How to Decipher Food Cravings

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Whether it’s for salty, sweet, crunchy or creamy, we all struggle with food cravings. And if you're launching into a new, healthier lifestyle, those cravings are often more powerful than ever.

But make no mistake, cravings differ from hunger and you generally shouldn't give in. We talked to top nutrition experts about decoding your cravings, busting myths and dealing with cravings in a healthy way so you don’t sabotage your diet.

Daydreaming of chocolate? Figure out if you're really hungry before you snack.
Daydreaming of chocolate? Figure out if you're really hungry before you snack. (Image: Kheng ho Toh/Hemera/Getty Images)

Separate Cravings From Hunger

Figuring out the difference between cravings and true hunger can be difficult, especially if you’re shifting to a healthier lifestyle. Vandana Sheth, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, recommends asking these questions to distinguish between the two:

When did you last eat? Cravings can strike anytime – even if you just finished a meal. But hunger typically shows up three to four hours after you last ate. If it’s been a while since your last meal or snack, you’re probably hungry.

Are there any physical symptoms? A rumbling tummy means you’re probably dealing with hunger. Cravings often have a psychological or emotional basis, so they won’t cause physical hunger pangs.

Do you want a specific food? While it’s normal to prefer some foods over others, true hunger will be satisfied by a number of foods, including super-healthy fare like salads. If you’re jonesing for one specific food – typically a calorie-laden treat – that’s probably a craving.

Common Cravings Triggers

Eating in front of the TV sets you up for more cravings.
Eating in front of the TV sets you up for more cravings. (Image: Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images)

Sometimes hunger can cause cravings (ask anyone who’s satisfied 3 p.m. hunger pangs with vending machine fare), but not all cravings stem from hunger. Most of the time, cravings strike to fulfill a psychological or emotional need, and they can develop out of habit. For example, if you typically follow your dinner with a sweet dessert or you regularly munch on chips while you watch TV, you’ll often crave those treats during those times, says registered dietitian Reyna Franco.

Boredom and stress also makes you more vulnerable to cravings. And stress-induced overeating can be especially damaging because cortisol – your body’s major stress hormone – triggers weight gain. “It’s a double whammy,” says Sheth, “You’re more hungry and craving high-calorie foods, and they’re being stored as fat.”

Heard that certain cravings are linked to nutrient deficiencies? That’s a myth. Both Sheth and Franco agree that there’s no compelling science behind this persistent rumor. While in some cases biological factors, like hormone fluctuations, can trigger cravings, a craving for alcohol, for example, doesn't mean your diet lacks protein. If you are truly nutrient deficient, you can correct that through a balanced diet filled with healthy, whole foods, not with the treat you’re craving.

Outsmart Your Cravings

“Most times you should not give in to cravings. Unless you’re craving a salad.” -- Reyna Franco, RD

The best way to pinpoint the cause of your cravings is to keep a food and mood journal, says Sheth. Keeping track of what you eat helps you stick to a regular eating plan, which can cut down on cravings, and recording your mood when cravings strike, helps you identify patterns.

Keeping a journal can prevent you from caving in to your cravings, and having to write down that you snacked on candy or chips might keep you from doing it. A food journal also keeps track of when you last ate, so you can more easily distinguish between cravings and hunger.

If you tend to get cravings when you’re bored, find a distraction. Playing on your computer, reading, knitting, writing down your thoughts, going for a short walk or practicing yoga might get your mind off your cravings, says Franco. These relaxing activities also combat stress. Chewing gum can also help – it keeps your mouth busy, so you’re less tempted to give in.

Combat after-dinner cravings by capping your meal with a square of high-quality dark chocolate or a cup of calming herbal tea, recommends Franco. Brush and floss your teeth after your meal so you won't snack after dinner.

Choose Healthier Alternatives

Mushrooms are a lower-calorie way to satisfy a meat craving.
Mushrooms are a lower-calorie way to satisfy a meat craving. (Image: Will Heap/Dorling Kindersley RF/Getty Images)

Even if your craving stems from true hunger, you don’t need to indulge it completely. You can satisfy your hunger and your craving with these healthier alternatives:

  • Instead of sweets, candy and chocolate: Choose dark chocolate made with at least 70 percent cocoa. While dark chocolate is still high in calories, eating an ounce isn't likely to pack on the pounds, and it offers antioxidant benefits.
  • Instead of coffee: Go for decaf herbal teas. If you’re really craving the sugar in coffee, try weaning yourself off – your taste buds will adjust to the new flavor.
  • Instead of soda and sugary drinks: Try flavored sparkling water with lime or lemon juice – it has the carbonation of soda without all the sugar.
  • Instead of ice cream: Snack on low-sugar frozen yogurt or with a bowl of Greek yogurt with frozen fruit.
  • Instead of potato chips and salty snacks: Try lower-fat baked chips or get that satisfying crunch with celery sticks topped with hummus.
  • Instead of pasta: Use whole-wheat pasta has a healthier option and reduce your portion by mixing the pasta with vegetables, like spiralized zucchini. 
  • Instead of alcohol: Alternate each alcoholic beverage with a glass of water. Dilute your drinks – try a wine spritzer instead of straight wine – or go alcohol free with club soda and lime.
  • Instead of cheese: Keep your portions small but satisfying by choosing high-quality, potent cheeses. Avoid low-fat versions of your favorite cheese, which aren't as satisfying.
  • Instead of red meat: Get the beneficial iron and protein in red meat from beans and lentils. If you’re craving meaty texture, use cooked mushrooms. 

The less you give in to cravings, the fewer you’ll experience. In a few weeks, your taste buds will adjust and you won’t crave your favorite treats as much.

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