There's the gooey chocolate brownie that calls your name. The bag of salty potato chips that seems irresistible. That unmistakable yearning for a juicy cheeseburger, hot fudge sundae or a slice of pepperoni pizza.
Food cravings are modern sirens that research shows regularly beckon 97 percent of women and 68 percent of men. Since few hanker for asparagus -- unless, of course, it's topped with hollandaise sauce -- cravings fuel chronic over-consumption of calories and help widen waistlines.
Those who fall under a food's spell frequently say they crave it for "a nutritional need," said Marcia Pelchat, an associate professor at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a private research facility in Philadelphia. To test that theory, Pelchat and her colleagues put a group of healthy young adults on a liquid diet that provided plenty of calories and all the essential vitamins and minerals needed. Study participants still craved certain foods, suggesting, Pelchat said, that "nutritional deficits are not necessary for cravings."
So people don't crave chocolate for its magnesium or porterhouse steak because of the iron it provides. But their bodies are sending a message of desire to the brain. "It's a psychological need," said Adam Drewnowski, who researches food cravings at the University of Washington's Center for Public Health Nutrition in Seattle. "They're too stressed."
To compensate, the body "drives them in the direction of food, usually food with sugar and fat," said Drewnowski. "I often notice that offices with very stressful mental work and deadlines usually have bowls of M&M's around." That's because food rich in fat and sugar appears to boost the brain's production of endorphins, the so-called feel-good chemicals. "In essence, food is being used as a form of self-medication," noted Susan Yanovski, director of the Obesity and Eating Disorders Program at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in a paper published last year.
Studies suggest cravings are different for the citizens of Mars and Venus. Men are more likely to desire "mixtures of protein, fat and salt," such as roast beef, burgers, fries, steak, pizza and chips, Drewnowski said. Women yearn more often for sweet, high-carbohydrate, high-fat foods: cookies, ice cream, pasta, bread. And chocolate "is usually in the top five foods they crave," he said.
Since life isn't likely to get less stressful, here are some ways to help mute the call of food cravings:
Trick, not just treat. People generally crave foods with at least three calories per gram. So when a craving surfaces, try fulfilling it with the lowest calorie food possible. Think chocolate sorbet instead of chocolate ice cream; salted popcorn or pretzels instead of chips; "oven-fried" chicken vs. deep-fat fried.
Distract yourself. Time can weaken even the strongest cravings. So when a yearning for chocolate chip cookies arises, waiting just 15 to 20 minutes "will sometimes allow a craving to pass -- if you get involved in other things," Yanovski said. Physical activity -- walking up and down a few flights of stairs in your building, taking a stroll around the block -- can serve both as a distraction and help to diminish cravings.
Variety really is the spice. In Pelchat's study of food cravings, participants drank a slightly sweet, vanilla-flavored beverage that fulfilled all their daily nutritional needs. The researchers thought this regimen would dull food cravings. But the study found that participants' cravings rose three to four times higher for salty and other non-sweet foods. "People crave something that differs in sensory quality" from their normal diet, Pelchat said, noting that this is another good reason to eat a wide variety of food with different tastes and textures.
Get the real thing. Instead of trying to eat your way past the craving with other foods, have what you really want. Just make it a small portion. "Go for the most intense taste possible, like a chocolate truffle, or a small square of bitter chocolate," Drewnowski said. "Sometimes, cravings are not satisfied except by the real thing."
Keep "trigger" foods out of the house. That way, when they beckon, you'll have to go out of your way to get them. Just seeing the food--or getting a whiff of a something you love to eat -- can also help trigger cravings and undermine resolve. If you do still indulge in one of your trigger foods, buy a single serving -- an ice cream cone, one candy bar or a small order of fries -- that can be consumed in one sitting.
Deconstruct your craving. Most overwhelming desires for food mask other emotional states, for example, feeling tired, stressed, bored, anxious or angry. "Figure out what's going on," Yanovski said. And then take action. "If you're tired, take a nap," she said. "If you're stressed, take a walk. If you're angry, talk to a friend."
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