You know the drill. You are going about your day as usual: wake up, eat, get dressed, drive to work or school, converse with colleagues, eat, check social media…
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, your brain is fixated on a desire for a certain (usually deemed “unhealthy”) food. Your mouth begins to salivate as you tell yourself there would be nothing in the world better than having that cookie, or scoop of ice cream, or handful of potato chips. You MUST have the food. Life cannot go on if you don’t have the food.
Then, the guilt sets in, either for having the totally normal human experience of desiring something that brings you pleasure (which of course you are not thinking is a totally normal human experience) or for actually giving into the craving and wondering, “Why? Why could I not just be strong?”
While I won’t pretend to have the perfect antidote for every food craving, my experiences both as a human being and dietitian have allowed me to realize that it is more instrumental to approach food cravings from a place of curiosity rather than judgment. The following list of questions can help to explore food cravings next time they hit.
What food/foods am I craving right now?
Simply notice what you are desiring, and keep those foods in mind as you answer the following questions.
Am I hungry?
If it’s been 3-5 hours since your last meal or snack, your body may simply be telling you it is hungry. In these cases, the body often wants quick energy, which means you may crave foods high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, or fat. If this rings true for you, instead reach for a nutritious snack by pairing some protein with a high-fiber carbohydrate and/or healthy fat. If it is meal time, read on to learn about the importance of balancing your plate.
Am I balancing my food intake?
In today’s diet-crazed world, people often try to limit either their carbohydrate or fat intake (very rarely are people concerned about eating too much protein). However, balancing meals and snacks with nutrient-dense carbohydrates, fats, and proteins can actually promote fullness and keep hormones that regulate food intake in check, consequently preventing cravings. Try to balance each meal by making a quarter of your plate protein, a quarter carbohydrate, and half fruits and vegetables and including heart-healthy fats like olive oil, avocado, fish, or nuts.
Are these cravings brought on by environmental cues or habit?
For example, the smell of popcorn at the movies or a buttery soft pretzel at the mall may induce a desire for those foods. Or perhaps you have always reached for a candy bar at 3 P.M. or ice cream after dinner. In these cases, your craving probably isn’t brought on by hunger and thus doesn’t indicate a physiological need for food. There are a few ways you can choose to approach these cravings.
- “Surf the urge.” Approach your craving like a surfer approaches an ocean wave: ride it out. Simply observe how it feels as your craving grows stronger and then eventually fades. If you repeat this exercise, you will learn that just as the sun rises and sets every day, you can come out alive and well on the other side of a craving.
- Will I ever have a chance to eat this food again? As far as I can tell, chocolate chip cookies aren’t going anywhere. Is it the end of the world if you don’t have one, right now, at this moment?
- Just eat it. Perhaps you “surf the urge” and still can’t shake that craving. That’s okay! Eat the cookie, or the ice cream, or the French fries, and enjoy it. Smell it, take small bites, chew it slowly, and savor every bite. Most importantly: don’t feel guilty — loving your food is actually really good for you.
Could my craving not be about food at all?
Check in with your emotions. Perhaps you are sad, stressed, angry, or lonely and are reaching for food for comfort. While eating may provide a temporary distraction, it isn’t going to make those feelings go away or get to the root of the problem. You are simply putting a cork in the leak, and once the pressure builds up again, a leak will surface in another area. Additionally, research shows that reaching for comfort food doesn’t improve mood more than not eating. What are you actually craving? Perhaps a hug, a phone call with a close friend or family member, a leisurely walk to clear your head, or a short session of meditation or prayer will serve you better.
In the end, remember that food cravings are totally normal human experiences and are nothing to feel guilty about. Work with your cravings, and try to understand what they are telling you!