A Cure for Out-of-Control Cravings

Cravings may be complicated: Grab any diet book and you'll find a number of theories about what causes cravings. Some claim that eating too much sugar, or too many foods that have a high glycemic index, or foods that do not have enough fiber or fat can make you hungry soon after eating. Some say not eating enough protein or going too long without snacking can trigger cravings. Some suggest that hunger can actually indicate emotional hunger, so any practical advice on food or fitness won't get to the root of the problem. These proposed causes may play a role, but, in reality, it may not be that simple.  


For example, while greater amounts of protein and fiber in the diet have been found to be more satiating, if you are under-eating or burning a lot more calories than you are consuming, chances are you're going to be hungry no matter your body simply needs more fuel, sparking your cravings. If your perception of your "good" days when you're eating well are actually days when you are taking in too few calories, your body eventually may demand more calories to try to balance out your energy intake versus your energy expenditure over the week. If you're bored or lonely, you might not be physically hungry, but a preoccupation with food may be a psychological trigger to add stimulus or comfort to your life.

If you're not eating enough compared to the calorie burn you are accumulating from daily workouts, you're likely to feel hungry and seek out more food. If you go long periods without eating skipping breakfast, and avoiding eating dinner past 6 or 7 p.m., for example you might be creating a roller coaster energy supply that leads to a few days where your body tries to stock up by stimulating you to eat more to make up for the periods of not eating enough food. Often, highly caloric foods are the most appealing when your body wants fuel fast.
Cravings may also have a biological component. If you've lost weight recently, biochemical triggers may kick in to try to help the body to regain the lost body fat. Recent research suggests that genetic influences may affect things like how fast you get hungry after eating, how full you feel from eating, and how active you are when you are not exercising.
Just as there are many potential reasons why you may be getting cravings, there may be a variety of solutions that can help you abolish them.
Are you eating enough: Your first step should be to make sure that you are eating enough to fuel your energy expenditure. If you're hungry, your body is going to demand food, so make sure you are well-fueled every day. If you're trying to diet, take a non-drastic approach: Cut out a couple of hundred calories each day, not thousands.
It's impossible to know exactly how many calories you're eating and burning each day, but you can do the maths to get an estimate and try to keep a track. By keeping a diet diary, you can spot obvious culprits like days when you don't have time for breakfast, then you don't eat lunch until 2 p.m., and then you end up binging the rest of the day. Or days where you do a greater amount of exercise (your regular workout plus lots of extra walking, for example), yet you restrict how much you eat. If you are compelled to eat twice as much the following day, it might simply be because you deprived yourself the day before.
Or, you might spot a seemingly innocent snack that adds a whopping amount of calories to an otherwise "good" day (a pint of premium ice cream can take 10 or 15 minutes to eat but add 1,000 to 1,200 calories, the equivalent of perhaps half of your day's calories); frequent dipping into a co-worker's candy dish can add hundreds of calories. If you're careful to include lots of details in your diet diary, such as the times of day you eat, and what you're doing and how you're feeling when you eat, you may be able to spot cues that trigger you to eat more. One lesson from cognitive-behavioral therapy is to learn to avoid those certain cues or teach yourself new behaviorism response to certain triggers.
As every day is different, experiment with different strategies that you can whip out when needed: one day the walk might work, another day, a half portion of a sweet you love may suffice, another day you might be able to eat a whole bag of mini-carrots and feel satisfied.

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