Healthy Ways to Handle Food Cravings

"If I crave a candy bar, should I eat a candy bar?"

That's the title of one of my most popular blog posts. Clearly, food cravings and sugar addictions are a source of concern and frustration for many athletes who believe that eating one chocolate bar (or whatever food they crave) will lead to 10 of them. This will lead to an expanded waistline, and ruined health. They avoid chocolate like the plague. Instead, they righteously snack on only "healthy foods" like apples and oranges.

While the natural goodness of fruit is indeed the more nutritious and health-promoting choice, some nice chocolate, enjoyed in response to a hankering, can also fit into your sports diet. By regularly enjoying chocolates, you can avoid the strong cravings that lead to eating a sickening amount--not because you are "addicted to sugar" but because you are doing "last chance eating" before you go back into your self-defined food jail (1).

Keep in mind, your brain has a memory for the food you crave. If you try to ignore your craving for, let's say, chocolate, you'll end up eating it sooner or later. This may happen after you've tried to curb your craving with an apple, crackers, pretzels, sugar-free fudgsicle--anything but the chocolate--and then, 500 calories later, you succumb to what you truly wanted. You could have more wisely enjoyed the chocolate in the first place; you would have saved yourself a bunch of calories!

Food cravings are a popular topic not only on my blog but also among LinkedIn's Intuitive Eating Professionals group. A discussion "If you crave a food, should you eat it?" spurred a lot of responses, with the answer being YES!

History says that denial and deprivation of a desired food does not work permanently but rather results in binge eating. After all, if restrictive eating "worked," then everyone who has ever been on a diet would be thin. The majority of dieters are overweight and obese, suggesting that "dieting fall-out" maybe be contributing to obesity. (2)

To our detriment, we live in a world where enjoying bagels, ice cream, candy, and chips gets "questioned." Athletes talk about needing "will power" to curb their intake of the foods they crave. But most of us really want to be able to enjoy these foods. We just want to be able to eat them sanely, not in what feels like an out of control pig-out. We need nutrition skill power (not will power) to learn how to manage today's food supply. That's where a sports dietitian can help you control hunger-based binges and find peace with food. (For a referral to a local sports dietitian, see www.SCANdpg.org.)

The question arises: What's so bad about cravings in the first place? Is there really something wrong with eating what you truly want to eat? Cravings are not addictions. That is, if you crave a bagel because it tastes good, why should you not enjoy the bagel? When you eat a food you crave, your brain experiences a biochemical change that signals happiness. Can eating an appropriate portion (as opposed to overeating "the whole thing") be a bad thing to do?

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