What Your Cravings Mean (And How to Rewire Them)
Master every kind of craving
Has a bag of cookies ever beckoned you after a lousy day? Even if we otherwise have killer discipline, many of us can't help surrendering to food cravings. We assume it's the decadent flavors, sugars, and fats that have us feeling peckish; but it's more about the snacking patterns we've grown accustomed to, say our experts. "A craving is essentially just a habit you've ensconced in the brain pathway," explains Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. If you tend to eat when you're anxious or at a certain time of night, the behavior just continues on as part of your lifestyle.
What's more, a lot of us turn to mindless super-snacking when we're really looking to comfort ourselves or just find distraction—but these psychological effects are temporary at best, says Michelle May, MD, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. Instead of rationalizing your snack-happy scenarios ("I'm stressed!"), ID the real reasons behind them. Then make these wise adjustments from the pros, and you'll be back in the driver's seat.
What they mean: When people seek out pretzels and french fries, it's usually the carb hit of the crunch they're after, explains Scott Isaacs, MD, medical director of Atlanta Endocrine Associates. Cravings for salty food can be a sign of dehydration or a mineral or electrolyte imbalance.
To indulge salty cravings: Eat a handful of dry-roasted nuts; they're loaded with heart-healthy fats, protein, and vitamins, yet still have a salty punch. They're also great tossed with herbs or spices. (Stick to 16 to 18 nuts for roughly 160 calories total.)
How to curb salty cravings
Reach for the spice rack. "With salt cravings, often what we really want is savory flavor," says Ashley Koff, RD. Add a dominant herb, such as tumeric, rosemary, or basil, or a bold spice, like cayenne or smoked paprika, to your next meal (or sprinkle it over 2 cups of unsalted popcorn for a fast save).
Rewire salty cravings: Divide your body weight by two—that's generally how many ounces of water you should drink daily to keep hydrated. Pack your diet with potassium-rich foods, like avocado and sweet potatoes. "Potassium will bring water to your cells to hydrate you," says Koff. You can also retrain your taste buds to crave less salt by cutting down on the sodium in your diet, adds Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD. Eliminate high-salt culprits (processed foods, restaurant meals) right away—you'll crave less within a few weeks.
What they mean: Some folks are quite literally hooked on the sweet stuff. "Sugar is physically addictive," says Kirkpatrick. In other words, the more sugar you eat, the more you want it.
To indulge sweet cravings: Go out for ice cream and order a half cup of a real-deal dessert. "Rather than just mindlessly eating an artificially sweetened snack in front of the TV, you're sitting down to enjoy the heck out of the good stuff," says Kirkpatrick.
How to curb sweet cravings
Grab a piece of fruit. It contains natural sugars and carbs, but they're balanced out by fiber and other nutrients, causing a less dramatic blood sugar spike. (Tip: Pair the fruit with a bit of lean protein, such as turkey slices, to fill you up so you don't keep snacking.)
Rewire sweet cravings: Try going cold turkey on traditional sweets, such as candy and cookies, for two weeks, suggests Kirkpatrick. Then, over the next two weeks, slowly eat less of the not-so-obvious offenders, like high-sugar yogurt. By the end of the cycle, your sweet urges will be more manageable.
What they mean: Many women find they feel ravenous about a week before the start of their period. This is possibly due to elevated levels of estrogen and progesterone, which help regulate food intake, says clinical psychologist and eating disorder expert Kelly Klump, PhD.
To indulge PMS cravings: Stock a PMS survival kit, with mini dark chocolate bars and hot chocolate packets that you can prepare with skim milk or water. And don't beat yourself up if you fall off the wagon. It's only a few days.
How to curb PMS cravings
Have small, frequent snacks throughout the day. "It's important to eat regularly so you never get too hungry," says Klump, "and don't avoid sugar or high-fat goods completely; it will increase your cravings for them."
What it means: You may be overtired. Hunger-controlling hormones, like ghrelin, leptin, and cortisol, can all be affected by lack of sleep, says behavioral therapist Robin Frutchey: "If there's an imbalance, it can change your satiety levels, causing you to crave carbs." Or you might just be bored at night, adds May, "looking to reward yourself after folding laundry—or you want a treat while you watch a TV show."
To indulge late-night snacking: The problem with eating too close to bedtime is that it can mess with digestion and disrupt your sleep. If the hunger is real, Kroff proposes having a small liquid snack that will satiate without keeping you up. Her go-to: a cup of warm unsweetened cashew milk with cinnamon and clove.
How to curb late-night snacking
First try to go straight to bed. If you truly can't snooze, create distractions that don't involve food. May's move is to dive into an activity that's "eating-incompatible," like playing with your pet—something that will keep your hands busy (and unable to slip into a sleeve or Oreos).
Rewire late-night snacking: Nail your breakfast to set youself up for success before bed. A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that having an a.m. meal with 35 grams of protein may lead to less snacking on high-fat foods at nighttime, compared with starting the day with a low-protein breakfast, like cereal, or skipping it altogether.
What they mean: There's a reason you turn to Mom's chocolate-chunk brownies to fix a frown. "When you eat comfort foods, you get a boost of seratonin and dopamine, feel-good neurotransmitters that act like antidepressants," explains Frutchey.
To indulge bad-day pig-outs: Not all comfort foods are diet wreckers—stock your pantry with lower-cal classics, like chicken noodle soup or whole-grain macaroni and cheese, and portion out your meal.
How to curb pig-outs
Order healthy takeout. "You can call ahead to your go-to sushi spot and grab it on your way home," says Kroff. "It'll feel like a pick-me-up and help you control what you're eating."
Rewire bad-day pig-outs: Have a bad-mood backup plan. "You're basically just using food as medicine, so you need to find alternative sources of pleasure," says Isaacs. Instead of eating something, change your clothes right away and go for a jog or do yoga. Or take a hot bath and sip a glass of wine while you get lost in a good book or podcast.
For all cravings, try the 30-minute rule
Most cravings pass after about 15 to 30 minutes, explains Robin Frutchey, a behavioral therapist at Johns Hopkins Weight Management center, so wait them out—even set a timer. "Cravings come almost in a wave, and most people give in right before the peak," she says. "If you visualize getting over the peak, you can push through." Go for a walk: One U.K. study found that taking a brisk 15-minute jaunt reduced cravings for high-calorie foods afterward.