado with a ½ cup fresh squeezed orange juice. Satisfy your fat cravings with omega-3 rich salmon and other fatty fish, olive oil, and walnuts.
Think quality not quantity. And savor every bite.
Sometimes you just have to have it, whatever it is. That’s where portion control comes in.
To avoid overindulging, give your cravings time to pass. Krieger’s golden rule is to wait 20 minutes or so. “If you’re dying for some crunchy chips or whatever, tell yourself you can have some in half an hour. Chances are you’ll have moved on by then.”
While avoiding entire food groups can trigger serious cravings, substantially changing your eating habits, such as adopting clean eating, can disarm them over time. You may even begin to crave the new foods,” says Pelchat. (Go broccoli!) Of course, old cravings never really die. “If something reminds you of chocolate truffles, you may begin to crave them again even though you’ve gone for months without them.” Still, you’ll become less and less likely to crave them if you keep your portions under control or simply stay away.
100-Calorie Between Meal Snacks
It only takes 100 calories to stave off hunger. Here are 10 ideas for healthful on-the-go snack to tide you over until your next meal.
- Two cups air-popped popcorn; two tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
- 1/2 banana sprinkled with cinnamon; 1 teaspoon almond butter mixed with 1 teaspoon plain nonfat yogurt for dipping
- 2 ounce can of king salmon
- ½ small avocado; 2 teaspoons hummus
- 1 medium hard-boiled egg lightly salted
- 10 Kalamata (Greek) olives
- 10 almonds; 15 dried berries
- Small baked potato; ¼ teaspoon dried onion flakes mixed into 2 tablespoons non-fat plain yogurt
- 1 graham cracker; 2 teaspoons tahini (sesame butter)
- 1Two large strawberries; 1/2 ounce of dark chocolate (melted in a microwave) for dipping
Writer Kathy Summers craves crunchy foods, especially when she’s procrastinating during writing assignments for health and fitness magazines.