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The Urge to Indulge: How to Cope with Cravings

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Updated February 15, 2014

We all get them and we all give in to them sometimes. Food cravings -- and our response to them -- can easily make or break our weight loss efforts. So it's important to know how to handle them.

There is some controversy about exactly why we have cravings. Some experts suggest they're physiological, that our bodies are craving certain nutrients when we want specific foods or that we are subconsciously desiring a result the food might bring (e.g. a candy bar providing a "sugar rush").

Others say cravings are simply force of habit or even a form of food addiction. Many of us crave foods that brought us pleasure growing up, known as comfort foods, which may have more to do with emotional security than a desire for food.

Whatever the cause, or however complicated the reason we have cravings may be, there are a few uncomplicated ways to cope with them:

  1. Don't diet.

    Yes, you read that right: To manage cravings, don't go on a diet. When we say "the d-word" it doesn't always just mean diet; if you're following a very stringent plan, it translates to deprivation. If you try to avoid a lot of your favorite foods altogether you'll be more likely to binge and eat much more than if you'd allowed yourself small portions of them all along. By making better choices -- rather than following a diet that omits particular foods or relies on packaged meals -- it's likely you'll get fewer, less powerful cravings.
  2. Give in.

    If you eat carrot sticks when you've been wanting a slice of carrot cake for three days, they're probably not going to knock that cake craving out. Sometimes, when you're really craving something, you will simply accept no substitute. So, next time you can't get a certain food off your mind for what seems like weeks, save up some calories for incorporating your favorites into your daily calorie needs and treat yourself. By eating just a little bit of the food you're really pining for, you'll quell the craving and prevent overeating.
  3. Create a diversion.

    When I recently moved from a small town to a larger city, one of my most worthy craving adversaries became as close as a phone call away ... Chinese food delivery! When the staff began recognizing me by my voice, I knew I had a problem. Now when the impulse to dial that number hits, I put the phone and menu in another room and I go do something completely non-food related (Gee, that kitchen sink looks like it needs a scrub! When's the last time my bathroom floor was mopped?). More often than not, when I return to the scene of the crime ... er, craving ... I realize I didn't want that chicken chow mein enough to blow my calorie count for the day.
  4. Get to the heart of the problem.

    Just as not everyone who has weight issues has a problem with emotional eating, cravings aren't always the result of emotions; but for some of us, there's no denying the connection. If you eat in response to feelings, you won't be well-prepared to conquer cravings until you deal with emotional eating tendencies. Why? All the "small bites" of your favorite treat won't heal deep-seated emotional issues such as depression or anxiety. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you experience these issues. Weight loss can wait, but your emotional well-being must be a priority.
  5. Wait it out.

    Believe it or not, sometimes you can just wait for a craving to go away and it will. That's not to say it won't rear its ugly head again if it doesn't get its way, but if you simply ignore it and move on, it may disappear. If you can convince yourself it's mind over matter, you may find cravings aren't such a formidable opponent after all!
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